Active learning as an ethical issue

Robert Talbert
Oct 25, 2015 · 5 min read

Note: This article was originally published on my blog on October 5, 2015.

This weekend I got to work with about 75 college and high school math teachers at the Kansas City Regional Mathematics Technology Expo. Giving the keynote to this group, I stressed that we are living in a golden age of teaching and learning, for many reasons — technology being one of those reasons, but also because we know so much more about how students learn about about effective teaching practices now than we did just a few years ago. For the last several years, the scholarship of teaching and learning has produced study after study, and the results from these studies are unambiguous: Active learning environments for students in university STEM classes improve almost every conceivable aspect of student learning above and beyond traditional lecture pedagogies, and it’s not really close.

The recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study stands out among these recent studies. It is a meta-study of 225 prior studies on active learning, and the results are bracing: students in these studies who were in classes focused on lecture and direct instruction in the classroom were 55% more likely to fail their courses than their counterparts in active learning focused classes, and scored almost half a standard deviation lower than their active learning counterparts on exams.

This sentence from the PNAS study stopped me in my tracks when I first read it:

If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit — meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.

Let’s run with this for a minute. Thinking of active learning as a treatment — like a drug that treats a specific illness or otherwise makes people healthier than they otherwise are — if it is so effective that the tests are “stopped for benefit”, it means: This drug is so obviously beneficial to the people who need it that we need to get it out there as soon and as broadly as possible. It would be unethical to withhold it.

But people do withhold this “treatment” every day. Why is that? Why would a teacher or professor not use active learning when it’s so clearly beneficial to students? I personally have heard every reason in the book, I think, and if I were to categorize the reasons I’ve heard from teachers and profs not to use active learning in the class, there would be four big categories:

  1. Self-preservation. For example, profs who avoid active learning because they work in research universities where tenure is based on research and grants, and any effort put into teaching is considered a waste of time. Or, profs who are not in R-1 universities but who are afraid of using active learning because they are afraid of getting bad evaluations.
  2. Laziness. For example, profs who claim that they don’t have the time to do anything with active learning. Another form of laziness is the obsession with blaming and labeling other people, especially students, as in My students won’t prepare for class so why should I flip my classroom or My students aren’t smart enough to do IBL.
  3. A weird and irrational superiority complex. For example, the man on the moon argument which states that since we were able to land a man on the moon without active learning, and haven’t landed a man on the moon since active learning became a thing, active learning must be inferior to traditional lecturing. This is closely related to the argument of “I learned just fine without active learning, so active learning must not be necessary”. All this is merely survivor bias with a strong dose of nostalgia.
  4. Legitimate external forces. There are some cases where teachers really want to do active learning and are prevented from doing so by overly controlling school structures. I went to a talk this weekend, for example, by a high school teacher who started flipping his Algebra 2 classes after he got permission to do so from his principal. I would almost put the professors from R-1 universities in this group except I think what I often hear from that group is more self-preservation than true helplessness. They could do active learning if they really wanted to.

Item #4 gets legitimate sympathy from me (along with a warning not to lapse into defeatism which is a form of Laziness). For the other three, what is really maddening about those categories of excuses is that in higher ed they are often allowed because of the idea of academic freedom, which is interpreted to mean the way that I teach is my own business and nobody else’s. I have heard this countless times. And look: I am in no position to tell anybody how to teach their classes. I am not an administrator or anybody’s boss. I am not even a tenured professor! So sure, it’s none of my business.

But it is the business of students, who are coming to class with a need to learn, a need to be educated and to be made ready to live productive lives and contribute to society. They are in need of the best “treatment” possible — and we know now what that looks like. We have the means to help students. Can we choose to withhold it, because it’s nobody’s business how we teach but our own?

So I am convinced that, knowing what we know now about teaching and learning, that the use of active learning in the classroom is an ethical issue and not an academic freedom issue.

What this means is, if you are teaching at all, then a primary criterion for whether or not you are retained should be excellence in teaching, and this includes whether or not you are using the best pedagogical strategies available to design your classes. Giving a good lecture occasionally — with the right setup, a judicious choice of context, and a light touch — is fine, and can be effective in helping students learn. But giving good lectures all the time is not one of those strategies. We know this now. You are expected to know this too. If you have the “treatment” that can help students and choose to withhold it, you will be in violation of professional ethics and there will be consequences.

On the other hand if you are legitimately working on becoming a better teacher by incorporating better pedagogical strategies into your classroom, you’ll be forgiven false starts and occasional honest failures, as long as you are committed to understanding your failures and moving forward. After all, not even the best doctors get it right all the time. But certainly a medical professional would be in violation of his oath if he withheld medicine from sick people because of a claim that nobody has the right to tell him how to run his practice.

What kind of transformation might take place in education if we consistently thought of the ethics of our pedagogy as being more important than the pragmatics of our careers?

Originally published at

Robert Talbert

Written by

Mathematics professor who studies, speaks, and writes about teaching, learning, technology, and higher education. Also a Dad, Catholic convert + decent cook.

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