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Active learning...

is not just activities.

Hello and welcome to the 67th edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.

Our unboxED Early Learning Curriculum was launched in many schools at the beginning of the last academic year. This curriculum is NCF-aligned – it is textbook-free as well as inquiry- and exploration-based. The very first lesson plan of Upper Kindergarten (UKG) has the following EVS learning outcome: Students will be able to identify the parts of the body. Here is a snapshot from the lesson plan:

As teachers were preparing for the first few weeks of school at the end of their summer vacation, we received a text from one of the preschool heads. She sent the following picture and asked us if this was okay.

We were a bit confused. Students had not yet come to school. It was still the last week of summer, when students are still on vacation but teachers are planning. So, who made these models, and why? We asked the preschool head this. She explained that teachers were practising these so they could demonstrate to the students how to make these body parts models, and to also keep them in the classroom for students to copy from, during the activity.

Hmmm, we thought. This confusion was bound to come up, and we immediately planned to conduct a TPD session with all the preschool teachers on the difference between active learning and activities.

So, what was our concern in the above situation, and why was this TPD session needed?

Let’s talk about the specific example first. If teachers demonstrated and then asked students to copy the models to make their own models, that would be an activity. It would be hands-on, it would be fun, and it would somewhat align to the learning outcome. But, it would simply be an activity where students either follow a process (tough for UKG) or copy a ready model to create a replica. Would the learning outcome be met, though? Would students, by the end of the lesson, be able to genuinely identify the parts of the body? Most likely, no. They would have learnt how to copy, not how to identify the parts of the body.

The crux of active learning is independent, active thinking. This is what the lesson plan wanted the students to do. It wanted them to really think through how they can use the material to make all the parts of the body; it wanted them to go to the mirror and look at their own body parts if they were confused; and it wanted them to decide if they want to use clay for the arms or for the hair, and thread for the clothes or for something else. This is active learning. Students don’t just copy – they think, they get confused, they ask, they check, they figure it out.

But, can UKG students even engage in independent, active thinking? Here are some pictures from the activity at the same school, a week after our TPD session. When given the opportunity to think independently, one student gave her body parts model a bindi, and another gave it a buttoned shirt (no pants!) and clay fingers!

This is active learning in its essence.

Let’s look at another example. We recently conducted this poll with over 600 teachers. We would like you to think about the option you would choose too. Hint: Look for the option in which students are actively thinking!

Approximately 39% of the respondents voted for Option 1, 50% for Option 2, and 11% for Option 3. Which option did you vote for?

At first look, Option 2 does seem like active learning. Students are, after all, working with their hands in a Social Science subject. However, just like the UKG example above, they are simply copying a model and creating a replica. If students had to research the parts of a pyramid, the functions of the different parts and their structure, and then use that knowledge to build their own pyramid models from scratch, that would be active learning, because students are actively and independently thinking through the requirements and steps of the process.

Option 1 is a very common “activity” done across classrooms in India. Smartboards and multimedia screens are popular, because videos create the illusion of active learning. But in fact, watching videos is probably even more passive than creating replicas. Thousands of us unwind after a long day by scrolling through reels or watching sitcoms or soap operas online. Watching videos is such a passive activity that it actually helps our brains relax! But learning is not supposed to be passive – learning is the formation of memories and connections in our brains, and this takes energy.

The correct option is Option 3. Are students doing anything hands on? No. But are students thinking actively? Yes. Folktales are oral tales passed down over generations, and discussing their effect on modern society takes activation of prior knowledge, active listening and critical thinking. This is active thinking, and hence active learning.

We would love to hear of more examples of active learning from our vast community of educators. Please write to us at with your examples, and we’ll feature them in upcoming editions. You can also access, the digital planning tool by Things Education, where you’ll find over 50,000 active learning strategies across all subjects from Pre-K to Grade 10.


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Edition: 3.15

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