I had a moment of insight today about teaching. When active learning techniques work, it isn’t because they help students intellectually, it’s because they help students emotionally. If I break students into groups to discuss a concept among themselves, for example, it’s not because that helps them to understand the concept better, it’s because it helps them become more emotionally connected to the material. This goes against a lot of the things teachers say about active learning. But I think it matches what actually happens.
In general, I think that a surprisingly large factor in the learning process is the students’ attitudes towards the material moment by moment. I think the most gifted teachers are those who are highly attuned to that attitude, and instinctively aware of how it can be directed and nurtured on the fly.