Shifting from Passive to Active Learning

By TRILLIUM HIBBELN, M.Ed., Associate Director
New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
Commission on International Education


One of my favorite activities to do with school leaders is focused learning walks. There are many ways to focus brief learning walks and longer learning observations. At NEASC, we train school leaders to look for evidence of learning impacts along the lines of our NEASC ACE Learning Principles, for example. But sometimes, school leaders need a very simple but powerful approach to help them unearth the core of learners’ experiences in their school.

Trillium Hebbeln

I was recently working with one such school. The mission, vision, values and teaching standards of the school professed they were preparing learners to be global citizens who were engaged in and responsible for their own learning. Their website and promotional materials made the school sound like the kind of place I’d like to learn as a child.

After three days of observations, I found that the reality was not at all aligned with the image the school was promoting nor how leaders described the learning at the school. I made a last-minute change to my workshop plan for the group. I asked the leadership team do go into various parts of the school with a pad of sticky notes and a pen. I instructed them to write down only verbs on their sticky notes. Specifically, what did they see learners doing? I told them not to focus on what the teacher was doing, which is a natural instinct for mid- and senior-level leaders who are accustomed to evaluating teacher performance.

Twenty minutes later, the group returned with 50 or so sticky notes among them, and they posted them on the wall for all to see. The verbs included: watching, listening, taking notes, answering teachers’ questions, yawning, doodling, “work-sheeting”, waiting, and even sleeping! We spent a few minutes letting that sink in.

Next, I asked the group to brainstorm on their sticky notes what they would like to see if learning experiences were transformed to mirror their guiding statements and indeed their aspirations. The new sticky notes included: debating, creating, reflecting, building, solving, questioning, brainstorming, researching and presenting. One wall represented their current reality (passive learning) and the other wall their aspirations (active learning).

Are our learners actively engaged in learning or are they
passively receiving what we are delivering?

The first step in moving a school toward more transformative learning is to understand and truly believe there is a misalignment. Sometimes it is best to reduce the jargon and education-speak and keep it simple. Are our learners actively engaged in learning or are they passively receiving what we are delivering?

If I could simplify my one greatest wish for learners across all schools, it would be that their learning becomes much more ACTIVE. As simple as this sounds, it requires a fundamental shift in the role of the teacher and the learner. I challenge you to go out and honestly record the verbs that describe what learners are doing at your school and then reflect on the extent to which your current reality is aligned to your school’s aspirations.

cie@neasc.org