By Steven Klee, Contributing Editor, Seattle University
When I first started incorporating active learning in the classroom, I struggled with getting my students to buy into being active. I made worksheets, put the students in groups, and excitedly set them off to discover and play with mathematical ideas. Despite this, many students were inclined to sit silently in a group of four and work on the problems on their own.
But really, who can blame them? First, this propensity towards solitude can be explained by basic human nature: specifically, the fear of being wrong. We don’t want to be wrong. At least, we don’t want to be wrong in front of other people. From that perspective, working alone is safe and comfortable. We should view our job as teachers as one of helping our students overcome this basic human inclination, as opposed to viewing it as a failure or shortcoming on their part.
Beyond this, the desire to work alone can be attributed to culture and expectations. Many students’ formative educational years have been spent sitting silently in desks passively absorbing lectures. If they feel this is what is expected of a math class, then it is natural for them to continue to sit silently, even if the environment is meant to be collaborative. Of course, it is not my intention to imply that this is an issue that is entirely the students’ fault – maybe my questions weren’t sufficiently open-ended, maybe I wasn’t doing a good enough job at “selling it,” maybe the students just like working alone, maybe, maybe, maybe… The list goes on.
I tried some of my standard tricks to foster communication among the students. I would prepare impassioned pep talks about the benefits of working with your peers. This technique flopped for obvious reasons – no one wants to listen to what they are told is good for them. Otherwise, cigarette companies and fast food restaurants would go bankrupt and I would be much more diligent about flossing. I’d try to lighten the mood, saying “this isn’t a library, you’re welcome to talk to one another.” I’d give a difficult problem and leave the room to get a drink of water, forcing the students to rely on one another. These strategies helped, but never served to create the classroom of my dreams – one where students discuss math problems at such a frenzied pace that time ceases to exist; one that causes passersby to wonder whether we are having a math class or developing some bizarre scientific improv comedy troupe.
Over time, I continued to reflect on my own teaching and sought advice from more experienced practitioners of active learning. As a result, I have developed a few strategies that have been effective in my classrooms. One of the most effective strategies for me has come from eliminating those pesky desks that keep getting in the way of my students’ learning.