The passivity of students AND educators

Joe Bower said:

Because school defines learning as passive, learners come to see education as something done to them. When students are stuck in the middle of a problem, they don’t try and figure out what makes sense to do next; instead, they try to remember what they are supposed to do. If this is the premise for learning, is it any surprise that learners become less autonomous, more dependent…

Depressionphoto © 2007 Bev Sykes | more info (via: Wylio)I commented:

Well said. Replace ‘learners’ with ‘educators’ and this also describes many of the people that work in our school systems. We see a great lack of inquisitiveness, self-direction, etc. from many teachers and administrators too…

We need more ‘active learners’ at all levels of our education system. What percentage of your students – and educators – are just going through the motions (“just tell me what to do”) rather than inquiring, learning, leading, and, perhaps, modeling?

Whatever percentages those are, instead of blaming individuals we need to re-examine our systems and structures that beat down the innate human learning spirit. How’s your school organization doing at that?

8 Responses to “The passivity of students AND educators”

  1. This is what I was getting at when I asked you (a while ago) if you had written about how locking down computers cuts down on teacher (and student) curiosity.

    I’m not saying it’s the only reason, but in my experience it’s a big factor. I see it in myself. My school-distributed MacBook is the only computer I have and I’ve found that I pretty much no longer dig around for new software to try out because I don’t have admin privileges to install stuff. I can always file an IT request to ask for the software to be installed — and I have had a few requests denied — but…I shouldn’t have to ask.

  2. It’s what I love about working Ed tech and library media conferences. These are folks who have maintained their zeal about education and recognize it as a changing field.

    But I agree with you, Scott, that the system, what it values, and how it measures what it values, is a major barrier to more autonomous teachers and learners.

    I would add to Joe’s last line,

    “..that learners become less autonomous, more dependent…” and far less prepared for their future — and ours.

  3. I, too, love the fact that Ed tech quickly has the capacity to reveal what is wrong with anything other than constructivist-based pedagogy. In fact, the secret of Ed tech is that it allows for easier articulation of the concepts within constructivism. Take for example the Cornell professor’s rant (, to me this is a great example of what is being discussed here, but at the post-secondary level. The lecture is being done to them, they are not absorbed in any problem-based instructional strategy, and the burden of engagement is clearly on the students’ shoulders.

  4. “learners come to see education as something done to them”
    Isn’t this true for many things that we see for children these days? It used to be that children would go outside during the day and play creatively with the neighbor kids and come home to eat. They didn’t have fancy toys, but created games with sticks, buckets, hula hoops, blankets, old boxes, etc. They might go to the pool and create games to play with each other in a simple pool of water without all of the extras that are at pools today to entertain kids. They would buy a big box of legos and were required to create fun and innovative objects on their own with a few pictures and suggestions to get them started, instead of today’s lego kits which come with one very sophisticated set of instructions for one very specific project and no creativity. It seems so many things that our children do have shifted to this idea of having to be told what to do or be entertained without creating anything on their own. It doesn’t suprise me that students expect the same thing when they come to my high school classroom and are so reluctant to go on a journey of discovery with me or to solve problems creatively. It makes me sad and helps me to make better decisions as I raise my own children.

  5. How to go about helping learners become more autonomous? Even when their teachers are not?

    One possibility is to create prepackaged course material, designed using constructivism, that helps learners become autonomous. Offer it to instructors as a cheap, easy-to-use (for them) package.

    The designers of the material have already done the hard work. The package includes not only content, but tools to help instructors use the content in an appropriate way. In total, the package makes it easier to run a constructivist course than to run the course in another way.

    Does this make sense? I hope so; I’m constructing that kind of package for an intro Web tech course. It may be a waste of time. But if it works, it offers a feasible path to spreading courses that increase learner autonomy.

    Kieran (Constructivist Web tech course, with tightly integrated formative feedback. Free as well.)

  6. Well, I think part of it is because it’s extremely hard to teach someone HOW to think of what to do next or how to solve a problem. It’s easier to memorize a formula and just plug in the numbers.

    Also, I think some people are not able to learn how the problem solve or how to solve problems. Some people just don’t have the mental capacity and are a lot “slower” than others. I’m not referring to students or teachers, just regular people in daily life.

    • > it is because it’s extremely hard
      > to teach someone HOW to think of what
      > to do next

      I disagree. It’s harder than teaching formulas. It’s messier. Harder to grade. Not as structured. But “extremely hard” overstates it.

      There are practices from learning science that can help. Scaffolding, modeling, patterns. Frequent formative feedback. These things work in skill building.

      These methods take effort to learn and use. Most textbooks aren’t designed to support these methods. It could be made easier to teach skill building, but that conversation isn’t happening anywhere, as far as I know.

      It’s not extremely hard to teach problem solving. It’s just harder than current practice.

  7. Huntington Beach Ford and Kieran

    I’d suggest that it is extremely easy to teach students to become more self motivated in their learning.

    Think of it this way. I don’t want to have to teach every single formula and detail about how to solve those equations to every single kid. In fact, should I try to do that, they will likely forget it (because it’s passive) and that will lead to me needing to reteach it!

    I’d much rather dedicate a few weeks to teaching students how to learn and have a system of well defined objectives and goals for the students to begin to take on themselves whenever possible. That program ought to be packaged for my students in a way that they can fully understand where they are going and where they have been.

    See some of it at my blog .

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