articles, opinions, and research about teaching and learning

Teaching styles for active learning

By creating a mixture of different learning opportunities, we can help children encounter new information, develop skills, try out ideas, and build knowledge.

To accomplish this, we may employ a mixture of teaching styles.

Important modes of teaching and learning can include:

Learning in groups

When learners work in pairs and small groups, they can engage in communicating ideas, in co-operating to accomplish goals, in peer review of each other's work, and in coaching.

Children of different abilities can be grouped together to participate in projects and activities, and to create opportunities for peer mentoring and coaching. Children of different abilities may also have different aptitudes and talents, so that one member of a group may assist the others with writing, while another represents the group's work in pictures.

Children of similar abilities can be grouped together, especially in multigrade classrooms. Members of a reading group, for example, might read a certain story individually, then meet to address a list of questions and to share their reactions to the story. At the same time, a group reading at a different level may read and discuss a different story.

Children with similar interests can be grouped together. In a geography activity, for example, one group may be composed of learners who want to study southern Africa, while another may be interested in Latin America.

Be sure to create with the class a set of guidelines for communicating and co-operating in groups. Such guidelines may cover making sure that everyone has a chance to talk, criticising constructively instead of destructively, and finding ways to analyse the work of others.

For one idea about a group-based learning activity, go to Observing the sugar cane plant.

For ideas about promoting co-operation, visit Co-operative learning.

Direct teaching

Direct teaching is a familiar practice, in which the teacher addresses the class (or a large group) by lecturing, reading, leading recitation, or demonstrating techniques.

Teachers read to the class or demonstrate skills to introduce new information. Direct teaching is an efficient way to introduce the whole class (or a large group in a multigrade class) to new concepts, information or skills.

Teachers guide children's thinking by asking questions and posing examples. In a reading class, for example, a teacher may read a story, then begin discussion by asking thought-provoking questions.

It's a fine teaching strategy to introduce a new activity or lesson by helping children list what they already know about a subject.

For example, in a science unit about the seasons, we can ask the class to name the seasons and to describe them, and to guess about what causes seasonal change. We can then read or describe the ways the Earth's revolution around the sun affects the seasons, before outlining a research project in weather observation for small groups to explore.

Direct instruction can connect us and our classes to other, more active ways of encountering information and building knowledge.

Teachers lead recitation of key facts and information, sometimes as a way of reviewing knowledge that children have already gained.

The best teachers understand that a little direct teaching goes a long way. Listening and watching are passive ways of learning, and it requires great mental skill to translate what we see and what we hear into knowledge. Most children learn best when they learn through action.

Independent learning

As children mature they become more able to work and learn independently - this means that they are motivated to learn, they focus on specific tasks, and they have the skills and resources that they need to complete assignments.

Independent learning may mean that children read books, or write stories on their own, and draw illustrations. They may concentrate on mathematics exercises. They may even perform research, arrange information, and create a report or presentation on a specific topic.

In some primary classes, teachers institute "choice time," a period in the daily or weekly schedule when children explore learning resources on their own. They may read books, play with mathematics games, build models from found materials, or work on art projects.

Many of us feel pressed to finish an overloaded syllabus, so implementing choice time can be difficult. But it's a very rewarding way to move toward more child-centred ways of teaching.

Try short periods and a number of independent choices to begin with. In other instances, you may want to prepare exercises, reading, and other assignments that children can work on and complete.

We can encourage self-directed, independent learning in our classes by:

  • creating a learning environment that supports curiosity and focused activity
  • collecting resources, such as picture books, dictionaries, math manipulatives, and others
  • connecting new information to information that has been learned previously
  • inventing assignments and learning activities that are meaningful to the learners involved
  • ensuring that learners are not afraid to try out their ideas and to explore the unknown

All the skills that children need to learn independently also help them learn in groups.

Journal activity: Combining teaching modes

Expand the teaching modes that you use in a given activity.

Select a lesson that you enjoy teaching and that you know well. Analyse where in the lesson you engage children in learning in three different modes:

    - in groups
    - through direct instruction
    - as independent learners

Which of these modes is most common in the lesson? How could you make teaching and learning in that mode more effective? If direct instruction is the dominant mode, for example, you could make it more effective by tying the information directly to the lives of the children in your classroom in concrete ways.

Now select one of the modes that is less common in the lesson. Where in the lesson could learners engage in that mode? How could you use that mode to engage learners in active learning?

In the Teachers Talking Discussion section of the web site, share your thoughts. Try summarising the activity and discussing you new ideas.

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Last revised April, 1999
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