Going Through the Motions of Active Learning and Engagement

Whether it's framed as active learning, student engagement, time-on-task, or <insert educational jargon here>, we know that people don't learn well by simply listening to others talk.  Learning requires repeated practice and adjustments made via feedback.  A recent metastudy in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) is making the rounds but it's just the latest in a long line of studies reinforcing these facts.

This sometimes leads me to forget that active learning is not itself an end but merely a means to an end.  In other words, I can become so focused on figuring out how to get students, workshop participants, or attendees to actively engage with ideas and one another that I can sometimes forget that the engagement has to have a purpose other than simple engagement.  That's made even easier since I have a foot in the world of faculty development and significant formal education in postsecondary education – students, organizations, pedagogies, etc. – so I know about the large collection of tools, strategies, and ideas we have to use in classrooms, workshops, and other environments.  With all of those options, many of them made even more dazzling and interesting with the ways that technologies can enhance them, I can easily forget that there has to be a goal, a reason for the activity more purposeful and important than simply going through the motions of active learning.

So don't be me.  Remember that active learning and engagement are not themselves the end game.  They must serve a purpose otherwise they're hollow activities that waste time and energy.  Don't incorporate exciting activities unless there is a real point to them.  Don't ask people to become engaged in something unless they are becoming engaged for a reason.  Like watching a chef with excellent knife work, it's exciting when someone knows technical details of the process of their craft but unless you're cutting up ingredients for a good dish it's just pointless flash that doesn't feed anyone.

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