One of the biggest buzzwords in education right now is “engagement.” When you think of the traditional classroom setting, a group of engaged and alert pupils might not come to mind. You might imagine desks arranged in rows facing the chalkboard. The students might take notes while the teacher lectures, but other than the teacher’s voice, the most striking aspect of the traditional classroom is its silence.
Even if you have only ever taught one class in a real classroom, you know that the classroom described above is a fantasy. When students are forced to sit and take notes, the tactic imposed by newbie teachers, those teachers often find that their pristine fantasy is quickly broken by the unruly bunch of human beings in front of them who are just doing what humans are programmed to do: interact with each other.
Interactive learning is a pedagogical technique that engages students by having them actively participate with peers in lessons.
What Is Interactive Learning?
Although interactive learning sounds like something that might require advanced technology, it’s actually a pedagogical technique with a fairly simple definition. The interactive approach to any given lesson plan encourages students to interact with each other and with the subject matter. Rather than sitting at their desks like passive sponges ready to absorb the material, with the interactive approach, students are part of the lesson. Interactive education involves a variety of techniques that range from lessons that require conversational skills to extensive project-based learning units that can cover an entire grading period.
While traditional classrooms rely on the myth of the permanently engaged perfect student, smart teachers who implement interactive learning harness the kind of interpersonal interaction that we social animals do best. One of the biggest benefits of interactive education is that it’s easy. Most students want to interact with each other on some level, and telling them to be quiet and pay attention will force them to go against their natural desires. However, by using lesson plans that encourage talk and teamwork, smart teachers can make learning fun while letting students interact with the material in a variety of different learning styles.
Is Interactive Education Effective?
“Am I ever going to use this in real life?” As a teacher, you probably recognize that phrase. It’s usually pronounced with a whine, with the students complaining that they don’t believe that your lesson has any real-world applications.
You won’t hear that sentence often when you’re teaching with interactive techniques. One of the main purposes of interactive teaching, like project-based learning, is to move textbook problems from the realm of the theoretical into the realm of the real. With project-based learning, students learn how to solve problems that they might encounter in real life. In a biology class, they might have to solve the mystery that involves diagnosing deadly disease. In English, students could organize a mock trial, attempting to exonerate a murderous character using argumentation, rhetoric and research techniques. The most effective projects mimic an aspect of real life, not only engaging the students’ interest with the importance of the task but also helping them hone their critical thinking skills in situations that may be reflected in their adult lives someday.
Interactive, project-based learning encourages curiosity and depth of thought. Students are also more likely to take ownership of their learning because they feel like what they’re doing matters, and they have the chance to be creative on the path toward solving a problem.
Even in shorter lessons that only involve minimal interactions, such as think-pair-share conversations and multiple-choice games, students sharpen soft skills like the ability to explain a concept to another person, which will be vital in a variety of future careers.
What Is Interactive Technology in Classrooms?
Interactive technology is any technology that helps students interact with each other and with the material. One common example is the use of electronic remotes to answer questions on a projector. Another common piece of interactive classroom technology is a SMART Board, which is a large touchscreen that can replace both a teacher's projector and chalkboard.
Interactive Lessons Help Teachers Too
Although it seems like building an interactive lesson or larger project-based unit requires a significant amount of planning and even more grading, interactive lessons and projects have many benefits for teachers as well as students.
For one, interactive lessons take the stress off the teacher. When it’s your responsibility to stand at the front of the classroom and lecture, all of the stress is on you. Student attention usually strays, and the effectiveness of the lecture often relies too much on your stage presence or personal charisma. During an interactive lesson, you’re no longer in the spotlight. Instead, student learning takes center stage. There is an adage for teaching: Whoever does the work does the learning. Sitting and writing notes is less work than standing and engaging an audience. If you want your students to learn and actually retain the lessons, they are the ones who need to be doing the work.
In addition to being less stress for you as a teacher, interactive learning reduces behavioral problems for various reasons. Students who are engaged in the learning process are less likely to goof off. Because they are already interacting with their peers, students who usually have behavioral problems are more likely to ask for help. Small-scale or tutoring can result, and both the student having difficulties and the student helping will learn more in the long run. Also, when students' grades are based on group performance, they are more likely to help each other learn.
A word of caution: Sometimes in poorly designed group projects, one student ends up doing all of the work. It is your job as a teacher to prevent this from happening. You have a few options. One is to assign clearly defined roles for each group member. In that scenario, it will be easy for you to see who has done the work and who has not. Another technique you can implement is a peer-rating questionnaire that students can fill out after the project. However you plan to prevent unequal work, simply observing your students remains an invaluable technique for classroom and project management.
No matter which subject you teach, interactive techniques have the potential to enhance all of your lessons. That means the days of boring book work are over. It’s time to have some fun.
Interactive Lessons for English Language Arts
If your English classes consist of only reading and writing, you might not be helping your students reach their full potential. Interactive lessons in English can help reinforce concepts and make this subject with which many students struggle come alive.
Mock Trial: Choose a text that contains some controversy, like a character who does something wrong. A good example would be "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gatsby, though technically a bootlegger and a criminal, is the main character and the star of the show. He also does something selfless: He lies, saying he is the one who ran over Myrtle, but the culprit is actually Daisy. With your class, choose a character to put on trial for Myrtle’s murder. Even though the reader knows who did it, there is plenty of blame to go around. This can lead not only to a discussion of culpability, but it will also require your students to examine the text carefully, finding pieces of evidence for whom the reader can really blame for Myrtle’s death. If you do this lesson right, your students will come away from it understanding that people and their actions aren’t always as transparent as they seem. To encourage engagement, make this project a competition with two sides that argue against each other just like in a real court of law.
Interactive Lessons for Biology
Science Fair Projects: The sciences play especially well into project-based learning because the scientific method encourages inquiry. The deepest projects come from students’ own curiosity, so if your curriculum allows it, plan time for students to develop projects on their own. Science fair projects that have real-world applications are best. Students can test samples of local bodies of water, make small robots or create computer programs. Their options are only as limited as their imaginations.
Interactive Lessons for Math
Analyzing Your Hobby: Your students might not see it, but math is everywhere. To develop an analysis project, encourage them to see statistics where they might not expect. Ask students to find the data that is related to something they enjoy doing, like playing sports or reading novels. The object of this lesson is to find a correlation within the hobby and explain it using data analysis.
For example, a student who enjoys reading books might try to see if there is a correlation between a book’s length and its popularity. For this, she could find data on how many pages a book has and how many copies it sold in its first year. She should find data for more than 10 books and then input data on a scatter plot. From this, she could measure correlation, and she could also investigate the presence of outliers.
Students could conduct similar projects for a variety of hobbies. Another student might investigate professional basketball player height in comparison to their percentage of successful free throws.
Interactive Lessons for History
Investigating the Past: As a history teacher, you know that one of the most important aspects of history is being able to identify the validity of sources. Create a set of texts and artifacts including photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, diary entries and secondary and tertiary sources, and ask your students to use this set to tell the story of a true event. When you’re creating the set, if you would like to add an extra level of difficulty, include real sources that contradict each other. Such contradictions are normal in historical documents, but your students may be used to seeing only the clear, uncomplicated story of history.
This lesson will teach your students how to analyze sources and think critically to connect a series of ideas. It will also give them valuable experience with fact checking and research, two skills that are increasingly important for everyone living in the digital age.
Interactive Techniques for Any Subject
No matter what subject you’re teaching, a lesson can become more engaging when it incorporates conversation. One technique that you can use to encourage conversation is called “think-pair-share.” To use this method, ask your students a complex question and then give them time to turn to their partner and discuss possible answers. After each pair decides on what they want to say, you can either have students write down their answers, or you can go around the room calling on groups until everyone has shared.
Another way to encourage engagement is to allow for student input. Create a board space in your room where students can place sticky notes with questions. This will give shy students the opportunity to have their questions heard.
Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.