Hannah Bailey carefully considered the lesson plan she’d created for her first one-on-one tutoring session as part of her partnership practicum. The student, whom she’d met in her first week in class, was falling increasingly behind in reading—processing words at a first-grade level though he was in third grade.
When she sat down with the student, Bailey ’15, of Mechanicsville, recalled some of the most poignant lessons of her classes with Dr. Katrina Maynard and Dr. Sara Miller, who teach in Longwood’s elementary education program, and have researched and taught principles of active learning.
"In those first few tutoring lessons, I really put active learning principles into practice," said Bailey. "By the fourth lesson, the student was really starting to make strides and was referencing things that we had done weeks before. It really all came together in that moment, and I felt like I was teaching with a purpose."
Integrating active learning principles in classrooms is the subject of a recent article, "Making Thinking Visible: Three Essential Elements No Classroom Can Be Without!" published by Maynard and Miller in the academic journal Educational Practice & Reform.
"The three elements we identify and discuss in the article are elements that we have used in our own classrooms and that pre-service teachers can implement easily when they have their own students," said Maynard, who coordinates the elementary program. "The elements are organizing, representing and reflecting on thinking. Put into place, they create a vibrant, engaging classroom where information isn’t just memorized, but used."
The first and second steps involve a lot of graphics. Physically representing classroom concepts creates an indelible image of the material in students’ heads—whether it’s a map, diagram or other graphic image. Even something as simple as a sentence can take a variety of forms.
"Even with great organizing and representing concepts in a visual way, new concepts in a classroom don’t really take root until a student reflects on their use"Dr. Katrina Maynard
"Studies show that activating background knowledge is important to taking in new knowledge," said Miller, who leads Longwood’s early childhood education initiative, "and that’s what these techniques are about: relating new concepts to familiar ones. When teachers construct maps of information, they identify relationships between concepts, and the new concept becomes more authentic."
Students in Maynard’s classes were asked recently to identify and visually represent the six components of language—a topic that could be the source of a sleep-inducing lecture. Instead, Maynard implemented the principles of active learning, and the students sprang to life. Components of language—from syntax to semantics—were represented as petals of a flower, interlocking puzzle pieces or even details of sorority life.
In that way, orthography—written symbols that make up a language—can be seen as the Greek letters on a sweatshirt worn to the gym. Syntax—the rule book of a language—can be seen as time-honored rituals.
"Even with great organizing and representing concepts in a visual way, new concepts in a classroom don’t really take root until a student reflects on their use," said Maynard. "In our practicum courses we ask students to keep a journal where they reflect on the things they learn and how the lesson is applicable to their lives. This type of thinking really brings it home and solidifies the content."
In Bailey’s tutoring session, the student’s reflection on the lessons made them stick—though she didn’t explicitly ask him to reflect. "We figured out ways that he could keep thinking about the reading lessons when he was at home," she said. "Things he could do with his parents with a book before bed, or games to try and recognize words on road signs or at the grocery store. I really incorporated the strategies I learned in class and applied them to teaching in the real world, and it made all the difference."