Can Active Learning Be Used for General Education Instruction?

A young boy takes objects out of a tray and puts them in bowls on either side of his seat.
A young boy takes objects out of a tray and puts them in bowls on either side of his seat.

One of the issues related to Active Learning that is often raised by instructors is that it looks like “play”.  This makes it difficult to explain how the child is actually focused on the same important “work” that engages the time of students without these significant challenges. Because of the developmental stages these children are generally functioning at their approach to learning does look more like play than what we typically see in a general education classroom or even some segregated special education classroom. Don’t confuse the difference in the approach of Active Learning with the notion that no important learning is taking place. Their “play” is very critical foundational learning.

State and federal laws ensure that all children have access to the General Education Curriculum.  IEPs should reflect alignment to the same content that their grade level peers are accessing.  This means they should have the same opportunity to study areas of science, social studies, reading, math, and so forth. It also requires that important functional skills be taught and if the child is visually impaired or deafblind, there also needs to be a focus on the Expanded Core Curriculum. 

Active Learning is an instructional approach for individuals of all ages who are still developmentally in the sensorimotor and early pre-operational stages of learning. It can be utilized to teach most any content at a developmentally appropriate level for these learners.

Can Active Learning Be Used for General Education Instruction? Download

Download a handout on aligning to General Curriculum goals and creating lesson plans for Active Learning.

The two videos below show a Science Lesson using an Active Learning approach.  What both of the students are doing is the basis for all scientific learning – observation, exploration, experimentation, and the development of hypotheses about how the world works.

The Science Lesson – Kyra

Description: Patty Obrzut sets up a science lesson focusing on plant parts (seeds, flowers, roots, leaves)  and what they require to grow (soil, water) for her student, Kyra. This is a lesson taught in the science class for her same age peers using more standard methods such as reading books about plants, planting sunflower seeds and watching them grow, and examining the parts of the plant. This lesson might occur prior to the activity with her peers so that she is familiar with all the materials being used when they plant and water the seeds and watch them grow. This would allow the student using Active Learning more opportunities for hands-on exploration of plants and the materials needed to help them grow. At the same time, this student is working at her developmental level to learn foundational concepts and practice functional skills for moving and orienting herself to her environment. Notice how she gradually moves from the first bin to the last, frequently re-tracing her movements to learn the sequence of materials in each been.



A Science Lesson Using a Support Bench – Jack

Description: This activity focuses on the same science lesson on plants. It is modified to meet the needs of the young boy, Jack, who is not able to sit independently and coordinate the use of arms and legs at the time this video was filmed. He is learning foundational concepts needed for science instruction and simultaneously working on critical motor skills.

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Sample General Curriculum Skills in Science

What follows below are some sample skills in the General Curriculum used in Texas (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) in the area of Science at various levels from Pre-K through High School. The activities shown in the video tape relates to these skills.

Pre-requisite Skills in Science

Energy & Matter: Characteristics and Properties of Matter

  • compare and contrast a variety of mixtures and solutions such as rocks in sand, sand in water, or sugar in water
  • measure, compare, and contrast physical properties of matter, including size, mass, volume, states (solid, liquid, gas), temperature, magnetism, and the ability to sink or float

Organisms & Environment: Identify How Organisms Meet Their Basic Needs

  • identify and compare the parts of plants
  • identify parts of plants such as roots, stem and leaves and parts of animals such as head, eyes, and limbs

       from the Texas Curriculum Framework Pre-requisite Skills in Science

Sample Science, Grade 1, Curriculum Goals

  • (5)  Matter and energy. The student knows that objects have properties and patterns. The student is expected to:
  • (A)  classify objects by observable properties of the materials from which they are made such as larger and smaller, heavier and lighter, shape, color, and texture; and
  • (B)  predict and identify changes in materials caused by heating and cooling such as ice melting, water freezing, and water evaporating.

Sample Science, Grade 3, Curriculum Goals

  • (5)  Matter and energy. The student knows that matter has measurable physical properties and those properties determine how matter is classified, changed, and used. The student is expected to:
  • (A)  measure, test, and record physical properties of matter, including temperature, mass, magnetism, and the ability to sink or float;
  •  (D)  explore and recognize that a mixture is created when two materials are combined such as gravel and sand and metal and plastic paper clips.

Sample Science, Grade 5, Curriculum Goals

Matter and energy. The student knows that matter has measurable physical properties and those properties determine how matter is classified, changed, and used. The student is expected to:

(A)  classify matter based on physical properties, including mass, magnetism, physical state (solid, liquid, and gas), relative density (sinking and floating), solubility in water, and the ability to conduct or insulate thermal energy or electric energy;;

(C)  demonstrate that some mixtures maintain physical properties of their ingredients such as iron filings and sand; and

(D)  identify changes that can occur in the physical properties of the ingredients of solutions such as dissolving salt in water or adding lemon juice to water.

       from Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills §112.16

Sample Physics, High School, Curriculum Goals

At the high school level areas of science become more specific (e.g., chemistry, physics, biology).  Still all science areas continue to focus on observation, exploration, experimentation and the development and testing of hypothesizes.

(3)  Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A)  in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

 – from Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills, High School Physics, §112.39.

Sample Goal Reflecting the Active Learning Approach

An IEP goal to address science for a sensorimotor level learner would be easy to write and might look like this.


By the end of the IEP completion date, given a variety of materials used in various Science units as well as other objects in combination with perceptualizing aids, the student will observe, experiment and explore properties and characteristics of organic and inorganic objects by tactilely exploring them using her mouth, lips, tongue, hands, arms, legs and feet for at least 20 minutes of a 30 minute period.

This goal also relates to the Expanded Core Curriculum area related to the development of sensory efficiency skills.


Using Active Learning approaches to teach general and expanded core curriculum areas just makes sense for the unique learning styles of students with visual impairments and significant multiple disabilities.  We need to help parents, administrators and other educators understand that Active Learning and instruction aligned to the general curriculum make a perfect pairing of content and instructional approach for these unique learners.

Pinterest pin showing a young girl digging in a bin of sand to find fossils during her science lesson.