Active learning

The word education originates from the Latin word, educere which means to bring out. For centuries, educators have noted the importance of tapping into existing knowledge and wisdom of a learner and work on deepening them. The question that teachers often ask is, “are there concrete ways to make this possible?”

About five years ago, I watched a DVD that completely changed my attitude toward teaching. It is an award-winning video, A Private Universe, Minds of Our Own produced by Harvard-Smithsonian, Center for Astrophysics. The documentary emphasizes the importance of starting from what students already know before teaching them what they need to know. According to several case studies presented in the documentary, students who do not connect past and present knowledge tend to under-perform. Teaching a concept over and over again is not necessary if existing knowledge is put in the context of new knowledge.


The KWL teaching strategy (K represents “What students already know?” W represents “What students want to know?” and L represents “What students have learned?”)  effectively addresses the need to bridge the gaps between what students already know, what they want to know, and what they have to learn. This method was popularized by Donna M. Ogle in 1980’s as a strategy to encourage active reading of expository text. The strategy has increased in value and diversified in application over time. Today, the strategy is used by teachers to encourage active learning and extension of new concepts.

The application of KWL strategy allows students to personalize knowledge and become accountable for their own learning. The teacher becomes a facilitator who designs a learning environment where feedback, in the form of factual statements and questions is generated and channeled in the direction of building meaningful new knowledge. It encourages both teachers and students to become critical about existing and new information. More importantly, it provides a sense of purpose to the whole process of teaching and learning.


Let’s take for example a lesson on The Eiffel Tower. The teacher starts off by announcing that students are going to learn a new topic and they are responsible for the same. She indicates that she is going to help guide them through the process. She then divides the whiteboard into three columns. On top of the first column, she writes, K (What you already know?), second column, W (What you want to know?), and third column, L (What did you learn?). Prior to this, the teacher has either prepared a handout containing sufficient information about the topic, or decided on the page in the textbook where information about the topic is found.

The class continues with the teacher asking students what they already know about The Eiffel Tower. She list down each statement shared by students on the whiteboard. At this time, the teacher must emphasize that accuracy of information is not a priority. Misconceptions could be detected and corrected later. After generating sufficient statements from students and filling up the first column, the teacher can then ask students to share questions that they may have to further their knowledge and understanding of the topic. Emphasis must be placed on encouraging students to ask good questions. These questions will be written on the second column. Every student should be involved in the process.

Once the two columns are filled up, students are asked to read the handout. This purposeful reading will allow students to verify information in the first column, answer questions in the second column, and gather additional information about the topic. Motivation for reading is high as it is highly directed and focused. At the end, the teacher and students work on filling up the third column and gauge the overall learning experience.

To view an example of actual lesson using KWL, click KWL lesson

2 thoughts on “Active learning”

  1. I tried this many times in my classroom, and I admit this does work most of the time. However, later I found that students get bored of the method; they started to not responding and distracting the class, for I have been using it pretty often. Question I want to ask is, is there any other teaching/learning strategies that I can use besides this, that can bring students’ creativeness out and make the lesson more interesting, knowing the fact that I have an ADHD kid in the class? I realize I’ve got to be more creative with the teaching strategies. thanks ahead for the advice.

    1. you could use Concept Attainment, Concept Formation, Highly Effective Questioning, Jig Saw, role play, advance organizers, Guided Inquiry, etc. Additionally, you could check a book I wrote on Engaging Teaching Methods – contains 20 plus teaching strategies… the key is not to overuse any one method… and what I often do is mix methods to come up with high breed strategies that are completely new and unexpected. Wish you the best.

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