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Learning is not a spectator sport
‘Learning is not a spectator sport’ Many of you will be familiar with the words of Arthur W. Chickering and Stephen C Ehrmann (1996) but you may not have had the chance to read anything further. Here is what they said to expand on that statement: ‘Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not […]

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December 16, 2017

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‘Learning is not a spectator sport’

'Learning is not a spectator sport'

Many of you will be familiar with the words of Arthur W. Chickering and Stephen C Ehrmann (1996) but you may not have had the chance to read anything further. Here is what they said to expand on that statement:

‘Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.’

While Chickering and Ehrmann were referring to higher education contexts, I doubt many of us who teach children and teenagers would disagree that the same holds true for all learners. There is probably a strong argument for saying that it is even more the case for younger learners, who need constant changes of activity and interaction to keep them engaged and motivated to succeed. Furthermore, we need them to make connections between current contexts and their (limited) past experiences, and to talk and write about them as much as possible.

‘Active learning’, the term we commonly use to encompass Chickering and Ehrmann’s words, is, however, not a new idea. Sophocles (c. 5th century BCE), the Ancient Greek writer of tragic plays, said: ‘One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try’. The words ‘learn by doing’ and ‘try’ are fundamental to the active learning philosophy, and there is plenty of research to show just how important they are.

You will also of course be very familiar with the Chinese proverb: ‘Tell me, I’ll forget; Show me, I’ll remember; Involve me, I’ll understand.’ Breaking this down, we know that listening is not one of the stronger human senses – there are too many possibilities for interference during the listening process; on the other hand, seeing is one of the strongest human senses (a picture is worth a thousand words). Recent marketing research tells us that: ‘When people hear information, they’re likely to remember only 10% of that information three days later. However, if a relevant image is paired with that same information, people retain 65% of the information three days later’ [].

If we add involvement, in other words using as many as possible of all the human senses (touching, feeling, hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling), and reflection on what has been done, understanding is more likely to occur. As a result, we can also help others to learn.

Putting this information into a graphic reinforces the message, and there are many variations of the ‘learning pyramid’ (please see Learning pyramid image), which shows average student retention rates as a result of various teaching/learning strategies. And while we must be wary of colourful graphics containing statistics about learning, the underlying truth is that most learners do retain more by being actively involved in the learning process. Of course, there are learners who may learn effectively through less ‘doing’, but for the majority of learners, ‘learn by doing’ (ie, ‘Practice doing’ and ‘Teach others’ in the Learning Pyramid) holds true.

Jerome Bruner, the American cognitive psychologist and educator, said that ‘the first objective of any act of learning … is that it should serve us in the future’ and that ‘learning should not only take us somewhere, it should allow us later to go further more easily.’ So while we need to encourage more active learning instructional strategies (and more about those later) in the classroom, we must ensure that what learners are actually doing is going to be of use to them. Just having learners doing things in the classroom is not enough; what they are doing must serve a future purpose.

Bonwell and Eison (1991) point out that: ‘Active learning instructional strategies involve students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing’, and therein is the underscoring of the importance of reflection, of experiential learning. Active learning is, fundamentally, any activity which involves all students in thinking, creating or solving a problem [].

Here are some instructional strategies to encourage active learning classroom reflection:

  •  learners take the lead in the classroom, with each other and even with you the teacher, involving the use of multiple skills and senses, and helping to build learners’ confidence;
  •  pausing and summarising;
  •  guided reading;
  •  solving puzzles and mysteries;
  •  entry/exit tickets;
  •  mnemonics;
  •  peer teaching;
  •  creating a visual representation.

By turning these strategies into actual tasks, we can engage our learners in a wide range of multisensory activities which will necessitate students in involvement and understanding, and, hopefully, build their confidence to the point where they can teach others.


Chickering, Arthur W. and Ehrmann Stephen C. (1996), “Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever,” AAHE Bulletin, October, pp. 3-6