Passive learning vs. active learning.

9 08 2011

I’m in Washington, D.C. at the moment, attending what will almost certainly be the last annual Project Directors Meeting of the Teaching American History grant program. It doesn’t feel like a wake really, but I figure if anyone was trying to rally the troops to save the program I would have heard about it by now. I haven’t. Thanks again go to our new Tea Party overlords. I realize that people who will go without medical care and Social Security during our new austere future will suffer a lot more than children lacking the best history education possible, but this still stinks.

Perhaps if the Republicans in Congress (or better yet, President Obama) could have seen the highlight reel at the beginning of the conference looking back at ten years of TAH, they might have had a change of heart about this particular program. As you might expect, it had many talking-head shots of teachers explaining how much more they knew about American history after participating in TAH projects than they did going in. What’s going to stick in my head forever though was a brief clip of three third graders from Iowa analyzing a picture of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. You couldn’t see the picture, but you could see them asking questions like, “If Elizabeth Cady Stanton died in 1902, how old is the picture then?” and “How old is the building?” More importantly, they were feeding off each other; one related question after another – and THEY WERE ONLY IN THE THIRD GRADE!

Now I had been hearing for years at this meeting that you can teach students higher order historical analysis as young as the third grade, but this was the first time that I had actually seen it in action. That didn’t come out of nowhere. Someone trained their teacher to think that way, and he or she passed it on to the kids.

In contrast, the first regular session I went to yesterday was about project that trained their teachers through an online learning professional development course. The grant money incentivized the teachers to follow along as the instructor, who came from an education rather than a history background, basically gave the teachers a tour of history resources on the World Wide Web, followed by online discussing of how to employ those resources in their classrooms. Now don’t get me wrong, there are fantastic history resources out there on the old WWW. Furthermore, having just seen all those teachers thanking the Department of Education for exposing them to knowledge they wouldn’t have had otherwise, I’m certain the class has been doing the teachers enrolled in it an awful lot of good. Indeed, I’d say it’s been money well spent.

But which kind of class would you rather be in: the class where you learn passively by watching well-produced films on the web or the one where you and your fellow students do history together? If you didn’t say the second one, then I suspect you have no passion for history. And while computers can really do amazing things, I still wonder how a passion for history can be conveyed from teacher to student if they’re separated by miles and miles of Internet cable. Co-directing a number of these projects over the years, I’ve seen students get excited about history when their teacher is excited about history. If they only communicate online, how can either side tell? Do they have to type out their messages in all caps?

I’ve been thinking about how to write this post for about a day and a half now, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to end it. Luckily, Tim Burke came along and saved me by writing this:

The key thing, however, is that academics don’t have very long to figure out how they’re going to describe the ways in which their skilled guidance will significantly improve existing practices and professions involving information, knowledge, and representation. If we can’t demonstrate what better ideas and more ethical approaches will look like, rather than complain querulously about how nothing has really changed, stop fiddling with this new-fangled shit, young people these days are so clueless, then we really are going to be in trouble. Higher education (and K-12, for that matter) is going to have to really show what value-added work looks like in a 21st Century world, what better cultures and ways of reading and understanding cultures might be. Pure rejection, unless it seems truly aware of what it’s rejecting isn’t good enough. But neither are blank checks written to supposedly inevitable futures in which everyone is required to be a digital native, as if merely deciding to be digital sufficiently explains what the average skilled, educated digital practicioner of the future will be.

It’s not that I purely reject the kind of online learning I saw illustrated yesterday. It has its uses, and I’d certainly rather see teachers going online to better learn their material than to see their students do the same thing because teachers are much more likely than students to put in the effort necessary to get the most of what their courses have to offer them. The problem is that if we settle for passive learning rather than active learning, especially when students are involved, we can be certain that the history education they’re receiving won’t be all it could be.

If it all comes down to money, we will inevitably settle for second best. I know our new Tea Party overlords wouldn’t mind that a bit, but I certainly hope the rest of us do.


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2 responses

10 08 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Well, you know, someone’s got to say it: the difference you describe here is between different approaches to teaching, not different modes. One of the nicer aspects of my job is that I’m a peer reviewer of other people’s teaching, and I’d have to say that “following along while the teacher gives the tour” isn’t the exclusive preserve of the online world. Neither is learning from building up a conversation of good questions and resources reserved for those who are in the same room. It just isn’t.

Learning by enquiring, by solving problems, by sharing ideas–they work in most modes. Interesting new technologies enable exactly what you saw with the third graders: gathering questions around images, for example, and figuring stuff out together. I’ve seen students put in the effort all the time, and I’ve learned a ton of stuff from watching them put it together.

The interpersonal aspect is tricky, I agree. But I think there’s plenty of evidence that people do convey (and perceive) enthusiasm, irritation, passion, panic in writing. I could tell when Historiann was shouting, for example …

I’m really sorry your funding is under threat. Our national teaching grant awarding commission just got wound up, and even though some of its functions got folded into other government functions, it was a blow. Tough times.

14 08 2011
Middle Seaman

There is no point in repeating arguments made before about online education. There are two comments worth adding.

Not all classes are amenable to active learning. Large classes, difficult topics, passive students are some causes for frontal lecture classes lacking substantial exchange. In such cases online discussion forums, collaborative assignment solving through the use of, for instance, Wikis may contribute towards more active learning.

My son, who like me teaches a precise science at the university level, discussed this topic with me without reading this blog. We agreed that modern technology and concepts, e.g. collaboration, may be worth trying.

About the 3rd graders: kids are very smart, they are just shorter. Elementary school should take about 3 years. The current six years are a waste of time. Same holds for middle and high schools, together one needs only 3 years for both. Clearly, the current educational system doesn’t fit that model, but I am convinced that we can teach twice as much and twice as deep as we do today with the dozen years provided.

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