On a Thursday afternoon in February, I watched my students at the whiteboard. Gaby was drawing a series of cartoons and a list of the kinds of animals that had been sent into space by different countries across the decades. She didn’t look at her notes: She drew from memory. Next to her, Olan was drawing images and words about the major groupings of physiological questions researchers had been trying to answer, including the effects of microgravity on heart and lungs, and the intensity of the stresses of launch.
With my co-instructor professor Evgenya Shkolnik, I teach a class called “Inquiry,” where the subject matter changes every semester, but what’s really being taught is ways of independent learning and problem-solving. Evgenya and I use a technique called “open inquiry,” and for most of our students, it’s different from anything they have ever experienced in school.
The course is designed to build an answer to a big question, and we choose a different one each semester. This time it was, “How can we maximize sustainability in space travel and habitation?” On the first day, I always ask the students why the content and processes we learn in high school and college seem unaligned with what really happens in work and life. This class is different, I tell them: We will only practice skills that we need for work and life. That means almost no lecturing, and instead of me bringing information to the students, they decide what questions they want to pursue—and then they collaborate on that research.
Giving the student control over the direction of learning and responsibility for finding answers and content can be frightening at first, but these are exactly the most important skills to allow a student to become a lifelong learner, a problem-solver, and an informed citizen.
Early in the semester, Gaby had told me she didn’t know why she was in the class, that she felt lost, that she didn’t know what to do. But soon she was practicing asking her own research questions, finding and judging her own content, and summarizing what she’d learned—and now she was standing up and sharing her work with her classmates with confidence.
Two weeks later, you know what happened: COVID-19 spread across the world, the university closed, and suddenly our inquiry class had to go entirely online.
Our very interactive way of teaching might seem to be the hardest to adapt to online learning. Lectures, it seems, are ideal for online—just move the audience from the lecture hall to behind their screens. But, in fact, it’s quite the opposite: Online teaching should be active and interactive. That’s what works best online, and it’s what works best overall.
When our class went online, Evgenya and I took some deep breaths. We started thinking through the process of our class and realized that almost every part of it could be kept the same. The big difference was meeting via Zoom instead of in person and having to trade our giant beautiful whiteboards for software replacements for sharing information.
Counterintuitively, passive learning like lectures is harder to adapt to remote teaching. Lecturing becomes even more passive online, so the lectures need to be much shorter to be effective. Recording lectures, if you go that way, takes intense practice and long hours. Even reading to oneself is passive unless combined with reporting out to a working group, debating, or building a concept map.
The problem isn’t just online. Passive learning, which is the norm in almost all classrooms at all levels, is an ineffective way to teach. In passive learning, students may listen to lectures, read to themselves, or watch videos, but they are missing involvement of, for example, drawing concept maps, asking questions, or debating with or explaining to others. Researchers have known about passive learning’s shortcomings for a long time. Unfortunately, the world’s teachers and professors come mainly from the small group of people for whom the traditional passive learning education worked. Because we generally enjoyed and benefited from this system, teachers and professors may not perceive any shortcomings in this mode of teaching, and further, may not have any examples of other ways to teach.
Passive learning isn’t only less effective, but it also makes passivity habitual beyond the classroom; it trains the agency and initiative right out of our students. They come to school in kindergarten curious and active and full of questions, and if we “succeed,” by the end of high school, they end up perfect passive listeners, judging their success from their test scores. We have caused them to have “learned helplessness,” a psychological phenomenon in which repeated inability to escape from a given structure convinces the person to stop trying. We have succeeded in removing the agency from our people.
Furthermore, passive learning is anti-equity: Its one-size-fits-all approach assumes that all students will get the same things from the same lecture, but that means that only some students actually learn. Especially for children coming from poverty, we need to give agency, not take it away. Growing up with relatively less socioeconomic privilege can itself limit a person’s future, and then training them to be passive in school only removes more agency. For the future of our nation and our world, we need to train people to be better and better problem-solvers, to recognize unsolved challenges, and to know that they themselves can take on those challenges.
And here’s the best part: Active learning, where students work individually or in groups to tackle problems and ideas, works beautifully online. It can move smoothly from in person to online and back, making it flexible to our times, and less work for the teacher. We can break into small working groups online, or have class discussions, or presentations, much more easily and effectively than we can deliver online lectures.
When our class moved online, we transitioned to a setup where students did their own research outside of class, and once a week, we met over Zoom to share all we had learned, to discuss and improve the questions we would pursue in the coming week, and to improve our collaborative working group process.
The adaptation process for our inquiry class was fairly seamless, though we discussed process each week. (Improving the course process is one part of the metacognition we build in to every step, so that our students become independent master learners.) At the end of the semester, Gaby had become a confident participant and experienced researcher, almost all the students said this was their favorite course of the year, and several said it was the best course they had ever had. This for a class that transitioned from in person to online halfway through the semester.
There are many ways to implement inquiry and active learning in the classroom and online, and our country is filled with dedicated, determined teachers who want the best for our kids. If you are a parent, start by reading this article about school openings, and find out what your school’s plans are. Then, work with your teachers and your school administrators to encourage them to teach in active ways that work online and in person.
Why would we strive to return to an ineffective, even damaging status quo, when we have this singular opportunity to improve? We can do better than recorded lectures and reading predigested material from textbooks. We can offer active, inquiry-based learning online and in person, we can become resilient educators in this time of pandemic, and best of all, we can give every student the agency to make change in their world.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.