The Myth of Passive Learning

Every once in a while it happens…it’s called insight in my psychology class; that ah-ha moment when the light bulb switches on in your head.  This may occur when a complex idea or concept suddenly ‘clicks’ or when the clouds suddenly rise and clarity of understanding happily smacks you in the face.  For me, this insight most recently came in the form of a comment by Ken Sheck to my latest article, In Defense of Lecture in the Classroom.  His comment discusses misuse of the terms active and passive learning.  Here is an excerpt:

“…the term “passive learning” is an oxymoron. There is no such thing. If students are learning, then they are NOT passive, and learning does not always include moving or talking…”

Yes.  Yes. Yes.  So well said, and sums up in less than fifty words what took me over six hundred words to say in this post on engagement.  Engagement and learning is an exercise of focused cognition.  Without mentally attending to material/information, there can be no learning.  The idea of passive learning vs. active learning as an outward expression of engagement is very misleading.  A student can look ‘active’ with their learning because they are having a discussion with others or using a manipulative, but without assessment of the student’s cognition, we (students and teachers) should not  assume learning has occurred.  Conversely, a student can appear ‘passive’ in their learning because they are quietly reading; not in a collaborative group or creatively working with material.  In both instances, the student(s) may or may not be learning.

So, back to Mr. Sheck’s comment of ‘passive learning’ as an oxymoron.  Learning cannot be mentally passive. If we are talking about actual growth in knowledge and not just a viewing of students performing a task, the idea of passive learning doesn’t exist.  It must be active…cognitively active. If you are passively learning, from the mental aspect of it all, you are not learning.

Eureka…so simple…so poignant.

It is not lost on me that this is the shortest blog post I’ve ever written.  I am a big proponent of a simpler, less cluttered classroom. I believe we sometimes make the act of learning too complex.  With that in mind, I will end this post without overcomplicating its point.  When something is well said…simply said…leave it alone.

There is nothing more for me to say…but what do you say?   

Do you agree?  Is ‘passive learning’ a myth?  

12 thoughts on “The Myth of Passive Learning

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  1. Hi Blake,

    As promised on Twitter, I would link to the work of Chi. Here is a link to (a lot of) the her work, including the article on the ICAP framework (second article from the top).
    Her ICAP framework does include a category ‘passive’ learning, but this is defined quite specifically within the overall framework. It’s a further elaboration of the active-constructive-interactive article from 2009.

    In the ICAP classification, Chi identifies four (observable) ‘modes of engagement’: Passive/receiving, Active/manipulating/ Constructive/generating, Interactive/dialoguing. Interactive subsumes constructive in the sense that some generation should be going on. The modes are quite well defined. I more common-sense langauge, I think many people would see her ‘active’ category as not very active, and probably associate it more with what is part of the ‘constructive’ and ‘interactive’ modes of engagement. I really like how Chi tries to flesh out more detail, and uses the ICAP framework to generate and test hypotheses about the relative effectivenes of these four ‘Modes of engagement’. So far (in my opinion) she convincingly synthesises existing studies to suggest that there is a hierarchy with respect to processing/effects on learning (hence I-C-A-P).

    I think this indicates the potential positive effects that (small) group work can have. Although I suspect ‘interactive constructive’ modes of engagement could also be engenderd in well-led whole-class discussions/settings (but requires quite some expertise of teachers – it is considered a complex ‘high-leverage core practice’ of teaching).

    I first came into contact with Chi’s work on tutoring, which develops similar ideas distinctions. I really like her paper on understanding human tutoring ( and the later one on observing tutoring dialogues collaboratively ( I think this is a brilliant move to create a productive learning setting. Showing learners how a student is interactively learning something, but including having learners interact ABOUT what they are watching, for more effect.

    In general conceptually very well thought through as well as tested empirically very well.

    greetings, Gisbert van Ginkel

  2. Thank you! This is exactly the point I’ve been trying to make for years. I recently started a blog called “Learning Thoughtfully” that grapples with some of these ideas and just posted about this subject in response to your article.

  3. “The idea of passive learning vs. active learning as an outward expression of engagement is very misleading.”
    You are so right! It can be baffling, almost unbearable, to have pupils in your class who seem present only physically. Makes you question your teaching skills! However, there come moments when suddenly such a pupil raises a hand [not to ask to visit the toilet] to anwer a question or even better to ask something relevant! And your self-doubts dissolve and you are forced to believe that “passive learning” does exist!

  4. Here’s an anecdote (that actually happened) to illustrate why I think passive learning exists: A child transitioned from a Montessori school to a conventional school in 4th grade. The mother asked how she was liking school, and the child said she liked it and thought it was easier than her Montessori school. “Easier in what way?” the mother asked. The daughter replied, “It’s easier because I don’t have to think. They tell me what to do and when to do it, and I just do it.”

    Now, is that child learning in her school? Sure. But the learning is more passive because she’s not directing her own learning. She just does what she’s told.

  5. To put this as simply as possible, learning is done by the learner. Nobody can do it for you and thus it can’t be passive.

    1. A lot of the learning proces CAN be done for you: setting the goal of learning, choosing materials, activities, strategies, time, place, pre-structuring all kinds of things etc. In order to learn, the learner will still have to engage in SOME kind of activity. Which can be relatively passive (listening without any further behaviour). That will need to be cognitively engaged, or else it would be disengaged behavior, not likely to lead to learning. But such relatively ‘passive’ engagement is less effective than (co-)generating information. See for instance Menekse, M., Stump, G., Krause, S., & Chi, M. T. H. (2013). Differentiated overt learning activities for effective instruction in engineering classrooms. Journal of Engineering Education, 102, 346–374.

  6. This is timely for me. I’ve been thinking about how we define learning (learning as a noun, as a verb, whether the brain is involved in our definition, which it’s often not) and how what seem to be vague and quaint definitions of learning create space for neuro/edumyths to form and grow.

    I have been writing and thinking about attention as a necessary condition for learning (“Without mentally attending to material/information, there can be no learning.”), so on one hand, I agree that passive learning is an oxymoron.

    That said, I’m also thinking about learning retention and multi-dimensional learning (great blog post on the LS: on this). Which I guess brings me to considering that passive vs. active is better represented as a spectrum. If there is “just a dash” of activity going on, just a small amount of mental effort and presence, perhaps we’ll see short-term gains in learning that quickly disappear. The more actively engaged the student is in the learning, the more long-term retention we’ll see.

    This is one of my favorites on active learning:

    Thoughts? Great topic of conversation.

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