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Closing the gap: Active learning deepens student gains

After decades of research and innovative practices, can’t we see that the greatest untapped resource for schools and the community are the students and parents themselves?

school lockers
Much ink has spilled, commissions have been formed, meetings held, and reports written about the achievement gap of students from different economic and racial groups. Protests by parents about the failure to increase skills lead school district administrators to trot out a new program to fix achievement problems.

But the new program fails to accomplish much, and protests rise again. One school district, seeking a solution, shuffles students into different schools for a new pattern of enrollment. Like other “remedies,” it won’t impact achievement. Other districts try rearranging grade levels, such as when grades 5-8 become a middle school.

Most reports end with recommendations amounting to more of the same but spiked with “rigorous” instruction and some teacher training for the new program. Many recommendations say to begin school at a younger age so that academic learning can commence earlier, a dubious cut in childhood for sitting in chairs learning letter sounds. Kindergarten play as a way of learning is gone. Decades have passed with more promises, changes of superintendents, and central office reorganization.

Blame teachers and principals? They work assiduously within a dated system they didn’t invent and would likely change if given the authority. Excellent teachers already do many of the practices I’ll suggest below.

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What to do? Let’s recognize that no simple or easy solution will spring forth, and any proposed remedy will not solve all problems entirely or quickly. Even so, during my 70 years with schools, I’ve found that active or experiential learning results in deeper and more enduring gains for all students.

First, a general principle: Students learn from complexity better than simplified lessons — a generalization, but mostly true. Consider the infant’s brain. It faces an unknown and complex world but sorts it out in a relatively short time. By school age, the child has learned 5,000 to 10,000 words, none with worksheets, drills, tests, and other school practices. We can depend on the brain’s enormous powers to construct patterns and meaning from experience. We need confidence that skills and knowledge will develop during the pursuit of interests and challenges with, for example, the following practices:

Honoring diversity. Students study and celebrate the wonderful mix of races, traditions, and interests of classmates. Students learn from differences in cultures, customs, dress, foods, geography, and history. Some students and parents have experienced war and internment camps, an amazing phenomenon for study. Students from other cultures teach lessons to students from a different culture with historical and geographic content. The center of attention becomes students rather than the teacher. The teacher doesn’t know what the students know. Parents are called upon to monitor the accuracy of information about culture and to share experiences.

School and community study. Schools and communities have problems to be solved, and students can make a valuable contribution with research, recommendations, and reports with issues such as traffic near the school, food waste in the cafeteria, nutrition, water contamination, air pollution, flooding, and zoning issues. For example, students helped with sandbagging to hold back a flooding river, and Megan, a tenth-grader, supervised her peers.

Personal learning plans. Students work with an adviser to determine their strengths, areas for improvement, and interests; these become the roots of a personalized plan for each student. One size doesn’t fit all. The student devises projects with timelines and methods for attaining goals. Personal learning plans help teachers cope with the nearly impossible task of teaching the range of achievement levels, interests, and learning styles.

For example, a typical seventh-grade class has 1) reading levels spanning seven levels from third to tenth grade 2) interests that range from the subject at hand to one like auto mechanics or cooking 3) learning styles that range from classroom recitation to hands-on learning. A personal learning plan led Janis, a gifted student headed for a career as a baker (nothing wrong with that career) to become a Japanese consultant after suggestions by a teacher examining her personal learning plan. That resulted in a two-year internship in Japan. Now, Janis attends Hamline University studying international relations. She is a valuable asset to the university and businesses. Janis serves on the school board of her former high school.

Wayne Jennings
Wayne Jennings
Service learning. Schools use students as helpers in the office, library, and other roles. Though the students lose a class period each day, it doesn’t affect grades because responsibilities boost learning. Service learning can expand beyond school walls with such opportunities as internships, work experience, volunteering in small businesses or nonprofits, units of government, and career exploration shadow studies. Sixth-graders in St. Paul have served as crossing guards without a single incident in 50 years. One school put a chronically tardy student in charge of raising the flag every morning; the student was not late thereafter. In another school, each 3-foot section of the library had the name of a student at the top. The student oversaw organizing the books. In those schools, kids said, “Mom, I have to go to school. I have a job to do.” John became an attorney after an internship with the Hennepin County Attorneys’ Office. Missy became a well-known Twin Cities restaurateur after volunteering in a cafe kitchen.

Cooperative learning. Students working together come to appreciate the skills and talents of others in pursuit of solutions to problems. Students presented their research for cautionary school signage to control traffic around their elementary school. Students were a critical element in making a case before their city council. A team of different age students read statutes, consulted with experts on air pollution, and ultimately caused the reduction of smelly air in the Midway area of St. Paul. A large polluting business tried to stop the students by contacting the superintendent of schools; he ignored the complaint. Ultimately, the business installed costly equipment for its smokestacks. In the end, the business proudly showed its equipment to the students. The community was grateful for the student persistence.

Sparks. Schools use sparks to ignite student interests. Sparks do not need to fit neatly into the daily curriculum. For instance, a parent brought a large dog to the school. Kids were excited and asked many questions about the amount of food the dog ate, its weight, breed, and growth. In the process, students learned new vocabulary words, nutrition, and math and science. Teacher-prepared lessons for that day didn’t need a dog curriculum. Student brains integrated dog knowledge with the other important learnings.

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Project-based learning. Projects arise naturally within subjects. For instance, in studying the American West Movement in history, some students may study the obstacles pioneers encountered. Others may focus on Indians, others on stagecoaches. At advanced levels, students take on projects of personal interest, such as money and allowances, transportation, religions, sexual preferences. Several students worked with a professor to construct a horse from donated bones from the university. Others made meals from ethnic group participation. Kelley presented her study of the architecture of buildings and homes in the surrounding blocks. Another school managed rural-urban exchanges of students. Bob, whose family was on welfare, studied welfare and presented his findings. Inspired by his independent study and with teacher encouragement, Bob went on to graduate from college and become a teacher. Bob said the welfare project expanded his horizons.

Student differences are not the problem, but a solution.

After decades of research and innovative practices, can’t we see that the greatest untapped resource for schools and the community are the students and parents themselves? These practices create explosions of learning — much better than worksheets, recitations, and predetermined curricula.

Wayne Jennings, Ph.D., is a retired St. Paul principal and the author of “School Transformation.”