How to Use Active Teaching to Increase Social Engagement in a Digital Classroom

In recent years, many middle school classrooms have shifted from using physical resources like textbooks and workbooks to digital learning platforms that students access with laptops or tablets. A digital curriculum provides a fantastic opportunity for rich explorations of content with embedded scaffolds and additional resources for extending learning; however, digital curricula often lack social engagement opportunities for students. You can use active teaching to create chances for students to interact with each other in ways that both complement and supplement a digital curriculum.

What Is Active Teaching?

Active teaching has a three-point instructional delivery strategy. The goal is to replace lecturing with an approach that more actively involves students. The teacher is still responsible for presenting and explaining content; however, it’s done in a way that meets young adolescents’ developmental needs for activity and social interaction. Active teaching supports middle schoolers in becoming engaged participants in the learning cycle. This shift in instructional design and delivery makes learning a collaborative process. Students engage in the discovery of content and its application, as well as with peers’ perspectives and feedback. The three phases of active teaching are teach and model, student collaboration, and facilitated reflection.

Teach and Model

During the teach and model phase, the teacher introduces new content, gives it context, and depicts it through modeling. This is an opportunity to present content in a way that excites students and ignites their curiosity to learn more. Students engage more deeply with the content when demonstrations or open-ended questions are incorporated in a lesson.

How to incorporate technology into this phase: Some digital curricula might already address this need through the use of an embedded video, a simulation, or animated graphics. Alternatively, you can post self-created videos or links to models on a shared learning management system (LMS) platform. Technology greatly expands the variety of models available to teachers during this phase of active teaching.

Student Collaboration

During this phase, students make sense of what was observed during teaching and modeling. Giving students the opportunity and responsibility to note and react to instruction communicates to them that their ideas are necessary and valued. This helps meet students’ needs for belonging and significance, which, combined with opportunities to talk and collaborate with peers, leads to increased engagement and retention of content.

How to incorporate technology into this phase: Supplement digital learning with opportunities for students to get out of their seats and move around. You can honor young adolescents’ need for social interaction while providing a sense of purpose through shared accountability and responsibility for new learning by using an interactive learning structure that allows students to move and converse with peers. You can also complement the digital resources you use by inviting students to collaborate digitally when space or transition time is limited. Using discussion boards on an LMS or a question, comment, or suggestion feature on shared digital documents can be robust avenues through which students can connect and collaborate.

Facilitate Reflection

The final phase of active teaching allows students to develop metacognition. Students make meaning of their learning by thinking about how they experienced that learning. When students become aware of what they learned and how they learned it, they build confidence in applying the new knowledge or strategy. Reflection helps solidify what we’ve learned and understand how we’ve learned it.

How to incorporate technology into this phase: Facilitated reflection is also an opportunity for students to socially engage with classmates by using appropriate interactive learning structures for partners (e.g., turn and learn or swap meet) or small groups (e.g., stay and stray or maître d’). These supplemental strategies help meet students’ developmental needs and give teachers a glimpse into students’ learning before student practice. These outcomes can also be achieved on digital platforms; students can use emails, comments on documents, or message boards to reflect not only on the content they learned, but also on the format in which it was delivered during the teach and model phase.

Further Resources

We know significant cognitive growth occurs through social interaction. Young adolescents can progress academically and thrive socially when we seek opportunities to complement and supplement digital curricula with the practices of active teaching. Resources like the Active Teaching Lesson Planning Guide can help ensure we honor these developmental needs. 


Joe Cole is currently a curriculum and instructional designer and consulting teacher for Center for Responsive Schools.