Passive learning: the bogeyman of alternative education

Passive learning like a puppet on a string

Passive learning is seen as problematic in alternative education

In order to understand holistic education, it helps to put it on the map of alternative education and see how it relates to other forms of non-conventional education, and an outline of this can be found in the post How holistic education is located in the wider field of alternative education. But it is also important to understand what it is that all these forms of education are alternative to. So in this post we will look at passive learning, or what Miller (2004) calls the transmission model of education. We will briefly look at the main criticisms of this form of education, as well as indicate, in broad outlines, what I believe constitutes a holistic response to it. This will help clarify what holistic education is, as well as what other education alternatives distinguish themselves from.

Most, if not all, educational alternatives define themselves to some extent in opposition to the passive learning they claim goes on in traditional schools. What defines this model is that ‘knowledge is seen as an established, objective, authoritative body of facts outside the learner’s experiences or personal preferences, and the role of the educator is to transmit this knowledge, along with accompanying academic skills and attitudes, to the learner’s mind’ (Miller 2004). This is the traditional view of the teacher in possession of knowledge, skills, and attitudes, which the learner is yet to acquire, combined with the, admittedly simplistic, notion that learning happens when what the teacher possesses is shared with the learner. There are at least three kinds of criticism levelled at the transition model of learning.

When learners learn they are active constructors of knowledge

The first criticism of the passive model of learning is that it distorts the fact that all learning is done by learners constructing their own knowledge and not by way of, as it were, pouring knowledge into the learner. This criticism is, however, only valid to the extent that people actually believe that knowledge is something the teacher transmits to a passive learner, and I am not sure many people who have though about it actually do.

“The key is balance, when it comes to the different ways of learning”

Certainly within the philosophical branch of epistemology the notion of the learner constructing their own knowledge of the world goes back centuries. And ever since Piaget and Vygotsky, educational professionals have been schooled in various kinds of constructivists models of learning, according to which the learner is always active. What is more, most educational material has been designed with just such a constructivist model in mind. As a result its perfectly feasible to teach mandated content (for example, in the context of an exam subject) and still have a thoroughly constructivist approach. In such a case there is a fixed body of knowledge that is learned, not as a result of transmission but of modelling, bridging, and structuring the material in such a way that the learner can reach the required level of competence.

So the argument that is sometimes made that developments in educational psychology, showing the essentially active nature of human learning, discredit the transmission model of learning is largely a spurious one.

Passive learning does not begin with the interests of the learner

The second criticism of the passive approach to learning is that learners are thought to learn better when they are motivated by their own interests. Again, I would consider this a widely-understood point, and that when teachers teach according to the passive-learning model, they are likely to do so either because they are mistaken about the nature of effective learning or because they have been put in that position by school leaders and government regulation.

Having said that, there is a place for just presenting a certain body of knowledge and skills to be learned. There may simply be certain knowledge and skills that any responsible adult would want the young to acquire, such as solid literacy and numeracy, a general knowledge of the culture and society, and an understanding of the body and the natural world.

So, again, I would take the point that the passive approach to learning pays too little attention to learner interests as one that can largely be explained in terms of factors such as ignorance and government mandated content. But this should not be taken to the extreme, as it is common sense that certain knowledge, skills, and attitudes ought to be acquired by all learners.

Passive learning is a tool of the powers that be

The third criticism levelled at the passive learning model is that, in presenting knowledge as an objective, authoritative body of facts, it is likely to become a tool whereby the powers that be impose their worldview on the learner.

There is, indeed, a long history of, first, religious organizations and, later, the nation state using education as a means to propagate its ideology and world view. The very organization of schooling in its time-tabled practicality can be understood as containing a ‘hidden curriculum’ which imposes certain routines and ways of being on learner and teacher alike.

Seen from this perspective, the state education systems we have are compromises of the role of education in society as, at the same time, nurturing the development of the learner, shaping and controlling their behaviour, and selecting for different positions in society.

Again, this is not all negative, for who is really against making sure all young people learn the basic forms of civility, regardless of their socio-cultural background, for example, when it comes to attitudes towards women or ethnic minorities?

More problematic is the school’s role in selecting for roles in society, because the high-stakes testing that comes with that role can easily come to dominate much of school life, for example, when teachers begin to teach for the test or when the school ethos becomes ever more competitive; but even here most people would probably grant the school some role in student selection.

The holistic stance towards passive learning

From a holistic point of view, the criticism that the transmission model thinks of learning as a process where the teacher has something which he or she transmits to the learner is an opportunity for discovery rather than a problem.

The teacher or learner who, mistakenly, thinks of learning as if it is a purely passive affair would need to update themselves on the topic of knowledge acquisition.

At the same time, holistic education would want to explore the nature of the learning process directly, where learners and teachers together experiment with ways of learning. For example, it would be interesting to see if we could become aware of what happens in us, when we hear new information; perhaps we can observe part of the process of learning as it takes place.

Also, the role of silent attention—where we stay with the thoughts, feelings and sensations that come up—is important in holistic education, which means that we would want to see what happens when the mind is relatively passive when information is being presented to us. Who knows, we may even come to question the very constructivist notion of learning that is currently dominant.

The problem of indoctrination and dogmatism in passive learning

The criticism that within the transmission model of education a dominant power, such as the state, sets compulsory content is just as much a problem for holistic education as it is for all groups and individuals who have understood the nefarious effects of indoctrination and dogmatism.

A government History syllabus that is jingoistic and biased presents a problem to any critical thinking person. At the same time, we do expect the school curriculum to reflect up-to-date thinking in the different disciplines (aware that it is never perfect and always changing, as well as mindful of the fact that not all claims to knowledge are equally valid).

So from a holistic perspective questions of objectivity and rationality become key, and we will want to explore them with the learner in a way that honour both the external and the inner dimensions of objectivity and rationality, for example, by asking ourselves whether we can be truly objective about something, so long as we have vested interests.

Then there is the question of what kind of thinking is capable of dealing with the complexities of knowledge, as well as the role of different faculties (such as intuition, inspiration, or affection) in knowing what to think and do. The holistic perspective is one that first raises the question what the qualities of mind are that can cope with the complexity of human knowing and acting, and from there approaches knowledge claims made by others.

The problems of extrinsic motivations for learning

Perhaps the greatest issue with the transmission model for holistic education comes when there is pressure to gain mastery of a certain curriculum content, where the motivation is extrinsic to what is being learned.

When there is fear, worry, and stress because of exams and inspections, these get in the way of us attending to the inner dimension of life. This is because fear, worry and stress fix our attention firmly on the instrumental in life.

“Even when studying for a government exam, the challenge is to do so for the sake of studying itself”

The same goes for ambition and the pursuit of reward (say, in the form of a good grade or prestigious diploma), the pursuit of which tends to make us forget about doing things for their own sake.

This is not to say that holistic education is incompatible with accreditation of the course material, but that the extrinsic motivating factors need to be clearly limited and kept, as it were, on the periphery of education, while at the same time learners and teachers alike learn not to let the pressure get to them—and this is deeply psychological learning, which can only happen when there is not the acute alarm of high-stakes testing or the all-consuming pursuit of some extrinsic goal.

The importance of self-awareness in all learning

For holistic education passive learning is also, at the end of the day, a fact of life. So we do not want to make too much of a problem of it, when learners cannot choose their own content or when the teacher simply tells the students what they need to know.

But passive learning should not be the only thing going on; it is important that learners also explore what it means to pursue their own interest and set their own learning goals.

Crucial is, however, that all learning happens in a way that is mindful of both its external and internal dimension: we need to be aware of what we do when learning as well as what happens at the inner level. And this is only possible when the learning happens, to a large extent, for its own sake.

In this way, holistic education is—at least initially—politically fairly neutral, because any outward change in society will need to come from a transformed inner way of being. That any person who has become inwardly whole will have an effect on society stands to reason. But the other way round, where we strive for outer change without taking the inner along with us, is, from the perspective of holism, an illusion.

But all of this aside, let us not forget that when education comes from the heart, there will be moments when the teacher transmits something—a piece of wisdom perhaps—simply out of love. At that moment transmission ceases to be the bogeyman of education and become what it should always be, a gift.

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