Natasha Young shares her ideas on active learning and participatory approaches in Higher Education informed by her work as an early years’ lecturer at UWTSD’s Childhood Youth and Education Institute. Natasha has significant experience working in the early years sector which informs her teaching and research interests in her current lecturing role. Her interests include children’s development, the significance of play in children’s learning, leadership in the early years sector and curriculum development.
The most effective pedagogy in higher education is a combination of approaches and techniques that will suit all learner styles. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact on learning through this time, finding innovative and engaging ways to teach and learn is more important now than ever to support student progression.
Traditional teaching methods such as lecturing have been used to impart knowledge, with learners adopting a passive approach to learning, often simply sitting and listening rather than interacting and participating. Whilst this can be an effective way to teach, recent research tells us that encouraging learners to take a more active and participatory role in their learning will not only improve knowledge and understanding, but also positively impact engagement, motivation and inclusion (Brame, 2019).
Contemporary teaching approaches involve this more active and participatory approach and here at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David we are committed to embracing and developing these approaches by using a range of active learning experiences, both in and out of the classroom. Therefore, learners can be supported to engage with learning by thinking, discussing, investigating, creating and applying.
The Early Years Education and Care Team at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David are passionate about empowering their students by providing a wide range of approaches to teaching and learning. Working with young children in the early years means providing active, hands-on opportunities and experiences that promote curiosity, independence, problem solving and many other skills. Therefore, what better way to support our Early Years students in understanding this concept than to provide those same, active and hands-on opportunities.
We use a variety of teaching approaches within the modules on our BA in Early Years Education and Care. Our ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Awe and Wonder’ modules are taught by making excellent use of the free resource that is the great outdoors. Taking learners out of the classroom and getting them into the outdoors to explore and discover the possibilities provides them with the opportunity to experience a more active style of learning.
As part of our ‘Leadership and Teamwork’ module we use practical activities such as the ‘Marshmallow challenge’ and ‘leadership races’ to support students to make links between the theories discussed in lectures and how they can be applied in practice.
As part of our ‘First 1000 Days’ module, where we teach the importance of stimulating and inviting experiences for children’s learning and development in the very early stages of a child’s life, we recently set up a circuit-training-style approach to exploring some of the sensory experiences that babies and young children can benefit from. By providing the students with opportunities to explore experiences such as baby massage, treasure baskets, edible sand, light box play, Oobleck and smelling jars, students were able to move around the stations and actively explore these experiences themselves.
This stimulated deep and meaningful discussions, students were able to evaluate and analyse the advantages and disadvantages of the learning interaction both from their own and most importantly from the child’s perspective, and, in turn, make links between theory and practice. One student said, ‘this was a really great session, I can see now how these activities can link to the theory that we learn about.’ Another student said, ‘I now understand the importance of providing these types of sensory activities to even the youngest babies’.
This active learning approach aims to put learners at the centre of their own learning experience, actively taking part rather than being a passive learner. This approach and immersive interaction allows students to use what they have learned in aspects of their own practice, supporting them in becoming more rounded and knowledgeable professionals.
As we embrace and adopt these active learning and teaching approaches more and more, we can begin to see students taking control of their learning, igniting a passion in them for future learning and application of skills in the real world.
By using mixed approaches to our teaching and learning, not only are we providing variety, but also we are providing for the possible learning styles of all of our students, in the hopes that there is something for everyone. Fleming’s (2006) VARK learning model highlights the different learning styles: visual, aural, reading and writing, and kinaesthetic. Within any group of learners, there will be a mixture of learners who learn in these ways; therefore, by adopting and utilising a mixed approach to teaching, all learners will benefit. By encouraging students to engage in both collaborative and independent activities, learners can begin to make those all-important links between theory, policy and practice.
Moving away from the more traditional style of lecturing whereby teachers transmit knowledge to students through face-to-face lectures in a classroom and moving towards a more collaborative approach where students take an active role in directing their own learning can have a positive impact on learner engagement and motivation. Crucially, these approaches also marry with the ideas of significant education theorists such as Vygotsky and Piaget, also studied during the degree, highlighting the constructivist approach, where learners build their own knowledge and understanding. Such theory supports the significant role educators have in providing a stimulating and supportive environment where students can construct their ideas.
As we embrace these active learning styles, on the horizon could be a whole new approach to teaching and learning: a future filled with the possibility of virtual and simulated learning experiences to enhance and bring learning to life. The Early Years Education and Care teams will be at the forefront of any such methods, ready to support our students to become the knowledgeable, skilful, and compassionate professionals ready to teach and care for our youngest learners.
- Brame, C. (2019) Active Learning Available at: https://www.oaa.osu.edu/sites/default/files/uploads/nfo/2019/Active-Learning-article.pdf (Accessed February 27th 2023).
- Fleming, N. (2006). “Learning styles again: VARKing up the right tree!” (PDF). Educational Developments. 7 (4): 4–7.
- Piaget J, Inhelder B (1969) The Psychology of the child. Prentice-Hall: Washington DC, USA
- Vygotsky L (1978) Mind in Society. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
- Natasha Young is a lecturer in early years education and care at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD).