A Story on Active Learning

On the first session of all my classes I present graphic representations of Parker Palmer’s top down and interactive models of education adapted from his book The Courage to Teach.  I let students know right off that I favor the interactive model.  I take a similar perspective with internships on both college and high school levels.  I consider interactive engagement central to empowering students in their educational and creative processes.

This fall I went out on that proverbial limb a bit more.  I submitted a proposal to teach a one credit hour course to Freshman in the Helen Hardin Honors Program at the University of Memphis.  The course,  Reality is Broken, is based on the book of the same name by Jane McGonigal.  Her basic thesis is that if we spent as much time working on social problems as we do playing games, issues of hunger, oil shortages, war, etc. would move toward resolution.  In my course proposal, the class  would read and discuss McGonigal’s book and create a game that addressed a pressing social issue in Memphis, Tennessee.  From the start, I recognized that I am not an expert in games, at all.  I was completely aware that the students would know much more about games than me.  However, I imagined the course as more to create a space and allow a group of students to exercise their thoughts and expertise in such a project.  Course enrollment maxed out quickly and I was faced with putting meat on the bones of the proposal I submitted.

The first couple weeks of the course this semester went well enough.  Students readily discussed the readings, started forming some ideas and directions, but the process was still trying to find a way through to the goal of creating a game.  I have learned to feel comfortable with this approach, knowing that processes that are ultimately productive can be quite messy as they go along.

Then, two things happened.  First, Debbie Morrison wrote a couple of posts on active learning at her online learning insights blog that put that approach at the very forefront of my thinking.  Second, last week I forgot to bring my presentation notes and PowerPoint to class.  I was on the same level as all the students in class.  I had only a copy of McGonigal’s book with yellow highlights and column notes.

The discussion during that class period was excellent.  Creating the game started to take shape.  Several students began to take leadership of the project.  This week we continued on that trajectory.  I asked Maria to lead the class in a game she had played in high school.  The class played the game and discussed the applicability to their own game creation process.  When I asked, Katarina volunteered to take on the “professor role” and facilitate the rest of the discussion for the class period.   Hunter agreed to facilitate the class discussion next week.  I will continue to take part with the expertise I bring to the discussion in the same way that the students each bring their own expertise.

After class today I found myself going back to Debbie’s blog and tracking down some of the resources, particularly around peer instruction and the “flipped classroom.”

So how does this work for outreach in museums and archaeology?  Today, hands-on experiences are considered more engaging than uni-directional lectures or exhibits.  But I learned something else from the Reality is Broken class today.  Two weeks ago I took a bunch of board games to class to spark some thinking on the game creation process.  There was lots of hands-on during the class but something was not clicking.  Maria’s game from today completely engaged the class.  The 20 minutes spent playing Maria’s game elicited more engagement than the hour of game play two weeks before.  During both class periods, the goal of the activity was to stimulate thinking for the students to create their own game.  Maria provided a more relevant entry point than me to begin envisioning that process.

I think about this in terms of our outreach efforts in museums and archaeology.  Whatever the goal, are we engaging at the right entry point of the participant?  For example, if there is one successful program that young and old, male and female, Baptist and Muslim, thoroughly enjoy at the C.H. Nash Museum it’s throwing darts with an atlatl.  But that activity is usually the last point in a program or visit.  Yet the activity can also be the entry point to discuss physics, stone tool technology, hunting, and subsistence explored earlier in the visit.  I am not suggesting that the first thing we should do when the visitor comes through the door is hand them an atlatl.  I am suggesting that we consider possibly flipping the classroom in our outreach activities to a more active learning experience.

How does active learning work in your outreach efforts?

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Museums, Anthropology, Bicycles, Recovery, Cancer, Retired

2 thoughts on “A Story on Active Learning”

  1. I am intrigued by your course ‘Reality is Broken’ – a brilliant idea! It sounds as if you struck a chord with students, given the course filled up so quickly. The book appears to lend itself to active learning which must have piqued students interest. I am so pleased you found something of value on my blog that has inspired you to try something different! It is really interesting how the students, as you have described, appear to be taking the lead and moving the course forward. So very interesting – it demonstrates how students want to be involved and engaged in their learning, yet at the same time highlights the need for the educator to guide and direct. I look forward to hearing about the outcomes of the course. I’ve also added Reality is Broken to my ‘must read’ book list. Thank you kindly for the referral to my blog! 🙂

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