Five Keys to Building a Culture of Active Learning


Connected Educator Month

By Tony Frontier

This week, ASCD is focusing on school culture as the highlighted Connected Educator Month (CEM) subtheme for the Educator Professional Development and Learning theme. Find CEM resources on ASCD EDge®.

A mission statement that includes the phrase “all students will become independent, life-long learners” rings hollow unless all students believe in their capacity to learn and develop skills to learn independently. For this to occur, educators need to be intentional in their efforts to help students see themselves as active producers of new insight, skill, and knowledge, not as passive consumers of schooling.A Culture of Active Learning

A school that strives to build students’ conceptions of themselves as independent learners will mindfully address these five key areas.

1)  Motivation—Learning is a calculated effort. One’s motivation to attempt a task is based on a calculation of meaning, relevance, and perceived chance for success. Learners are more likely to attempt tasks that are meaningful and applicable to their current interests and needs. Learners yearn for relevance; they are more likely to invest effort in developing new concepts, skills, and understanding when they see how the content or skills can be applied in their everyday lives. Finally, learners are more likely to attempt tasks that they believe they can accomplish. What appears to be apathy or laziness may actually be a well-calculated effort to preserve one’s sense of self by avoiding failure.

2)  Engagement—Clarify the distinction between compliance and engagement. Compliance is a process of following rules to avoid punishment or earn rewards. Engagement is a process by which learners invest in opportunities because they see value in the work they are asked to do and take pride in the work they produce. This distinction matters profoundly; a school culture focused on compliance will view manipulation of rewards and threats as the only way to change student behaviors. A school culture focused on engagement will attempt to change student behavior by designing learning experiences that are better attuned to students’ need to engage in meaningful work and solve problems that are relevant to their lives.

3)  Self-Efficacy—Too often, learners believe that they are born with a fixed set of abilities that determine whether or not they are good at a certain subject. From this lens, both success and failure are beyond one’s control. Learners with high levels of self-efficacy—the belief that one is capable of accomplishing a task or achieving a goal—are more likely to see success as affirmation of their effort and strategy. Furthermore, these learners do not see failure as affirmation of a lack of capacity, but as a catalyst to focus efforts to develop new strategies. A school culture that values self-efficacy will teach students that patience, persistence, and strategy are more important than innate intelligence.

4)  Ownership—To transfer the responsibility for success or struggle from others to the learner requires ownership. When learners are allowed to design challenging tasks and are given the opportunity to define a pathway to accomplish that task, they are more likely to complete that task. The positive relationship between ownership, motivation, engagement, and results is clear across all ages in a variety of settings. A school culture that values students’ ownership of learning will not merely wish students to be more accountable. Rather, a culture that values ownership will provide students with choices about what they will learn, give students the opportunity to determine evidence of their learning, and take the time to teach students how to accurately assess—and revise—their own work.

5)  Independence—The journey from dependence to independence requires students to be the active agents in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. When motivation, engagement, efficacy, and ownership are all tended to, students are equipped with the tools they need to achieve independence. This process transforms students from compliant consumers of others’ content and concepts to committed creators of knowledge, insight, and new learning.

Independence does not develop in a culture that values compliance. Independent learners will be motivated to confront relevant problems, engage in challenging tasks, persevere long enough to overcome obstacles, and have ownership of goals for new learning. These are challenging tasks. Students will need educators willing to give them the latitude and guidance to start today.

Read more from Connected Educator Month. 


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Tony Frontier is a member of the ASCD Professional Learning Services Faculty and an assistant professor of leadership studies at Cardinal Stritch University. He is coauthor, with James Rickabaugh, of the recently published book, Five Levers to Improve Learning: How to Prioritize for Powerful Results in Your School (ASCD, 2014).



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