Curmudgeonly question: Is “passive” learning always so passive?

Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia
Sage on the stage, slackers in the back (by Laurentius de Voltolina, from Wikimedia)

Most instructional design makes assumptions about the inferiority of traditional “passive” learning—specifically, the lecture class.

Is it passive learning, though, or is the learning simply off the radar?

Motivated students take notes, download PowerPoints, read, and get together for group study sessions; hardly a passive experience. Activity and engagement are just the reverse of a flipped classroom, at least for a modestly motivated student. Granted, these may not be authentic tasks… unless your goals are for students to learn to read, write, synthesize, and learn better. And to be self-motivated.

Why are we so anti-lecture, then?

First, behaviorism and constructivism don’t like learning activity to be variable and unknown; they demand a prescribed process, or at least careful planning and oversight. Second, bad lectures abound; they’re too quick and easy to prepare. Creating a problem-based learning plan for a course requires a lot of thought and work. (Would lectures with that amount of thought of work still be inferior, though?)

On the other side, all I can think is this: I genuinely dislike going to a workshop or conference session and being asked to “share my thoughts with a neighbor” or “brainstorm one side of the issue with my group,” or even “explore on my own and then share.” As a motivated and (fairly) skilled student, I usually feel more comfortable—and perceive more value in—listening to smart or experienced people talk. I’d wager many motivated students feel the same way.

Whether this is an argument for lectures or against cookie-cutter “active” class activities, I’m not sure. I think there are lessons for online course design, though, especially for those of us who knee-jerkedly dismiss the idea of including lectures in our materials. Do we do ourselves a disservice by dismissing what students want or expect and discounting how they’ve already learned to learn?

Maybe the lecture class is the ultimate form of student-centered learning? We provide the exposition, and they control all the work and the learning. Surely it’s more student-centered and active than web tutorials and quizzes?

Instead of being anti-lecture, maybe we need to become lecture experts and help people to lecture better, to expand their lectures into something new and creative—and to include meaningful, rigorous activities to follow the lectures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.