Why "Active Learning" Can Be Perilous to the Profession

By Mattson, Kevin | Academe, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview

Why "Active Learning" Can Be Perilous to the Profession


Mattson, Kevin, Academe


Faculty and administrators are paying new attention to student learning, sometimes for the wrong reasons.

You've probably heard the terms "active" or "engaged" learning at your college. If you haven't encountered them yet, beware. Worry especially if you teach at a big university with large classes. The terms translate into the following command for professors: it is your responsibility to pioneer new techniques that can "make large classes seem small," as a set of educational researchers recently put it with utmost seriousness. That is, simulate the feeling of a seminar, or nurture "dialogical" processes, amid a sea of five hundred faces in a large lecture hall. "Active learning," as I have learned, is more than just an empty buzzword used by educational administrators. It is a philosophy and movement that portends trouble for the future of higher education and the American professoriate.

Partisans of "active learning" often assert that they constitute a "movement" in higher education. Fair enough, if the purpose of social movements is to identify problems in society and galvanize people around ideas (often slogans) and solutions. Consider the civil rights movement's exposure of "white supremacy" and simultaneous argument for racial reconciliation within a "beloved community." Or recall the feminist movement's critique of "male domination" and "patriarchy" and its faith that the "personal is the political." Now, consider the advocates of "active learning." Their enemy is the big classroom lecture fronted by a distant-minded professor-the "sage on the stage" who commits the sin of "chalk and talk," as the slogans go. Such professors need to be replaced by the "guide by the side" or the teacher as "co-learner." Replacing them will require institutional change. Active learning proponents, like their counterparts from prior movements, have highlighted a problem and crafted slogans to combat it.

The educational bvireaucracy has embraced the movement. Often, administrative centers on campus will work across departments, assuming titles like the Center for Teaching Excellence or the Center for Writing Across the Curriculum. Staffed by administrators, these centers teach professors better ways to teach, often through "workshops." As a professor, you'll learn, for example, to integrate writing and discussion into big classrooms; sometimes leading figures in educational theory will give talks on "critical thinking" and the large lecture class. You'll also be exposed to vast numbers of books and articles promoting active learning, including an international journal with the straightforward title of Active Learning in Higher Education, The movement has thus acquired academic and professional legitimacy.

Although the terni "active learning" has gotten a lot of play over the years, I didn't catch wind of it until it came to my own campus-Ohio University, a publicly funded institution in Appalachia-during a drive for "general education." When I arrived in 2001, I heard administrators and some faculty members castigate the lecture class as "passive" learning. But the significance of active learning hit home only when a story ran in Ohio Today, a glossy magazine published for alumni. The story described a young assistant professor of sociology who teaches an introductory course with almost four hundred students. It provided scary insight into the future of college teaching.

Remarkably, this young professor-whose energy struck me at times as miraculous-would wear a microphone and engage her students in dialogue about sociological concepts. For example, students brought in items conveying "status" and commented on them. It seemed almost as if this professor was an intellectual Phil Donahue-running around, calling on students, and then expanding on their comments. Then came the really overwhelming point: this professor, the reporter claimed, knew every one of her students by name. How? She met with each one over coffee during a ten-week quarter. …

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