Burning the Spark: What’s the Barrier to Widespread Implementation of Active Learning?

We know that people will invest time, energy, and money to pursue their passions so it’s a no-brainer to engage in efforts to make students passionate about what they are learning in school. Mark C. Carnes talks about using games to have students experientially learn about the past in a brilliant endeavor that has them debating about real history the way they often do with the fictitious worlds of Dr. Who, World of Warcraft, and Star Wars. He says setting students’ minds on fire requires active learning, and that this can be most effectively accomplished through teamwork and collaboration. Robert Talbert states that classroom lectures are best when used to explain, clarify, and discuss topics rather than act as a primary information transfer source. We’ve all sat through lectures that bored us to tears, except today many students can ignore teachers in favor of surreptitiously going online to chat with friends (in class and outside), shop, or even pay bills. I could go on and on regarding the excellent advice from leading-edge educators on how to engage the imagination of students. Many appear to know what works, and they can prove it. So what is stopping educators and institutions from adopting these strategies? Why does it feel like a fight to prove these techniques should be implemented?

Take James Paul Gee’s 2007 book on how video games use best practices in learning and literacy to keep gamers hooked and begging for more. He first has to spend time convincing readers to take the subject seriously. I appreciate this keenly because last year I had a fellow marriage and family therapist teach me how video games can help assess and treat clients. It now fits in with other practices I use such as asking clients to bring in lyrics, stories, or characters from any form of entertainment that will further connect us, help me understand them, and blossom into a healing intervention through our interaction. If clients do not have anything they feel engaged enough to bring in, I’ll present something tailored to them that I hope will make them feel and think. These poetry therapy techniques, which have ancient roots, help to activate our inner healers. This is based on augmenting the inner spark, which some call hope and others call imagination. Despite my use of these practices, I had previously viewed video games only as a fun time-suck even after reading about their effectiveness in PTSD treatment because I lacked adequate knowledge of their depth and potential.

Yet, I have a hard time believing that it’s ignorance that stops us from widespread use of active learning. As former Xerox Chief Scientist John Seely Brown so eloquently states, we are stuck on creativity without going back to the basics of that blissfully wedded pair, curiosity and imagination. We cut art programs at the same time we insist students in high school learn to think from new perspectives. How can we ask the younger generations to be creative when our educational system strips them of their curiosity regarding what is being taught in school? It always seems to come down to money.

Unfortunately, this approach is having worse economic consequences, such as a college dropout rate of 50 percent. That this rate is being attributed to boredom—rather than skyrocketing costs—is appalling. It means that people are voting with their feet and will increasingly do so until we accept that we need to change our approach to teaching. It also translates into a less skilled workforce. I hope that we as a society are not so stuck in our ways, so fearful of change, or so greedy for the economic power structure to continue lining the same pockets, that we are willing to capitulate our future and that of our children. Perhaps I am missing something, and I invite readers to fill me in on the arguments to keep “skill-and-drill” curriculum and standardized testing. Not that I disagree that we need standards or tests conceptually, but can we choose those that more accurately measure aptitude and assess knowledge rather than memorization?

Ivan Dimkovic’s simulation of the mammal thalamocortical system with 8 million neurons with 1.4 billion synapses

Ivan Dimkovic’s simulation of the mammal thalamocortical system with 8 million neurons with 1.4 billion synapses

While it’s wonderful to hear about pockets of innovation, best practices should not be limited. Ethically, we need to consider if we are providing those especially with limited resources the fighting chance they need to succeed in today’s world (which also then leads to untold societal benefits). Much of what drives imagination and learning is life itself: We are driven to fix problems; find new, better, and cost-effective ways of handling tasks; and discover what is fun and meaningful. Are we challenging students to apply concepts to reality or confusing and boring them with theoretical information that feels far afield from their lives? With the advances we have at our disposal today, we have the mechanisms we need to make education more meaningful to its consumers.

This is an area that I am learning more about because it sparks my curiosity and imagination as I begin my journey to become a formal educator. Meanwhile, I will hope and pray that we really aren’t turning into WALL-E-like creatures who would rather hide behind our technological advances than brave the new world.


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    • Greg Purdy on February 17, 2016 at 4:54 am
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    Really appreciate your thoughts on higher education and the importance of innovation within the walls of the ivory tower. Games really can be a way to engage a different type of learner. While not for everyone, I see them as an alternative to what we do in the “traditional” classroom. Why must we limit ourselves to assigning readings and homework’s when we could also have an option of doing this in a fictional or real world environment.

    For my field, I would love to have a semester project where my students simulate a manufacturing facility. The game would give them a finite amount of funds to start and they would have to run a facility over the course of a simulated year. Assuming it can be designed in a somewhat realistic way, it would be a great way for students to actually experience how different decisions in terms of layout and routing can have an impact on the final cost and production rates of a product. So many possibilities once we start to think outside the box!

    • Sheryl on February 17, 2016 at 4:14 pm
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    Hi there, thank you for the interesting discussion. Though I also found the use of video games an interesting and useful perspective, I could see some problems with this. Similar to didactic lectures, the technology can only simulate so many aspects of a “real-life situation”. Though you can suffer consequences as a result of your actions in a game, I wonder if this could potentially de-sensitize users to actual real-world consequences. Just a thought.

  1. Thanks so much for this, and for reminding us that “we are stuck on creativity without going back to the basics of that blissfully wedded pair, curiosity and imagination.” Love the image of the “blissfully wedded pair.” And Ivan Dimkovic’s simulation — so beautiful.

    • XRumerTest on February 19, 2016 at 3:57 pm
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    Hello. And Bye.

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