2.1 The theories behind active learning
“Active learning” has become a buzzword in the educational sphere, synonymous with forward-thinking teaching strategies. A quarter of a century ago, the practice, only somewhat known in the scholarly literature, was defined for the educational community as change from the “instructional paradigm” to the “learning paradigm,” focused on creating an environment that encourages students to gather knowledge for themselves (Barr and Tagg, 1995). Much more recently, it has received the following rhetorical introduction: “What we would like students to be doing with the taught material: thinking about and engaging with the content, rather than mindlessly copying slides or thinking about something else altogether?” (Gifkins, 2015). What other approach can there be, indeed?
The last quarter century has seen the active learning approach make rapid gains in the United States, yet its rise was twenty years in the making. In his 1762 treatise Emile, or On Education the French Enlightenment writer, composer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) fought against the wisdom of the elders and opined that the student should move away from received truths and get in touch with “the nature of things.” His philosophy influenced the new national system of education put in place after the French Revolution in making creative and manual arts a part of the curriculum.
The effects of Rousseau’s nature-child creation radiated beyond the European continent. A century and a half later, the American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859-1952) wrote his influential text Democracy and Education (1916), which posited that all learning happens by doing and constitutes the result of individual experience. Pedagogical research in the first half of the twentieth century focused on the learner as an active participant rather than a vessel receiving knowledge: Jean Piaget’s The Moral Judgment of the Child (1932); Maria Montessori’s Education for a New World (1946) and Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind (1949). The Soviet scientist Lev Vygotsky contributed to existing research on learner psychology with his conception of “The Zone of Proximal Development” [ZPD], referring to the skills which a student was close to mastering, given encouragement and guidance. Vygotsky’s philosophy of collaborative learning and peer teaching ideas on education would later become the fundamental principle in active learning classrooms.
Most contemporary educators consider the Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968, Portuguese version - 1970, English version), as the real birth of active learning or student-centered pedagogy. The message of this book consisted of condemning all received knowledge as oppression and attacking the “banking model of education” in which learners were simply vessels waiting to be filled with educational material. Freire instead made a case for all learning being built from experience in what became known as his critical theory of pedagogy. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget backed up his colleague’s claims with his approach to cognitive development, in which “learning was an activity... that emerged from experiences the learner had, both physically and logically, with an object around them” (Piaget, 1979) and students must be “treated as co-creator[s] of knowledge.” (Piaget, 1979). According to this theory, which became known as constructivism, students engage in constructing or building understanding during an independent process based on evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing ideas. The composite educational approach known as active learning, which has borrowed elements from the intellectual currents described above, would soon follow, and gradually gain acceptance.
By Katuska Campana and Katherine Tsan