I was chatting with a colleague the other day and it became clear that we are both worried that our students are ‘too passive’ in their learning. After some reflection on my plp goals and how I have been adjusting my craft over the years, it has become clear to me that I have been trying somewhat obliquely, to address this concern for some time.
As someone with a tendency to be a bit self-critical I initially jumped to the conclusion that I need to re-think my whole approach. I am obviously too much of a ‘sage on the stage’, not enough ‘guide on the side’. Maybe I should be flipping my classroom more? or having a timer on my desk to self-monitor my teacher-talk? More lollipop sticks and a no-hands-up rule? Maybe the issue is the layout of my classroom?
And yet the feedback from students is good. They enjoy my lessons, they report that they love the subject, they make progress and they do well in the final examinations. We use lots of active learning methods in our units: simulations, problem-solving activities, data analysis… so why the nagging doubts that they are still too passive?
What do I even mean when I describe them as passive? A dictionary definition of passive is “accepting or allowing what happens or what others do, without active response or resistance.” But I don’t think this captures what I am seeing in my classroom. Students are responding to what we do in class. They speak and contribute. They are not ‘resisting’ the class or homework I set.
So what is the problem?
Perhaps the issue is not passivity but rather a lack of deep engagement. I feel like my students are participants in my admittedly pretty active lessons but that they are not always deeply engaged. Participation is not the same as engagement. Engagement from the French engage implies a pledge or commitment. My students are invested in getting good grades and not wanting to let me (or their parents) down. But they are not yet, or at least not all of them, are engaged in the process of their own learning, and you know this when you see a student who really is engaged and then it is easy to spot the difference.
Why does this matter?
Well the notion of engagement is central to our mission and to our learning principles. It is a quality that is essential if learning is to be the powerfully transformative process that we want it to be. I don’t want my students to love Geography simply because I do, I don’t want them to solve problems simply because they have been told to, and I don’t want them to learn skills simply so they will do well in the exams. I genuinely believe that the study of Geography has a crucial role to play in helping our students address some of the major challenges of our time, and so it is essential that I help them to be the very best Geographers that they can be.
So what are my next steps? I have realised that my goal is not to reduce passivity, but rather to facilitate deeper engagement. I have a bunch of obstacles to doing this:
- Students like it when we make it easy. The business of learning is messy and difficult and I will need to deal with my innate tendency to want to smooth the waters for them.
- Deep engagement will look different for different students. Students who may seem passively disengaged on the outside may actually be deeply engaged internally so I just need to find ways to help them make that engagement more visible.
- Some of the approaches which might encourage greater active engagement are problematic: for example participatory models which give more student choice over content can be harder to manage at revision time; cooperative models can be frustrating for students paired with less motivated peers when the stakes are high; problem-based learning can leave students not sure what solution they need to learn for the exam.
- It can be hard for students to prioritise more demanding work compared to high stakes alternatives such as tests and Culturama rehearsals
So what are my next steps?
I want my students to be more deeply engaged in their learning. Initial reading suggests that there are a number of strategies:
- Providing more choice where we can for example with case studies
- Hold back from giving them the answers,a nd try to respond with more questions but I need to tell them what I am doing and why (so they understand why I am making it harder on purpose)
- Allowing even more time for review of learning during lessons – and accept that this may mean less content can be covered
- Digital blogging as a tool to promote great student reflection and collation of their own collection of case studies and further reading rather than relying on me to supply it to them
- Inviting in more outside speakers to add texture and relevance to class topics. Building on more student expertise where possible.
- Greater use of flipped classroom model to scaffold classroom debates and discussion so students feel more invested in the topic and less reliant on me to provide the right answers.
- Concept based learning strategies should help students to gain a deeper understanding of ideas.