Active Learning | Feature

Leveraging Active Learning in the Classroom


When 21st Century School last visited with Pat LaMorte of Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando, FL, his 1,135-student institution was deep in the throes of a new active learning initiative. Five of its classrooms had been transformed into “active learning” environments and centered on the TEAL (Technology-Enhanced Active Learning) concept developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Bishop Moore had constructed one 1,200-square-foot main lab and four other 500-square-foot classrooms. The main lab features six tables with room for four to five students each. Wheeled for mobility and meant to accommodate a wide range of applications and subjects, the tables are positioned in front of dedicated, wall-mounted, 52-inch monitors with touchscreen capabilities. The room also includes iPad/laptop carts that students can use for individual or group work.  

The high school’s active learning efforts didn’t end when the equipment was in place. Here, LaMorte, Bishop Moore’s assistant principal in charge of curriculum, professional development, and technology, talks about how the initial implementation has progressed, what challenges that the school has dealt with, and what’s next on its agenda.

Bridget McCrea:  How is the active learning initiative progressing?

Pat LaMorte:  We’ve made a lot of progress, and even branched off into some unexpected areas. We opened our first two labs in September 2011 and were hoping that the active learning pedagogy would catch on within two to three months. Well, the lab was booked solid by December and we couldn’t even get another teacher onto the online calendar. We turned two additional rooms into makeshift labs to handle the overflow. That was the lightbulb for us to say, “Hey, we really need more labs.”

McCrea:  What were some of the unexpected areas that you ran into?

LaMorte:  When we started planning this initiative and implementing it, the schools that “feed” students into Bishop Moore began to take notice. As of today, seven of the 12 K-8 feeder schools in the area have used us as a model and built their own labs in some shape or form. They’ve adopted the same philosophies in order to get their students aligned with our high school’s expectations. It was pretty exciting to see that they had enough interest to make those moves, and that even schools working on limited budgets put in at least one or two stations for teachers to use.

McCrea:  Have you run into any challenges with your active learning overhaul?

LaMorte:  Not really. We tried to be realistic about what we could handle and how we were going to achieve our goals, particularly with the iPad initiative. We didn’t want to get it up and running and then have it crash. We worked with an outside consulting agency, which walked through our 57-acre campus, inspected usage, and came up with a plan of action for us. We did this because we didn’t want to put in a system haphazardly and have to redo it all over again next year. The only remaining challenge was to get the project approved by our president, and that went through without a hitch.

McCrea:  What new technology tools are you implementing now?

LaMorte:  We decided to become a 1-to-1 iPad school. In April we handed the devices out to all of our teachers—along with iTunes gift cards—and asked them to get to know these pieces of equipment. We wanted them to get comfortable with the devices before we started any professional development.

I sat down with our IT director and we came up with a plan of action for integrating the devices into the classroom. We completed a full system audit on our IT infrastructure ahead of the iPad launch, converted our switches from 10/100 to gigabit, replaced our campus wireless network so that it would work with 802.11 devices, and upgraded our firewall. We basically strengthened our whole backbone to get ready for these devices.

McCrea:  Why did you pick iPads?

LaMorte:  We actually visited more than 15 schools that already had 1-to-1 iPad initiatives in place. We talked to their IT departments and their curriculum developers about lesson plans, IT structure, iPad tracking/monitoring, and other key issues. We wanted to know how they were doing it. We also put together a 14-member iPad committee representing every department on our campus and our administration. We tested out apps, looked for resources, and created a password-protected wiki platform to hold all of these resources. This group that we put together “owns” the iPad movement, and is showcasing it to peers and figuring out what it will actually look like in the classroom.

McCrea:  How are you handling professional development?

LaMorte:  We launched a multi-tiered professional development system in early-2011 to prep for the implementation. The system involved full factory trainings, department-based trainings, 101 training (development lessons plans, integrating technology, and so forth), and online training. When I was technology director, my job was to literally walk into classrooms and serve as a support system for teachers and students. I trained and retrained constantly. We used this method for the active learning labs, and are also using it for the iPad initiative.

This coming year, we’ll also be using online video training and incorporating the results of our recent teacher-technology survey into even more professional development initiatives. Our goal is to get everyone trained and ready by May 2013 for our transition to iPads.

McCrea:  You rolled out your first active learning lab about two years ago. Are you getting the expected results?

LaMorte:   We’re finally at the point where we can start tracking data and results. Overall the results have been great. Within two or three months of opening the TEAL labs, the teachers were being pressured by students who were eager to get into the labs and use them. Returning alumni are telling us that the environment here mimics the college environment now. And when you walk into one of the labs not one person is off task. One is conducting research on an iPad, another is taking notes, and yet another is talking about Macbeth. We ask kids all the time what they think about the labs and the common answer is, “It’s more work, but it’s fun.”


About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].