Shine a Light on Active Teaching

Reflections from the Road

-Laura Rains, Director of Implementation and Training


On the road again. This time I'm headed to a training in North Carolina. As I travel, my thoughts turn to one of my favorite teaching methods – active teaching (AT).

I realize I’ve been using AT for over half my life, since joining this group 28 years ago – how time flies when you love what you do!



I especially appreciate the bi-directional effects of AT in GenerationPMTO. To put it simply, when the person who is learning feels good, the teacher feels good.


My first experience with AT was in an amazing Masterclass series that was offered to OSLC clinicians in the early 1990s, when I saw Marion Forgatch demonstrate how therapists play a role in client resistance. Wow! Another inspiring teacher was Nancy Knutson, who modeled humorous yet realistic strategies to activate role play in therapy and workshop settings.


Like many others, once I started using AT, I was hooked and began searching for new, engaging ways to teach while balancing fidelity to our model. I’ve used AT with every milieu I’ve been lucky enough to work in: with children, parents, families, animal-assisted therapy, couples, elders, clinicians, caregivers, staff, and even with my bonus daughter.


Active teaching includes a variety of strategies that elicit, engage, and guide participants through the learning process. The approach de-emphasizes providing information verbally and instead directly draws participants into the teaching and learning process through abundant rehearsal and 3D role play (Demonstrate a scenario, Differentiate wrong-way and right-way approaches, Debrief).



Problem solving, breaking concepts into teachable units, using humor to normalize and desensitize, and movement that promotes collaboration and practice to prepare for real life are all a part of AT. The beauty is in providing different perspectives that broaden our view and make it possible to imagine that change is possible– similar to opening a window and letting in fresh air.



Even so, not everyone rushes toward role play! Think of stage fright. That’s why we don’t ask (in a deep, ominous voice), Would you like to role play?

Instead, we model. We show the way by demonstrating, using humor, acting something out in the worst way possible, and then asking participants to evaluate. Next we collaborate to build better options. With laughter and support, participants (and parents) are soon out of their chairs and trying it out!


Some people who enjoy AT report that role play and other AT strategies have activated their practice, improved outcomes, and elevated their enjoyment. Of course, some people continue to report that nope, thank you very much, they still don’t like role play. But they also say that it works – so they do it. For example, our dear Norwegian colleagues said sincerely and convincingly during training in 1999, “Norwegians do not role play!” Imagine everyone’s delight when later a genuine Norwegian conducted a successful wrong-way role play on the top of a table! Loved that.

With hands-on teaching, AT seals in learning at a cellular level and leads to the “Aha!” moment. It is something very special to see. Movement infuses a session or workshop with energy. When AT produces that Aha! moment, the room comes alive.


I’ve been inspired over the years watching the many adaptations of Active Teaching in our work. From PMTO Dutchies using conversation cards so that parents could arrange a series of typical family scenes to tell a story about what is happening to PMTO practitioners in British Columbia using AT over the phone to engage parents via telehealth delivery – modulating voice, describing the scene, using appropriate pacing and timing.

One of my favorite AT moments was watching a skit at a Michigan PMTO State Conference. Creative therapists hilariously demonstrated a parent driving in the “car” while her teen dropped one zinger after another and the parent gripped the “steering wheel” while regulating emotions as if her life depended on it. All eyes were on this captivating “look and learn”session.



Who are my AT role models? The list is long, deep, and spans decades.


Every trainer, coach, and therapist I’ve seen who faces a “this-won’t-work” situation, then gets a gleam in their eye and springs into action … they are my heroes.

ISII Headquarters • 10 Shelton McMurphey Boulevard • Eugene, Oregon 97401 USA
Copyright © 2016 by ISII. All rights reserved.