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Learning happens INSIDE the learner: Active learning strategies for Emergency Remote classes

Atualizado: 15 de jan. de 2021

Teaching English synchronously may seem like you are talking to a wall specially when students avoid turning on their cameras. Are they there? Are they on task? Are they listening to you? Are they wondering? Are they doing something else? How can you ensure they are following your instructions and, hopefully, learning? Newsflash: You can't!

I try to be as mindful as possible whenever I speak about teaching in times of Covid-19 because we have been teaching under rather delicate circumstances. Although we are teaching from a space that is known and dear to our hearts - our homes, we have literally opened up our homes for a considerable number of people to see. We are experiencing a very steep learning curve. Never have we ever worked under conditions that include having little or no time to reflect, research, and experiment on different ways of delivering meaningful learning experiences. But that doesn't mean we can't provide our learners with instruction that emphasizes interactions with classmates and teachers, and manage a cycle of feedback where learners are given continuous opportunities to experiment with their learning in the classroom and connect it with their lives.

Active learning pedagogy it is not entirely new in the field of Education. I agree with Allen & Tanner (2005: 262–268) when they define Active learning as "seeking new information, organizing it in a way that is meaningful, and having the chance to explain it to others." Concurrently, a lot has been said about putting students in the center of learning, allowing them to be the protagonists in the classroom, equipping teachers to understand they should not assume they're in control, and helping teachers develop abilities so they do not take ownership of the classroom. All this seem exceedingly complex to deploy in a classroom where you can move desks, use different patterns of interaction, match your activities to your students' mood because you can see and feel them; let alone in synchronous (live) classes. Arguably, we are navigating the troubling waters of Emergency Remote Learning (learn more about it in an article I wrote here) and it seems that due to fear, lack of support and training, survival mechanism or gut feeling desire to transfer face-to-face strategies to the online one; teachers have been resorting to lecturing. Hence, students are spacing out.

I think it is crucial for teachers to understand that active learning pedagogical strategies look different in online learning environments, particularly in synchronous classes when students are supposed to be interacting with the teacher, or with each other, in real time. One of the main aspects in Active Learning pedagogy is making learning relevant. By asking students to relate what they have been exposed to the moment we are living now (even though you can't think of one), will give them time to reflect and connect school with their lives. Another idea is to bring local problems that can be of global interest. How can we solve problems like human waste during the quarantine? Let them research, discuss and report back their ideas. Wonderful things will come about, I'm sure.

Here are a few ideas to keep your learners actively engaged in synchronous classes:

1. Exit Tickets

Create moments in which learners have to reflect upon what was discussed in order to move forward/end a class. Moments like "Ok, now, in order to move on to the next activity, I'd like Roberto to tell us what he remembers from our class today" or "Can somebody say what we did so far?" can help learners activate their short-term memory and transform that into working memory. Exit tickets are one of the fastest, lowest-commitment types of active learning tools to implement. They help students clarify, understand, and recall learning better. Other examples of Exit Ticket questions are:

  • What is the most significant thing you learned today/last class?

  • What remains unclear or confusing?

2. Humor Checks

Asking your class how they are in the beginning of the lesson doesn't mean you are assessing their mood in order to inform your practice. Architect moments throughout the lesson in order to check how your learners are truly feeling by creating a Google Form or Mentimeter and allow students to express their moods in anonymity. Include interesting and varied moods like "I"m feeling... creative / sad / suffocated / upset / terrified / confused / motivated / lazy / energetic" or simpler versions of it depending on your group. Use that as a thermometer for your classes. If need be, change course of action when you discover things are not going the way you planned.

3. Think-pair-share

Invest in moments where your students think about open questions related to the content you are working (or not) in small groups, and then have them report back what they have discussed. If you use the paid version of Zoom, you can use the feature breakout rooms and pair students up automatically. In case you use Google Meet, create different rooms and share the links in the chat box. Once they are done, bring them back together in the main room. This seems too complicated at first but it gets easier with time.

4. Backward Design

Backward Design (WIGGINS & MCTIGHE, 2005) can be summarized as a process or model for designing instructional materials where the teacher focuses on the desired end results (i.e., the outcome) of a class. Rather than beginning the planning process with a focus on supporting exercises, resources or textbooks, the teacher focuses on the learners and begins the design process by asking what learners should be able to understand and do after the provided instruction. When you plan your next synchronous class, start by asking yourself what will your learners be able to do when the class is over.

5. Self-assessment

By generating possibilities to shift the focus of evaluation from the teacher to the learner, we allow students to become active participants of the learning process. You can create Google Forms where students can express their level of understanding of a particular moment of instruction or share their doubts and insecurities. One of the most important consequences of self-assessment is to use the results as an instrument of reflection shared among teachers and students. This process should aim at improving the learning experiences by making the necessary changes to your instruction when needed.

(Esse artigo foi publicado também no LinkedIn do autor.)

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