What Is Active Learning?

Dame Lilli Nielsen
Dame Lilli Nielsen

Active Learning is an approach based on the work of Dr. Lilli Nielsen, a developmental psychologist and preschool teacher, who worked for over 43 years with children and adults with multiple disabilities at Refsnaesskolen, the National Institute for Blind and Partially Sighted Children and Youth in Denmark.  The approach is not just about a piece of equipment, such as a “Little Room” or a HOPSA dress, but rather it refers to a total approach for promoting the development of individuals with severe multiple disabilities. It features an assessment, a curriculum, specifically-designed equipment, and instructional strategies that support learners to be active participants in their surroundings.

This approach is closely tied to evidence-based research, such as the work of Jean Piaget’s developmental stages of learners. It views the child’s development holistically, including not only motor, cognitive, and sensory skills, but also social and emotional development.

What type of learner benefits from an Active Learning approach?

The Active Learning approach can be used in conjunction with other approaches, such as the work of Dr. Jan van Dijk. Though initially this approach was designed for individuals who are visually impaired and deafblind, it has proven to be effective with individuals with other significant disabilities, such as autism and cerebral palsy.

It is an approach that can be used with all learners, but is most effective for those who have significant multiple disabilities and are functioning in the 0-48 month developmental level.  The Active Learning approach can be used with individuals with various visual conditions, such as CVI (cerebral/cortical visual impairment) and ONH (Optic Nerve Hypoplasia), as well as with those who are deafblind or medically fragile.

Introductory Video about Active Learning

The video below is a short news clip that was filmed at the Penrickton Center for Blind Children in Taylor, Michigan.  It provides a brief introduction to viewers who are new to this approach.
Image from video LIves Changed at Penrickton School of child playing on a swing.
Image from video Lives Changed at Penrickton School of child playing on a swing.

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Videos Showing the Benefits of an Active Learning Approach

The videos below show two examples of the difference an Active Learning approach can make.

Jack’s Progression

Watch this video to see how a boy progressed from lying prone on a Resonance Board to being upright in a HOPSA Dress to sitting independently!  These videos were made over a 4-year period.  The boy in this video is the same one as the news video above, in which his mother discusses what a difference Active Learning has made for her son.

Jack’s progression from passive to active learner is evident in the video. In the beginning clips Jack does not sit independently and has very little ability to move himself into different positions to explore and experiment with things around him. Over time, through his own actions, Jack builds motor and sensory skills as he becomes more engaged with the world and people. These interactions allow him to develop fundamental concepts necessary for all future learning. As he moves, more vocalizations and communication skills develop. His interactions with others help him to develop critical social and emotional skills as well.




Rylan Before and After

These two short video clips illustrate how important adult expectations are and what a difference the environment makes in encouraging learning and active engagement.  In the first clip a young boy lies on a swing in a supine position. His lower body is covered with a blanket. In the second clip, just a few minutes later, the blanket has been removed and Active Learning materials have been placed all around the boy.   Notice the difference that expectations and appropriate materials make!