Interactive teaching and active involvement in large groups

I recently ran a workshop on tools and activities for engaging students in class, and I particularly enjoyed the discussion on ways of working with large groups, i.e. moving from the traditional ‘transmissional’ mode of delivery to a more interactive student-oriented one where the main challenge is the size of the group.

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Flipped Classroom: getting started

I started putting down my thoughts on the flipped classroom approach in an earlier post, inspired by a talk I attended. Talking about the concepts and its possible implementations with colleagues, it seems to me that for this method to be successful, there has to be a shift (or ‘flip’ for that matter) in the thinking about and designing teaching sessions from “this is the material I need to cover” to “this is what students need to be able to do”.  Continue reading “Flipped Classroom: getting started”

How is learning changing?

This post includes my reflections after listening to Sir Ken Robinson’s talk “How to Change Education”. In particular, I’ll focus on two ideas that I believe will have a growing impact on education, including learning and collaborating online. They’re spontaneous learning and collaborative learning. (NB. I’m focusing here on adult education as different principles may apply to children’s education.) 


As usual in his talks, Sir Ken notes that much of current alienation of teachers and learners in educational systems is the result of top-down governance where educational authorities issue rules and regulations which the rest of the system is supposed to implement and follow. He advocates a bottom-up approach focused on the teacher-learner relationship, which he believes is the cornerstone of education. As he shows using a theatre analogy, when we strip education of all that has been built around it throughout centuries and go back to the basics, we are left with the teacher-learner relationship, which should be the focus of any reforming efforts. 

This bottom-up approach should be based on two concepts: spontaneous learning and collaborative learning. I take spontaneous learning to mean learning that is not forced in any way but emerges as a result of an individual’s intrinsic motivation to acquire new knowledge and skills. Adult learning is a goal-oriented activity: people engage in an activity when they clearly see its purpose and this purpose is linked to how they see themselves at the end of the learning process. It is hardly possible to teach somebody something they don’t want to know or they don’t see the relevance of, which university lecturers are often reminded of when students seem to forget everything they’ve learnt a day after their exam.

In other words, spontaneous learning is about an individual’s active engagement with the learning content, which is the result of individual motivation. Therefore it is important to establish what learners’ needs and motivations are at the start of the learning process, which gives the teacher the flexibility to (a) dynamically adapt the content to these needs, (b) develop ways of finding a common ground between learners’ expressed needs and the content the teacher believes learners should master before continuing to the next step in their education process.

Thus understood, spontaneous learning is linked to flexible teaching methods and dynamic content delivery, including constructivist approaches whereby the teacher is no longer a transmitter of knowledge but rather a facilitator helping learners find their own, personally relevant learning trajectories in the available body of knowledge. It is also about encouraging people and helping them find out what motivates them and why they have decided to participate in a given formal learning process (e.g. a university course) in the first place. As Sir Ken usefully reminds us, teaching is an art form: it is not enough for a teacher to know the discipline, s/he must also know how to excite people, pick their imagination and get them to want to learn.
Spontaneous learning is something we do all the time in informal settings. All informal learning is spontaneous learning: we actively seek knowledge to solve problems we’re facing and we do that by identifying new or utilising existing resources or asking other people who we think are more knowledgeable on the subject. This takes us to the idea of collaborative learning. Sir Ken mentions the idea of ‘flipped classrooms’ (here is a good infographic) where learners teach each other and learn from each other in groups with the teacher staying in the background and only stepping in where and when necessary to enhance understanding. As a result, it is believed, learners feel more in the centre of the learning process, which is conducive to taking more control of their own learning. Whether or not flipped classrooms are useful in all circumstances (which they probably aren’t, as the comments under the above infographic reveal), collaborative learning is about actively involving learners to teach each other, therefore developing ‘learning communities’ and helping learners become more independent and confident lifelong learners.

How are the two concepts linked to learning and collaborating online? On one hand, online modes of delivery provide flexibility that can enhance access to learning for various groups of learners, allowing them to pursue knowledge they see as most relevant and therefore increasing their motivation. As exemplified by e.g. the recent success of MOOCs as a learning concept, such flexible modes of delivery appeal to large numbers of people and feed on their intrinsic motivation to learn. At the same time, the teacher’s role as a facilitator becomes extremely important in online settings in order to sustain learners’ motivation and encourage them to work collaboratively. Neither spontaneous and collaborative learning nor online delivery play down the role of the teacher – quite the contrary, although no longer in the foreground, at the lectern in the middle of a lecture theatre, the teacher as facilitator becomes a crucial element of a successful learning process.