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Michael Absolum: Growing active learners

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Michael Absolum outlines some strategies for helping your students become active learners.

Professional learning conversations

Michael suggests that we should work together with our classes to develop a shared language of learning to learn.

  • What is your understanding of learning to learn?
  • What is the understanding of the students in your class?
  • What are the similarities and differences and what does this mean for learning?

To help students to truly understand the language of learning to learn in your class you could work together to develop what learning to learn looks like, sounds like, and feels like.

Michael mentions that appraisal processes provide opportunities for teachers to explore the learning to learn principle for themselves as learners.

  • How might your school's appraisal system lend itself to developing teachers' learning capacity?
  • What challenges might you face?
  • What changes might need to be made to your existing appraisal system?
  • What can you see as the advantages for making these changes?


I think it’s quite hard to teach students to learn to learn, if we haven’t first learnt to learn ourselves. And if we first don’t have some tangible evidence that we really do know about that. An appraisal system ought to give us some evidence about the extent to which we can encourage our students to shift to their perspective, and to the extent to which we look for feedback from them.

In a sense that’s straightforward because it should be like teaching students anything else that’s of value. That you want them to learn and you convince them that it is relevant and important for them to learn. So we shouldn’t try to make it too complicated. And once we do understand what it means, what it is, and how to be an active learner, then the first step in that is to share our understanding with the students. And to explain to them why we think that’s relevant and important for them to learn so that we develop a shared understanding with them about what it is that we want them to learn about learning.

And the next step is co-constructing how you might go about doing that. Genuinely inviting their input into:

  • what would have to be different about the classroom
  • what would have to be different how you are as a teacher
  • what would that look like
  • what would it sound like
  • what would be different about them if they were coming to be students who knew how to learn?

Spending quite some time talking that through, writing that down, discussing it, getting strong agreement is a hugely important step because that clarifies what it is that you’re having to learn and gives them a sense of the success criteria that they can use to guide their own learning.

Then I think the next step is to set up the progressions that you expect to see and you expect to help them with and help each other with. So you want to build into the daily expectations, the daily routines of the classroom, opportunity to provide feedback to each other about how that learning is going. The extent to which students are becoming active participants. The extent to which they do ask you and their peers questions about their learning. About the extent to which they independently seek out information. Seek out clarification rather than be waiting to be told. Waiting to simply put your thumbs up, sideways or down to indicate whether they understand or not. You want to see them much more active than that. 

So, the important question. Is it all worth it? Well for me personally the proof of that is easily found in classrooms where students are active learners. I was in a stunning learning environment last week: variable space, open plan, large number of students, about five classrooms within this one space. Every single student - as I was very careful to check - every single student was actively involved in their learning. As I walked around that space and talked to the students it was hugely impressive the extent to which they were able to tell me what they were learning, where they were in their learning progressions, where they were going next, why they were learning that, and the relationship that they had with their teachers and their peers and the extent to which they saw it as a collaborative co constructive environment. I have no doubt that those students were learning in a very powerful way. 

So you might ask, how would you know, as a teacher, if you were getting closer to helping your students to be active learners. So here’s one way that you might try. You might start by asking your students ‘How could I, as your teacher, have helped you more over this lesson?’ 

The sign that they’re becoming active learners will be where they very seriously consider that question and are able to formulate thoughtful answers that you genuinely are interested to hear and believe that you can action in the next lesson.

Published on: 08 Aug 2012