The Origin of the Visual and Active Method

Much of the following piece (written in 2009) comes form my memories of visiting in Providence, RI

People ask me, “What happens in your classroom? 

Why do students like your class so much?”


I reply, “I read a book and I visited a remarkable school in Rhode Island.  I changed how I teach and I base my method on what I saw at that school.”

-- Steve McCrea


Here’s what I saw at the school:


  1. The teacher is an advisor.
  2. Each student has an individual plan (and the teacher also has a plan for the class)  -- sometimes teams of students work on different projects based on their interests. 
  3. Each student has a portfolio (showing his work)
  4. Tests are verbal and given by standing up and presenting information, then answering questions.
  5. Grades are written.  They are not numbers.  The teacher makes time to write a letter to each student.
  6. Former students are welcomed into the school and are considered mentors to the current group of students.  Alumni
  7. Students work with outside mentors.  “Learning through doing interesting projects” is the main idea.


PAPERWORK – Here are the worksheets that I give to students:


The Individual Education Plan:  The student tells me his goal for using English 5 years from now.  What will his job be?   The sheet gives homework (essays, dialog, pronunciation practice, vocabulary groups).


The Task List:  I encourage interruptions.  I give students permission to practice speaking while I’m speaking.  The Task List gives the students some ideas for interrupting me.


Structure of the Class:  This page helps students plan their work and participation in the class.  They know when they are expected to write and when they are asked to make a presentation.  The worksheet helps to address “passive” expectations that “the teacher knows what I’m supposed to be learning.” 


Break Out Of The Pentagon:  Most students go to five places (sleep, school, eat, beach and shopping) and they complain, “I never meet anyone.”  Well, here are places on this map that have told me, “Sure, ask your students to come to our store and volunteer.”


Other Features of the Visual and Active Classroom

Adding an element of relationship.  
(cell phone and email contacts, invitations to lunch or snacks outside the classroom)  

(Some of Steve’s students using computers)

Building the curriculum from relevance. (What does the student want to know or learn?)  
Creating opportunities to learn through action, through performances of understanding and mentoring..  
Evaluation is through recorded exhibition so that the student has to feel and see the gaps and know where the next step is.   
Independent Work Time takes up a larger part of the class schedule.  Building a portfolio is more important than running through a check list of grammar and vocabulary (listen, speak, write, read).  We can discover the language practice in the projects that the student chooses to do.

I came to know that “there is another way” after trying to teach 6 classes of 20 kids, 50 minutes per class.   The focus in that traditional school was on how well the teacher presented the material, efficiently and effectively.  The Madeleine Hunter method of teaching is the standard of “good teaching.”  (Did the teacher deliver a solid, well-organized lesson?  Did the teacher achieve the objectives of the lesson?  Did the students produce the expected results?)  I was told to “teach to the middle 80 percent.  We’ll remediate the lower students and give extra work to the upper ten percent.”  One lesson for all students, one size fits all. 
The research by Howard Gardner makes it clear that the Hunter method is effective in ensuring that more than one teaching method is used and more than one learning style is given a chance to “latch onto” the material.  
However, most people who study Gardner did not go one step farther.  They didn’t read the section following page 161 about how to evaluate the learning.   He calls for “a performance of understanding” and describes how students with different learning styles might benefit from being able to express their understanding in different ways.
Even we who have taking the RSA course for CELTA (teaching English to Adults) have a false sense of knowing what to do next after presenting the material of the day.  We know we have to check understanding and then move on to connect the material to real examples in English for practice.  The practice is usually effective in getting the student to make a clear sound and to using the form correctly.   The program is designed to ensure that materials are presented to a variety of learning styles.  CELTA is an effective way of reaching a variety of students – but the next step is to make the work personal.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on the purpose of the language school (and on any class):   A school does not exist to present an effective curriculum. The purpose of a school is to meet the needs of each individual student. The idea expressed by Gardner and put into action by Dennis Littky is to ensure that teaching changes to meet the needs of the individual student.  The steps include:  
a)  Adding an element of relationship.  
(mobile phone and email contacts, invitations to lunch or snacks outside the classroom) 
b)  Building the curriculum from relevance. (What does the student want to know or learn?) 
c)  Creating opportunities to learn through action, through performances of understanding and mentoring..  
d)  Evaluation is not through written tests but through recorded exhibition so that the student has to feel and see the gaps and know where the next step is.  Through feedback from the teacher and (if the student isn’t shy) from the audience (and self evaluation after looking at the video), the student then knows the next layer of learning that needs to take place.  
e)  Independent Work Time takes up a larger part of the class schedule.  Building a portfolio is more important than running through a check list of grammar and vocabulary (listen, speak, write, read).  The expectations of the students are changed, because most observers who visit Littky’s school have to be persuaded to see that studying only what you want to study will lead to a rigorous result.  
How can effective teaching and “Teaching for Understanding” (the code phrase developed by Lois Hetland, Ed.D, a disciple of Howard Gardner) be accepted by students who have come to expect “traditional classrooms”?  
Samples of a portfolio created by other students  and standard “packages” showing what students have produced are a good way of presenting examples to “non-believers.”   Performances of Understanding can be produced at lower levels of proficiency, but this method is more obvious at intermediate and advanced levels.    
for later review (since some students find it difficult to make notes and pay attention).  The videos can be converted to a video on CD at a rate of about 2 hours per 700 megabytes. 
The key is found by making a parallel set of key standards.   The Met Center, Littky’s group, does not teach Math, History, Science and English – they ask students to develop their own goals for qualitative and quantitative reasoning, empirical reasoning and communication.  These areas can be supplemented with ESOL or EFL structure and the EFL teacher can restate what needs to be sought by the students.  In the Visual and Active Method, the students learn skill areas or interest areas, not artificial "chapters" related to grammar and vocabulary. 
(Some students will not accept this functional description of a language class, and they will need to pursue the making of a portfolio based on the structure of the textbook.  The portfolio system is flexible and lets each student define what is in the portfolio.)
We can see some similarities between the school in Rhode Island and our language school – and therefore the materials developed by Littky have some relevance to all methods of teaching.  The Madeleine Hunter model remains in place (to support students who want structure) and the classes have a textbook and class time (as they do in the Littky school).  The key focus is on asking the student to seek outside learning opportunities that are connected to their aspirations.  An executive at a power plant in Japan should spend time touring a plant… but do more.   He should sit and shadow the mentor.  The chapter on Mentoring in Littky’s book shows that there is not always a burden of mentoring… there is a feeling of adding a dimension to the mentor’s job.  “I get paid to show another person why I love my work.”   
The focus for teachers could be on pushing and guiding students to develop a portfolio to show that students have demonstrated or performed understanding by making presentations.   The exit portfolio can be a CD with performances on video showing basic skills of pronunciation and grammar (with students teaching units to  the camera).  The teacher can then ask students to go out to the “real world” to video themselves in situations with shopkeepers and volunteer situations.  


Are you hungry?  Do you bring interesting things into the classroom to stimulate students into asking questions?

BAD EXAMPLE of mentoring 
I was studying Spanish in a small program in Chalchihuites, Mexico near Zacatecas and the program offered an “experience in real Mexico” working side by side Mexican employees.  I filed cards for 3 hours in the city hall.  Yuck.  It was safe because after the initial hand signals I didn’t have to talk or listen for the next three hours, yet I was “immersed” in the culture of the work place.    
GOOD EXAMPLE of mentoring 
One of my students, Johana, said that she loves being corrected by young kids.   “They tell you exactly the truth.”   The EFL teacher (Mr. Mac) got her the volunteer sheet for Virginia Shuman Young Magnet school and she plans to volunteer two hours next week in a school.  That’s using English in a real sense.  A photo of that opportunity or a video camera on Johana can be part of her portfolio.  




Small cameras if the student doesn’t have a digital camera.   
Burning software on a laptop in the school.  It's best that the computer is NOT connected to the network. 
Portfolio system (clear plastic sleeves with three punched holes for storage in a three ring binder) needs to be set up to engage the students. 
List of potential mentoring and volunteering locations in the area of the school. 
Most students learn another language better in a classroom that is visual and active. 
Students can be pushed to create portfolios to show their understanding.  (This idea comes from Gardner, Littky and Lois Hedland) .
Students can be pushed to find relationships outside the classroom to pursue interests and build their vocabulary through use in mentorships and volunteering positions. 
Video equipment will allow students to bring back information that they want to practice. 
Video equipment in their home allow them to practice pronunciation and listening on computers (see the series of CDs that I distribute to my students).


Steve McCrea

Visual and Active Educational Consultants

+1 954 646 8246 

If you want to be trained to become a Visual and Active trainer or to receive the VATT certificate, contact us.







Become a Visual and Active Teacher

1.  Start with the student. Ask each student this question:  "How will you use this information?  What do you want to do?  What do you love?"

2.  Ask the student to do something difficult.  Perhaps it is talking on the telephone.  "Oh, no, Steve, I don't want to."
"Oh, I don't need this in my job.  I can use email."

This is an important exercise.  When students try to avoid doing something, then it is perhaps important.  We can learn through fear.
3. Learn about "styles of learning." For most students, books are boring.  Most students are not linguistic learners.  They learn by another way.  Only 20% learn by reading.  Many other students learn by copying the teacher or their friends.
4.  Use and visit to allow students to connect with students.   Look for more tips at and click “56 tips.”
5.  Connect with my students. Go to on Facebook and find interesting contacts.  If you are a teacher, write to me with your request.  Ask your students to write my students.
6. send email each week to your students...  more homework.
7.  Sometimes it works if you are a dancing bear.  A dancing bear gets attention in the classroom.  
We don't want to be sleepy!
We want to personalize the education, but some students want more energy in the room before they start participating in their own learning.


Send me your suggestions.   This method is still evolving.  

This method is based on the work of Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, who created the Met Center in Providence, Rhode Island.

Frequently Asked Questions

Mr. Mac, why is your class so noisy?
That's what many students ask.  I answer, "It's okay for students to discuss the problems.  They just need to whisper.  Students learn when they discuss and learn from each other."

Sometimes times there are students who don't like the noise, so they can sit outside the class to find a quieter place to study...perhaps alone, perhaps with a smaller group....  we need to find the right balance between "noisy" and "creative and cooperative.”


Who created the slogan "Visual and Active Learning"?
I don't know.  The idea is simple:  Most textbooks don't move.  Most textbooks are black and white and two dimensions.  The Visual and Active are the third and fourth dimensions, adding depth and time.  One of my students told me, "You teach Physical Math" and another told me, "Now I can see it."  A third student said, "I understand it now because I can feel it" so it's Visual and Active.

What is the central mission of a Visual and Active Teacher?
ANSWER:  The V-and-A Teacher tries to grab the attention of students and engage them in the lesson.   Edu-Tainment, which is Education and Entertainment.

You can observe a Visual and Active person in action by searching “Dennis Yuzenas” on Youtube.  He was the Visual and Active Teacher of the Year for 2004.
His web site is and he creates interesting "books on CD" to engage the attention of students.
Write to him at

An example of a Visual ESOL teacher on Youtube is “Cary Elcome pronunciation”...  correspond with him at

For interesting seminars about how to integrate technology in the classroom and how to infuse Visual and Active techniques into your lesson plans, hire one of the consultants at

Most consultants want a commitment or payment up front.  

I prefer to be paid on results that you obtain rather than on effort that I’ve made.  This is like a consignment store.  I place my skills in your location and we wait until something positive happens.  If we see results (increased attendance, increased retention of teachers, more smiles in the classroom, students who say, “I really like this school”), then we can decide what the training was worth to you and your school.


When I'm retired, I want to look back at the schools and classrooms where I entered.  The typical consultant works with at most two clients per month, spending most of his time cold-calling to look for new clients.  The typical consultant spends 80 percent of his time hunting for the next project, 20 percent actually in training and working with teachers and administrators. 


I'd rather be busy (giving workshops daily without upfront payment) and paid later only by satisfied clients than to work only when I'm guaranteed a check.  Let me come into your "village" (your school) and share what I have learned from other Visual and Active teachers.   











Look for Patterns
Look for Patterns (tm) is a trademark held by Steve McCrea
Content on this page is copyright 2005.
If you look for patterns, if you identify the cycles in life, then you are educating yourself.
Here are some ways to practice looking for patterns:


1.  track the price of a stock -- choose a stock that you are interested in! and click on FINANCE will be a good place to start.

2.  HERE is an exercise about an 

3.  Analyze 
the thoughts of Mr. Friedman (he talks about Geo-Green Politics.  What does he mean?)

4.  Here is the 
introduction to GIFTED CLASS by Mr. Mac.

Decide on ONE PROJECT and work with it each week until it is completed.  This long-term project can be something that you do alone or with other people.
 create a yearbook on CD with photos that you collect from teachers and other students
- write a book of short stories
- collect suggestions for "better living" or "tips for studying better" or a cook book and put these suggestions on a web site or in a photocopied book.
- start a school newspaper
- write a column for the school newspaper
- interview one teacher each week and compile the collected interviews in a book for students to keep at the end of the year.  It could become part of the yearbook.
- make a video showing an interesting topic
- interview adults, asking them "Tell me about an interesting book that you read when you were a young person."  
- create a list of questions from your history or science class and ask adults... You might find it funny because many adults think that they don't need to know stuff from middle school now that they graduated from high school.   
Example:  Who was Napoleon Buonaparte?  
What is photosynthesis?
List the planets in order from the Sun to Pluto.
Jay Leno on the Tonight Show uses this method to obtain funny interviews

Memorize poems.  If you need some suggestions, go to 
DATA web page

There are at least 180 essay topics that teachers usually give students... why not start and practice writing some of them?  You can get started today!  Push yourself... don't wait for a teacher to give you these topics.  Then we'll put your creation on the internet for others to read!

memorize some interesting quotes

Learn another Language...  
Here is a link to a Spanish page

Visit and see if you can describe each of the shows that are presented (using US Tax dollars).  Then visit some other radio stations and compare the content of the shows.   Conservative Radio, Rush Limbaugh Show, etc.   Do a search on "conservative radio" to learn the names of interesting radio commentators.

TV Katie Couric and her team present many useful tips on the TODAY show.  What is today's best tip? 

Choose three newspapers and read the same story in each newspaper.  
Find the differences.  Sometimes newspaper writers leave out some information or emphasize a certain fact.  Can you explain why or guess why?   

Look at newspapers from other countries.  See if you can guess the vocabulary. 
If there is an important story, maybe you can see a pattern.  What does "Papa" mean in Italian?
edizione straordinaria 
Addio a Giovanni Paolo II 

Go to a web site and learn about another country.

Open any volume of the encyclopedia.  Read an article that you find interesting.  
Now talk about that subject for one minute.  What new things did you learn?  Can you communicate what you learned by a powerpoint presentation?  Or by drawing?  or by discussion or can you teach a 5 minute class about what you learned?

Get a program called 

What language do you want to study?
Someone called Arabic "angry spaghetti."   Do you have a hunger for learning about other languages and other alphabets?
Where can you go on the internet to learn new words in another language?

If you speak English, you can teach to millions of other people.  
They hunger to know English and you, even if you are not yet an adult, have a skill that these millions of people are willing to pay or trade to get...  you speak English.  Why not use your talent in some way?
-- volunteer at a language school to give conversation lessons
-- volunteer at a church or other social organization (such as which offers classes to immigrants.
(check with your parents before you do these ideas)...

Some organizations don't "make a profit" -- what does that mean?  
How much of their funding goes into fund-raising?  50 percent, 15 percent?
Visit these web sites and compare their revenues to cost of fund raising:

What do you do with your dominant hand?
open doors
eat with a spoon
throw a ball
hit a golfball
shake hands
reach for objects
What can you do with your non-dominant hand?

How can you push yourself to do more?  Why are you just reading this list of exercises?  Why not DO something, now...?

Send your suggestions for more exercises.

S. Mccrea
Fort Lauderdale, FL 
Teacher    954 646 8246  
Fort Lauderdale, FL