Actively Learning Passively

As with any profession, education has its share of buzzwords, none more prevalent these days than “active learning.” On the surface, we all know that students (and the rest of us) learn by doing. To truly master a subject, we must take control and actively engage with the material. Active learning isn’t just about practicing. Certainly, you can only talk about welding so much before you have to take a chance on blowing yourself up and light the torch. You have to do arithmetic to get good at arithmetic. Active learning, though, is about seizing control of the educational process. After we learn to multiply, active learning is the willing application that shows understanding beyond simple regurgitation of ideas. It’s the difference between simply welding two pieces of metal together and understanding how to mix the gases.

We also know that the long term goals of education have always been to create active learners, but in the American system, we have industrialized education at the lower levels, focusing on facts and passive recitation. Such a focus is at the heart of the debate regarding standardized tests (passive measurement) and things like portfolios. In the “old days” (a relative term for sure), we imagined that students would take all these facts we dumped in their heads for 12 (or 16) years and after school, while gainfully employed, they would apply and actively engage.

Such a method was tried and true, especially at a time when a high school degree was the standard educational pinnacle. Yet, we have spent a good decade now trying to disrupt the classroom and reform education.

One easy way to think about the birth of classrooms is to go back to the development of the printing press. Gutenberg gave us this great tool that allowed us to reproduce books, unfortunately, no one could read the them (or the user manual). Eventually, these crazy dudes in robes emerged, stood behind a podium, and read to the masses. It was live theater without the acting. More importantly, it was the basis for our educational model. We could, as so many others have noted, take a person from 1650 and drop them in a modern classroom and they might not notice a difference. (Well, except for all the women in the room.)

Usually, when people make this claim, they have that little smirk that displays some sense of wonder at the backwards notions left in the world. I’ll admit that I’ve been guilty of such a smirk in the past.

However, as I was sitting at a presentation the other day, listening to yet another speaker tell me how important active learning is and how we need to push more faculty away from the old ways of teaching, I wondered if, perhaps, we aren’t taking things to an extreme and complicating the classroom more than we need to do so.

I think this is particularly true in K-12 when we often ask kids to behave in ways totally foreign to both their biological abilities and societal expectations. Our frontal lobes, those things we most need in place to actively engage intellectually, aren’t formed until our early 20s. When we lament a child’s lack of desire to learn, we are really, it seems to me, lamenting the fact that the kid doesn’t love the subject as much as we do. More importantly, we are asking the 10 year old (or 16 year old) to use a part of his brain that doesn’t even exist.

I also wonder, as we think about an educational format that has existed (and worked by the way) for 400 years, why we are so hell bent on changing the formula? Yes, sitting at a desk and listening to someone lecture isn’t that much fun and yes it is a passive learning format. I’m sure Plato and Aristotle’s students wondered how that guy could go on and on (and on and on). People listening to monks in robes read probably spaced out periodically.

But they also learned stuff. The history of humanity is the history of innovation and invention. Many of the things invented and innovated are directly tied to educations that involved long hours of passive receipt of knowledge.

We might also note that in no other industry (and I’m including education) would we take a winning formula and decide demand disruption. Ask the folks at Coke how well New Coke went over in the 1980s.

I can’t honestly write that I want a return to large lecture halls and silent students, but I think I can admit that I regularly have my doubts about our desire to disrupt an educational model that values the sage on the stage. That sage has earned her spot and has valuable things to say. Certainly, she also wants to inspire her students to go forth and actively engage, but I think we also need to recognize that they can’t be inspired if they don’t hear her speak first.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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