Active Learning: Students Are Not Sponges

Four types of students are described in the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:18), : the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. The sponge absorbs everything but can't distinguish between what is useful or not; the funnel takes in from one end and lets it out the other with no change; the strainer discards the wine and retains the dregs; the sieve sheds the dust and keeps the good flour.

If learning is an active process between teacher and student, how do we, as teachers, work with different types of students? In the article, "Twilight of the Lecture," Craig Lambert investigates active learning, particularly as espoused by Eric Mazur, professor of physics and applied physics. When we teach a physical craft we are more aware of active learning (or active confusion) because the students in our classes have to apply what they have learned in order to complete a project. The students must digest and process the information to be able to work: hands on. The book has to open. The box can't fall apart. By creating an environment where the information is directly, tangibly applied we can help to create students who are able to learn.
…active learning learning overthrows the 'transfer of information' model of instruction, which casts the student as a dry sponge who passively absorbs facts and ideas from a teacher.
Strangely, the concept of the student as sponge is the one most commonly cited, not the sieve. This may explain why our traditional teaching methods (lectures) are failing. We present a lot of information. From what we teach, we also have to be able to teach students the ability to sort out what is relevant: the good flour from the dust.

On their end, students need to know that they are expected to bring something to the table: their experiences, their willingness to explore, to take risks, to take initiative. More recently I have been seeing students who sit and wait, who want to know what to make, who have trouble finding content on their own. The old model of giving students the freedom and room to create seems to cause anxiety. The key to teaching, then, must be in gentle guidance. This is not new. The question is, even if you change the teaching method, can or will the students be gently guided?

In an online column by Paul Graham called "A Word to the Resourceful," from January 2012, he wrote about what makes successful startup companies. He ultimately found that the idea was not what was important; the people were. The people who were hard to talk to were the least successful. In a "Notes" section at the end of the column a partner of his writes about bad groups of students and good groups of students. It may sound harsh calling them good or bad, but the label is based on how well they are able to learn and the qualities that might enhance or prevent that learning. Bad students have a "glazed over" look when you talk to them. They  have already made up their minds and:
 …everything I say  is being put through an internal process in their heads, which either desperately tries to munge what I've said into something that conforms with their decision or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so. They may not even be conscious of this process…
These students are resisting. They want praise and confirmation, not correction and guidance. Although they are passively waiting for information, they may not accept it. They may not even be like funnels, taking in and letting out again, but more like solar panels: taking in the sun's warmth in order to function. Active learners not only give, but they receive. Give them one idea, one suggestion; you can see their eyes light up and off they go. They make a connection with something that interests them.

How, then, do we create active learners if we have a bad group? Perhaps we need activities where they become the teachers, and by teaching they also learn by doing. And by teaching, doing, and learning, perhaps they will become more successful.


Leah Virsik said…
Thanks for this thoughtful insight this morning Alisa! I love the thought of creating activities where the students are the teachers.
Velma said…
such thinking! my kids finished school at eagle rock school in estes park colorado. they had a marvelous experience, as opposed to their early education in public school...ers deserves a visit. and personally, as a special educator, i applaud this. amazing how many in sped follow th eold bad ways. said…
big fan for many years
and a bookmaker

as a 21st century teacher
this hit my soul