Active Learning Has an Ancient History

Medieval Baker with Apprentice

One often hears of active learning as a new approach. In contrast, lecturing is the traditional method. Those who support active learning consider it an innovation. Those who do not consider it “another in a long line of educational fads,” as Michael Prince notes. The sequence and chronology remain undisputed either way. Lecturing came first. It has always been with us. Active learning came later. It has been on the scene for a relatively short time.

Even one as well informed as Wilbert McKeachie calls lecturing “probably the oldest teaching method.” Similarly, while Marilyn Page declares active learning “not a new concept,” she goes on to date it only as far back as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Dewey. Time and again in her dissertation on the history of active learning, she explicitly describes it in terms of a “rejection of traditional teaching methods.” 

I think these common ways of talking about active learning and lecturing constitute a historical and rhetorical misstep. That is, saying that lecturing precedes active learning is not accurate and does not frame the discussion productively.

If we are talking about the two as philosophies and movements, it seems accurate to date active learning to the past two centuries and decades, respectively. Does that mean that it came after lecturing? Not necessarily. It is not entirely clear whether lecturing developed into either a philosophy or a movement until after and in reaction to the active learning movement. For that matter, it is not even clear whether it has even done so yet. We do not hear much about “the lecturing movement” or “the philosophy of lecturing.”

Alternatively, if we are talking about practices and phenomena, we can pinpoint the origin of lecturing as we know it to the European Middle Ages. But active learning reaches back much farther. Active learning as a phenomenon wherein learners “do meaningful activities and think about what they are doing” (Prince) reaches back as far as learning itself.

As long as we compare philosophies with philosophies, practices with practices, phenomena with phenomena—and not, say, a medieval practice with a modern philosophy as so many implicitly do—active learning emerges before lecturing. So let me propose the following as a way of talking about active learning and lecturing:

Active learning names an innate process through which humans come to know things, whether how to use fire, care for children, bake break, do algebra, scan for iambic pentameter, or list the principal events of the French Revolution. Lecturing names an invention of medieval universities, originally used for duplicating textbooks (before printing presses) and later adapted for other purposes.

It makes sense that those who see active learning principally in terms of a series of specific practices that have received attention lately might consider it a recent happening, and possibly a fad. Barbara J. Millis offers “Thinking-Aloud Pair Problem Solving,” “Three-Step Interview,” “Think-Pair-Share,” “Visible Quiz,” “Value Line,” and “Send/Pass-a-Problem” as examples. I would add project-based learning, problem-based learning, place-based learning, team-based learning, service learning, the use of “clickers,” and the “flipped” classroom.  These certainly do not predate lecturing.

I argue, however, for a view where active learning refers not merely to specific practices like these but rather to a larger phenomenon and a broader practice, that is, the phenomenon of learning through doing-and-reflecting and the practice of supporting the same. This view puts active learning before lecturing not just chronologically but also taxonomically, as it were, a prior happening and a prior sort of happening.

While specific ways of implementing active learning (as much as lecturing) originate in cultural history, the phenomenon itself originates in natural history. To find its roots we have to look to human psychology and biology. We can also trace active learning as far back as anthropology and archaeology allow. With the learning of hunting, farming, crafting, building. Of medicine, theology, law. Of child-raising, leading, orating. With parents teaching children. Shamans, initiates. Craftspersons, apprentices. All of this takes place actively.

In the broadest sense, active learning even includes learning that happens during lecturing. If students perchance to learn something during a lecture, it is because they actively participate in listening, considering, and remembering what they hear. Of course, that internal doing and reflecting happens to be quite the long shot when one sits students in rows and talks at them for hours, repeatedly, for years. Nonetheless, when learning happens under such conditions, it too is active learning. 

Even if active learning has only recently been given that name, it has been practiced with intentionality as long as teaching and learning have been practiced with intentionality, even before the use of fire, one imagines. While the contemporary pedagogies of active learning may offer new insights and practices, they represent, at root, renewed attention to the oldest and deepest ways of teaching and learning.

Why does it matter to recognize that active learning has an ancient history and that lecturing only has a medieval history? For one, it’s a matter of accuracy. For another, it’s a matter of framing. New ways of teaching may just be fads and, as fads, merely options, inadvisable ones at that. Traditional methods are tried and true. They have the weight and dignity of precedence and history. Even those who do not feel bound to tradition will still often go with tradition when the only other options are fads. 

It seems that the failure of active learning practices to gain wider purchase in contemporary education, despite the current active learning movements, can be attributed in part to the common misunderstanding that lecturing is the traditional approach, not active learning . But, when we take an epochal perspective, it turns out that active learning has an ancient history, while lecturing is the fad, a blip in the history of learning.

Of course, some aspects of active learning as a philosophy, movement, and set of specific practices are recent developments. We should acknowledge and celebrate those as such, while also remaining aware and on occasion wary with respect to whether or not they have yet been sufficiently established, pragmatically, theoretically, or empirically. Just as we should do with all living and developing practices.

But we should not surrender to lecturing the weight of tradition and the dignity of longevity. Lecturing as we know it has been around for mere centuries. These distinctions belong to the much older practice of learning by “doing and reflecting.”

Image of Medieval Baker with Apprentice in the public domain

12 responses to “Active Learning Has an Ancient History

  1. Thank you for sharing! Education has a deep rooted history and we need to keep that in mind while teaching because it affects our teaching and learning styles.

    • Indeed, without thinking about the history of something that’s been around as long as we can remember, we can often end up taking it as natural or just the way things are.

  2. Thank you! I really appreciate the perspective here. Active learning is certainly not a fad. As mentioned, we may have a term for it now but it has always been one of the best ways to accomplish true long lasting learning. Active leaning makes concepts real to us.

  3. I think you have articulated a very important corrective regarding the history of active learning vis-a-vis lecturing. I especially appreciate the way you differentiated between the philosophy and practice of these teaching methods. I agree with the comment above by Daniel R. that active learning is certainly not a fad, as you have helpfully proven in this post.

    • Thanks for this comment, Robby. I took think that the philosophy/practice distinction helps us think about these issues more. We might take it further and think about how all practices embed a sort of philosophy, even if often unconsciously and even if sometimes in contradiction to our espoused philosophy, “espoused theory vs. theory-in-use” and all that.

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  7. I think learning is an active process from the time of birth. It is the natural way of learning. It is the experiancial learning. Once we start schooling the passive method is introduced because of he system of assessment, we learn to fullfil the needs of assessments.

    I feel earliest active learning was introduced by societies. Teaching of load Buddha is also full of stories and asking provocating questions and posing practical tasks to learners.

    Therefore I believe active learning is the natural way and is has the oldest roots, but passive learning has emerged because of assessment.

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