Sing, draw, play or invent

Hanza George, Anisha Malhotra-Dalvi, Adithi Muralidhar, Savita Ladage and Sugra Chunawala

Active learning is an important concept in the field of education and is based on the involvement of learners in the learning process. It suggests that learners learn better when they are not mere spectators but are engaged with the materials to be learned. Various methods often called Active Learning Strategies have been suggested to facilitate learning in classrooms, such as the use of probing questions to construct knowledge, inclusion of games, art, role-play, peer teaching, group activities, debates, discussions, quizzes, technology-based simulations and many more.

Active Learning Strategies (ALS) promote student-centered learning and have become an integral part of classroom teaching-learning processes at the school level. Despite their significance in education, ALS often receive mixed reviews from teachers. The teachers’ reasons for resistance to ALS are many; ranging from large numbers of students in classrooms, lack of infrastructure, issues related to class control, time management, vastness of the syllabus, etc. While these concerns are relevant, there are also instances where motivated teachers move beyond these hurdles to engage students creatively by using ALS. In this article, we reflect upon two aspects of ALS. First, we share some practices that we observed teachers using in their attempts to engage students in the classroom and second, we discuss the development of a teaching aid and its use during teacher training aimed at promoting active learning. In each of our examples, we demonstrate the adaptability of ALS techniques as teachers have the ability to customize the activities and actively engage students using a variety of methods as per their learning objectives.

Take the example of Mane*, an enthusiastic mathematics and science teacher with over 30 years of teaching experience, who teaches in a rural school in Pune. He shares, “Previously we used to encourage rote memorization, but things have changed. Now exams are also evolving; we know that students will be able to perform well only if they understand the concepts and think critically. Traditional rote learning will not work anymore; it is important to shift to active learning.”

On a cloudy afternoon, during a power cut, we observed Mane teaching about electric current and electric circuits. He did not let the lack of electricity deter him from using the PhET interactive simulations on his laptop. After some explaining, he handed over the virtual lab and the components of circuits to students, whose faces lit up when the bulb glowed. Students experimented with materials around them, such as a metal wristwatch, a rusted iron nail, etc. “Why is the wristwatch getting heated up?” wondered a group during the discussions that followed the activity.

Students using a metal wristwatch to complete the circuit

Mane specifically mentions that he has stopped complaining about lack of facilities. Instead, he focuses on developing strong leadership skills in the students, and this, according to him, is an important strategy that can help promote active learning among the students. He suggests that teachers should identify a few responsible students and develop them to be group leaders, who will facilitate peer learning and help maintain classroom decorum during active learning. He also believes that students’ homework should involve activities rather than being limited to pen and paper work.

In a rural government school in Mallapuram, Kerala, we met Nishan* who believes that one teaching method might not be suitable for all topics and that learning science need not be completely independent of memorization. Hence, he writes Malayalam songs covering various science concepts and recites these using popular folk tunes. His approach to engage students in his classes was thus mediated through the use of art. He sang two songs for us, one about the water cycle and another on the distribution of electrons in the s, p, d, f orbitals.

Orbitals are energy levels that electrons occupy in an atom. The electrons are distributed amongst these orbitals in a specific manner. Memorizing this distribution is important for writing electronic configurations of atoms in higher level chemistry classes. Such information pertaining to orbitals when presented in the form of a song along with explanation of the concept, makes it easier for the student to recollect and implement.

In addition, at the beginning of the academic year, he said he demonstrates experiments, shows videos of the experiment to be performed before handing trays containing chemicals and glassware to groups of students. He too, like Mane, believed in handing over responsibility to the students in order to get them more engaged in the class.

Geometry homework submitted by students (left) and a rangoli diagram of a flower (right)

The use of art to elicit students’ interest was also observed in a school in Karnataka. Here the teacher incorporated drama and rangoli into the science teaching-learning process. These methods adopted by the science teacher helped in the integration of scientific concepts with the local traditions to make science less alien for the learners.

Reflecting on the teachers’ practices as mentioned above brings us to the second part of the article. Here, we would like to mention a teacher professional development workshop with a group of science/mathematics teachers from a district of Maharashtra, working in tribal ashram schools (residential schools) funded by the tribal welfare department. It is but obvious that some hurdles are more real and pertinent for them than for teachers teaching in more well-resourced schools. A needs analysis revealed that teachers were keen on ALS through the use of teaching aids. However, the teaching aids according to them should be easy to make and use, usable across different grades, language-independent and inexpensive.

Using the context of learning technical terms, the workshop session focused on developing a teaching aid that would take into consideration the teachers’ requirements mentioned above. We pointed out that students often struggle with learning new words and definitions, and we asked teachers how they dealt with this problem. Most teachers mentioned solutions, such as underlining the new/complex words, asking students to write these words a number of times or holding a dictation test. These methods which may work, appear to be individual-centric and have the disadvantage that students may learn the word and its spellings without understanding. It is important that new words are learned not as standalone words but also in some context to be meaningful for long-term retention. Hence, it becomes important for teachers to provide the right motivation for the students to learn and memorize new words. Games can be motivating, hence we decided to develop an educational aid that could be used in a game format and came up with the idea of multi-purpose frames.

These multi-purpose frames are easy to make hands-on educational aids, based on active class participation and employ game formats. The frames are designed with insert cards which carry information and it is this that makes the frames reusable and flexible. Since grouping new words under themes helps one acquire and memorize new vocabulary, we designed a game focused on categorization and learning new scientific terms. We used categories such as, noble gases, metallic minerals, non-metallic minerals, gem-stones, air-pollutants, fuels, layers of land, processes and forms of fresh water, etc., introduced in the textbook, and for each category, we had five ‘new words’ on insert cards placed in the frames. When playing the game, category names were displayed on a common board, and frames were randomly distributed to the participants. A facilitator announced a category name (for example, ‘gem-stones’) and asked teachers to stand up if they thought they had a card belonging to the category. This led to discussions over why a certain object may or may not fall under a particular category. The responses were peer-evaluated and resulted in animated discussions.

Multipurpose frames with inserts

With the same frames, we played another game using a new set of inserts that focused on testing participants’ knowledge of “elements and their use”. We had prepared text cards (with element names) and visual cards (with uses of elements) in pairs and invited teachers in groups to come forward to play the game. All the 20 frames were kept on a table face-down in a 4 X 5 grid. Teachers took turns and flipped one frame at a time to see what was underneath. They had to find a match for that card by flipping another frame. They succeeded if they found the correct ‘element and its use’ pair. But if they were unable to find the match, then they had to place both the frames upside down again. While the game was being played, we found that the players who did not know the correct answers learned quickly by watching others find the correct pairs. Teachers not only found the games enjoyable but were enthusiastic in making the frames and suggested that they could possibly use the frames to teach spellings – one letter on each frame and also to teach processes and life cycles. The group learning, hands-on activity and the element of craft were appreciated by the teachers.

A rewarding moment came when Sheetal*, one of the workshop participants translated one of her own original ideas into reality. She used the idea of the frames in her mathematics classroom to teach square numbers, prime numbers, types of triangles, area and circumference of a circle. Moreover, she made modifications in the frame design to suit her requirement and came up with something called “Joint frames” and used coloured papers to make her presentation more attractive. Teachers like Sheetal, Mane and Nishan are an inspiration to their peers. Despite facing barriers within their school systems, they use ALS in ways that are open-ended, flexible and creative.

Modifications made by the teacher in the frames

Our experiences reinforced that ALS cannot be made to fit in a box. Practicing teachers have varied interpretations and ways to incorporate ALS in their classrooms. Whether it is using engineering tasks, performing arts, techniques such as inclusion of games or whether to have a collaboration and peer-learning centered classroom, teachers can and do opt for a variety of ALS to make their classrooms into hubs of exciting and enriching (learning) experiences.


Acknowledgments: We are thankful to the school managements, teachers and students for their cooperation and voluntary participation. The workshop was conducted with support of the Ministry of HRD, Govt. Of India, under the PMMMNMTT mission (Scheme Code 1782 – NMTT).

The authors are with the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai and work in differing fields, such as Chemistry education, School Science Research & Development, and Design & Technology Education. They collaborate with each other and their colleagues to organize professional development workshops for teachers and can be reached at [email protected].

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