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    Meet the Active Learning Classroom

    By Fiona Strawbridge, on 8 November 2012

    The term Active Learning Classroom seems to be quite well established in the US and Canada but I have to say isn’t something I’ve consciously encountered at home. I attended a great workshop at the Educause conference on active learning classrooms – and specifically on the kinds of activities that can take place in them – led by the very energetic Adam Finkelstein of McGill University in Montreal.

    What are they? 
    Simply spaces designed for students to learn together in groups – with or without technology. Typically there are tables for 6-9 students, with one or two (or no) screens per table for them to use with their own devices,  writable surfaces around the room, acoustics that can cope with multiple conversations, and  space for the teacher to move freely amongst the students.  There is no front podium for the teachers – they are normally in the middle of the room. The idea is that they promote collaborative learning experiences and provide more interaction between students and staff. There are some terrific videos from McGill showing classes and academics’ perspectives on them.

    Some examples:

    Learning in an ALC
    A strength of the session was that it employed active learning strategies in an ALC – the workshop was in a space with all of the main ingredients of an ALC, and Adam modelled an active learning approach in which we had no option but to collaborate and learn together.

    We were given a brief presentation on active learning and classroom designs, and then set to work with a short paper to read individually and a warning that we’d be tested on it – this definitely focused the mind.  After the test (multiple choice & short answer) on paper which we had to hand in (quite unnerving) we had to discuss our answers with our table mates and come to an agreement. This activity was a ‘readiness assurance process’, so called because it checks that participants are ready to move on in their learning.

    Apparently we passed as Adam then moved on.  He outlined a framework for an active learning class which has four elements:

    1. You start by introducing the approach and orienting the learners
    2. There will be some informing or instruction – whether through presentation, reading, watching a video – whatever is most appropriate
    3. Next comes the active learning bit – time for learners to work
    4. The closing part involves reflection on what was learned and next steps.

    He then set us off on another activity – this time a ‘four corners’ activity – in which we were split into four groups and given a couple of minutes to fill each of four whiteboards in turn on each of the four elements we’d heard about; each group built on the ideas of the previous one.  At the end of this he closed this activity by visiting each board and summarising – and challenging where necessary – our work.

    Adam circulated a comprehensive list of 26 active learning strategies from brainstorming and buzz groups to interviews, simulations and one minute papers.

    The session was backed up by other good online resources which I’d recommend a close look at – start at the resources section for each of the following:

    Lots of food for thought and ideas for supporting learning in different sorts of learning spaces. Now we just need those spaces…