Active Learning and Metacognition with ELLs
As I mentioned in previous posts, I am currently working on my new book “How Leonardo Da Vinci and Chicharrón Made Me a Better Teacher”. In that book, I share how I found inspiration in the work of Leonardo da Vinci as an artist and a scientist to help me facilitate learning during my first year as a bilingual teacher. Among many other things, Leonardos’s life and work reminded me about the importance of learning by doing.
Leonardo da Vinci considered himself a ‘disciple of the experience.’ His method for learning was rooted in his constant observation, exploration, and experimentation of the natural phenomena, which was fueled by a child-like curiosity and the ability to wonder about everything that surrounded him. For Leonardo, acquiring knowledge was an active systematic process of perception and making connections. He wrote: “All sciences are vain and full of errors which are not born of experience, the mother of all knowledge, first-hand experience which in its origins, or means, or end has passed through one of the five senses.” Leonardo’s idea of active learning was an additional element that he brought to my attention, which I implemented in my everyday instruction. Bonwell & Eison (1991) define active learning as “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” This is exactly what Leonardo did; he embarked himself on a perennial active learning process from his explorations of the arts as well as his experimentations of the sciences. That is how I approached the learning experiences I designed for my students. It was all about doing and creating things in the real world while actively engaging on a cognitive level. I define active learning as the process in which students take control of their own learning experiences while monitoring their mastery of skills in order to implement strategies that will help them construct new knowledge while improving their learning abilities (metacognition). The ultimate goal of this process is to transfer this newly acquired knowledge into new learning situations. Creating a perennial cycle of learning.
The first step to bring students into this cycle is making sure that they are engaged with the new ideas presented and the possibilities they offer. Early in my career as an educator, I understood the importance of making sure my students were actively engaged in the material they were studying, but it was when I started working with English language learners that realized how important it is to make sure the students are engaged not only with the content objectives of the subject at hand but also the language objectives and key vocabulary necessary to facilitate understanding and enable meaningful and lasting learning. Employing elements of culture and language was always a great way to activate prior knowledge. For me, the first and most crucial step in any lesson is: making sure I make it real and meaningful.
I was always trying to find the best strategies to engage my students with the new content while making sure that their individual needs as learners were met. Strategies for instruction such as group discussions, sketching, journal writing, role plays, problem-solving, and self-directed learning through research projects were just a few ways to use active learning and metacognition.
Active learning and metacognition are two fundamental elements that we need to take into consideration when designing learning experiences for our students. John Dewey, the American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer, recognized the importance of experiential learning and metacognitive reflection in the classroom. Dewey said, “The Teacher and the book are no longer the only instructors; the hands, the eyes, the ears, in fact, the whole body, become sources of information, while teacher and textbook become respectively the starter and the tester. No book or map is a substitute for personal experience; they cannot take the place of the actual journey.” The same principle applies to learning a new language and developing academic vocabulary. There is nothing like actually having to use a new language. For that reason, active learning in my classroom was hand in hand with collaborative learning and the ideas proposed by multiple researchers of second language acquisition that confirm how the development of language proficiency is promoted by face-to-face interaction and communication. Therefore, the first forms of active learning I always used were collaboration and classroom discussions. Talking, listening, as well as reading and writing with a purpose in a group, was fundamental. The purpose of a lesson was usually represented on a final goal or project.
When students talked about a topic, whether while discussing an idea and trying to make a point to a peer in a small group, they were required to organize, use and reinforce what they had learned or their prior knowledge. Listening with a purpose and relating what they hear to what they already know was always a great help to make learning meaningful and cognitively active. Active learning exercises with reading and writing, such as summarizing and note-taking, help learners in processing what they’ve read or listened and also help them develop the ability to focus on what truly matters and main ideas. Visual note-taking and sketching, along with the proper labeling and use of key academic words, is an extremely powerful way to develop a new language. Additionally, creating opportunities where students have the time to pause for thought, share ideas and use their new knowledge and visual notes to teach each other is a great way of opening a space for constant reflection. This will allow students to connect what they have just learned with what they already know and think of how it relates to other subject areas and how it could be applied in real life situations.
Finally, I would like to point out that too often we get caught in the trap of completing every single activity offered by the curriculum we are following, without allowing the time for reflection. John Dewey reminds us about this crucial step for learning when he said, “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.” I always saved some time at the end of the day to ask and answer questions on the day’s topics to help the students with comprehension and to clarify misconceptions.
ELLs require that extra time to internalize and connect the new knowledge with the new vocabulary. Providing students with opportunities to actually use that new knowledge and vocabulary in new and different contexts is key to lasting meaningful learning. Learning that goes beyond just understanding and remembering—as I’m sure you remember, these are just the first two steps of Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid. But the real lasting learning takes place when we help our students reach the top of that pyramid: constructionism. I will be covering constructionism in my next post.
If you want to learn more about the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci, I would like to recommend the following books:
–The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance by Fritjof Capra
– Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
– How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day by Michael J. Gelb
Thank you for reading!