I’m against active learning. Well, maybe not against it. Would you settle for “less for it than others are?” Here’s why.
I gave a great lecture yesterday for the first day of class in Sociology 101 (Intro Sociology). Well, I thought it was great, and my reading of the students’ faces was that they were following along with me, laughing at the right points, even engaging in a little call-and-response when appropriate. It’s a lecture I’ve honed over many times teaching the class. It introduces the scope of the course, the idea of sociology as a science, the importance of evidence and argument, and the focal point of the course’s structure: the fundamental unit of human behavior is the group.
This class is organized fairly traditionally: Tuesdays are generally lectures, Thursdays the class is divided into sections for discussions led by me and by TAs. I don’t do much in the way of active learning: games, role-plays, and similar to engage students in extratextual ways. This is not fashionable; the death of the lecture has been declared many times and it’s commonplace for people to sniff that lectures are not the most effective way of teaching, often providing a statistic about the proportion of information retained — a statistic I first heard in a lecture. (By the way, these statistics are typically about the central tendency, not the spread or distribution; the fact that most people don’t learn all that well from lectures coexists with the fact that some people may well learn better from lectures!)
I have two reasons for resisting this shift, although I do use active learning techniques sometimes — just as one among several techniques, and generally secondary to more traditional lectures and reading discussions. One of these reasons is about pedagogy in general, the other is specific to sociology.
First the more general. There is a hidden curriculum in all we do in the classroom. We’re not just teaching students material (of course), we’re teaching them what they can expect, what they’re entitled to, and how to learn. As UNC’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Winston Crisp, told parents this month:
We have created the most cared for, the most cherished, the most sheltered, the most facilitated generation of people that the world has probably ever seen….
Among the most common words in student evaluations of instructors I read as Associate Chair was “entertaining.” We are training students to expect entertainment: to expect that difficult, even foreign, intellectual material will be translated for them into bite-sized dinosaur-themed chicken nuggets of infotainment.
You have to learn how to learn from a lecture. You have to learn how to learn from a book too. Today’s students learned how to learn from video, from twitter, from instagram, and more. Insisting that they stretch beyond these to new (for them) learning modalities is, itself, an educational mission, and one we ought to embrace, not discard.
I feel this way about other forms of intellectual engagement too: final papers that should be written in academic form, presentations in class done systematically, writing done in complete sentences and paragraphs with correct grammar. None of these comes easily, and one could argue that none is important to the content of the class. But I think one would be wrong to argue that, because form and content co-constitute one another.
Second the more specific. Much sociological knowledge is, or should be, unfamiliar. In the class I TAed for her, Ann Swidler likened it to learning a difficult dance step. Doing it right involves convincing one’s mind to abandon the individualist ontology to which it is accustomed and consider, instead, the possibility that the real driver of social action is the group. Often this insight is simply not available in young, elite, American students’ lived experience. Demonstrations and games, while they may illustrate content well, also suggest to students that the content can always be experienced individually. Sociology demands that students consider social possibilities that are entirely inaccessible to them as experience and can be accessed only through careful and disciplined critical distance. (This is the same reason I no longer allow students to write their intro final papers on observations they carry out: it’s too easy for them simply to interpret what they already know instead of breaking out of their assumptions.)