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Active vs. Passive: The Science of Learning

In 2003 I thought I was an awesome teacher. After a year or so at an urban high school in Los Angeles I was finally being let loose on an Algebra 2 class. This was going to be fantastic. These were the kids who really got math, the ones who would hang on to my every word, and learn at my slightest suggestion. A few weeks into the semester I vividly remember deriving the equation of an ellipse on the board, and then excitedly turning around to see my students awestruck reaction to this beautiful mathematical brilliance… or not! Most of them had their heads down on their desks and were actually asleep.

This, and I’m sad to say many similar experiences, finally caused me to radically change the way I taught math as a classroom teacher. I ceased to be a deliverer of passive learning experiences and became a designer and facilitator of active ones, where my students became the drivers of their own understanding of the math concepts. Not an easy transition, but the difference in outcomes for my students was pretty extreme over time: not only did their engagement level in my classes radically improve, but so did their standardized test scores!

Technology Alone Isn't the Answer

Success in the classroom led me to explore ways to utilize technology to work with students at an even greater scale. I recorded videos of me solving math problems and put them online, I used adaptive quizzes to target online math textbook materials to the students that needed them, and I gave my students online badges and points as they completed my courses. And test scores went… down! I realised I was doing it all wrong again! No picture better captures how badly I was using technology than this:


Drawn by the French artist Villemard in 1910, it’s a vision of what learning might look like in the year 2000, and it’s eerily prescient: The teacher puts the books into the machine, which then grinds them up and pipes them directly into the heads of the kids, presumably in perfect “personalized” chunks so that each student receives exactly the information they need when they need it based upon some adaptive quiz… sound familiar?

If I was guilty of using technology to replicate my awful passive teaching methodology from my Algebra 2 class, then it has to be said, I was not alone. My course design echoes the vast majority of technology-based learning materials in use in schools across the country today, and, it has to be said, most schools’ criteria when evaluating technology is a checklist of factors that only exacerbates this problem: “Is it adaptive?”, “It is a personalized learning system?”, “Does it cover all the standards?” No one asks “What does active learning look like in this system?”

Active Learning is Deeper Learning

Five years ago, I finally found genuine technology-based active learning while visiting a middle school in South Central Los Angeles and saw a classroom full of students playing ST Math. Students were playing game-based learning activities, figuring out challenging puzzles and were all deeply engaged in these materials designed with the neuroscience of learning at the fore.


In an active learning environment, students learn by doing, activating the brain’s perception-action cycle. MIND’s team of brain researchers, mathematicians, and content designers have simulated this process in the virtual environment of the ST Math animated puzzles: Students use their perception to analyze the initial state of a game/puzzle, they make a prediction about what will happen, then they take some action in the game and observe the outcome as immediate informative feedback. Then students adjust their thinking and try again until they figure it out. This is active learning, active problem solving and the foundation students need to succeed in today’s world.  

Watch this presentation to see the active learning process in ST Math:



Nigel Nisbet, Vice President of Content Creation, leads a team of content specialists in building engaging, interactive and visual games that teach all students how math really works.

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Nigel Nisbet

About the Author

Nigel Nisbet is Vice President, Content Creation, at MIND Research Institute. He devotes his time to reaching into the structure and beauty of mathematics and finding ways to build engaging, interactive and completely visual games that teach all students how math really works.


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