In 2005, I made a video called "1990" about how surprisingly little high schools had changed in the years since I graduated. In spite of everything I had come to know about the importance of active, student-centered learning using modern tools, in most high schools I visited, students were still, 15 years later, sitting at desks in rows and listening to their teachers, who were standing at the front of the room, the dry erase boards behind them a jarring compilation of messy, hand-written notes.
But humans weren't designed to learn by sitting and listening for long periods of time. We are social creatures (even the most introverted of us) who need to move around and bounce ideas off one another in order to cement new concepts. Students, in other words, need to talk about their learning. Often. (For more on this concept, I highly recommend Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Chai Woodham’s article on how we are sitting ourselves to death.)
When I work with teachers and school leaders on Classroom Instruction That Works and Power Walkthrough, they commonly ask, "Where should we start?" Many people are surprised when I tell them they should pay attention to how students are grouped. How is instruction primarily accessed by students? Is it by listening to a teacher give a lesson, then working alone to practice what was learned? Is it by watching a video and completing exercises? Or is it working through problems and discussions with a small group of students? Or brainstorming with a partner? The answers to these questions can tell a school much about where their instruction is in terms of meeting the needs of learners.
Last year, I had the pleasure of working with an intermediate school in Texas that needed to achieve many challenging goals in order to avoid having to take more drastic measures. The school worked hard—my work with them was just one of many initiatives implemented that year—and it truly paid off. By the end of the year, the school had met every one of their objectives.
Out of curiosity, I looked at this school's walkthrough data and compared it to "typical" walkthrough data. One thing that jumped out was their grouping data. Most schools have ~50-75% whole-class instruction followed by ~20% individual work, but this school had much higher rates of pairs and informal small group work—and it was higher than the rates of other schools in their district.
What do you do to make learning more engaging, active, and student-centered? Do you gather data on how often students sit through whole-class instruction, work individually, or work with others? You may be surprised by the results.
Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is a principal consultant in the Center for Educator Effectiveness, and co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. She can be reached at email@example.com.