In this article, Chris writes: “Try not to fall into the trap of turning passive learning into a big bad bogey man. Sure, active learning is on balance a great way of supporting learning. But simply saying “passive learning is bad” is far too simplistic.”
With all the talk of active learning as the 21st Century approach to education, passive learning often ends up only being seen as a negative contrast point to the ‘ideal’ pedagogy.
Often, my students only make passing reference to passive approaches to learning as a ‘bad thing’ in their essays.
The problem is this: just criticizing a passive approach is too easy. It’s simplistic and, ironically, uncritical.
Passive learning is not entirely bad. It may not be as amazing as active learning, but it still has value.
A Working Definition
Passive learning is a form of learning that relies on information transmission from a teacher to a learner with little two-way interaction. As the learner is required to absorb rather than act on knowledge, they are considered ‘passive’ rather than ‘active’.
There are three key features of a passive approach to learning:
- Lack of feedback: The learner receives no feedback.
- Transmission style: Information is told and shown rather than learned through discovery or exploration. Communication is one-way from teacher to student.
- Teacher focus: The teacher remains the center of attention with students observing the teacher.
Passive learning relies on the behaviorist theory notion that students are sponges or empty vessels. In other words, students direct absorb or are transmitted information rather than constructing it in their minds.
11 Examples of Passive Learning
1. Direct Instruction
Direct instructing involves the teacher standing in front of the class instructing students on a topic.
In the direct instruction model, students do not learn through discovery. Instead, the knowledge is ‘told’ directly to the students.
A direct instruction model is valuable for getting information across quickly and efficiently. It is common (and sometimes even necessary) at the beginning of lesson where some initial information needs to be presented.
A good example of direct instruction is the safety message on airplanes. The air hostess stands at the front of the airplane and shows how to use a life jacket and seat belts while you just sit and watch.
2. Watching Television
When we watch television, we learn things! In fact, much of a child’s early vocabulary is absorbed through television.
Similarly, many people study how television advertisements have a strong impact on our beliefs. Ads about women in domestic roles reproduce beliefs about women as “homemakers” and stereotypical representation of minorities on TV can make people believe in unhelpful stereotypes.
Why else would politicians pay so much money for campaign ads on TV?
This goes to show just how powerful a passive approach really is!
3. Prolonged Exposure
Prolonged exposure to anything can help influence the ways we think and behave. We all grow up within a culture with ways of speaking and acting and learn how to speak and act in culturally acceptable ways passively.
A prime example is accents. Why do British people have different accents to Americans?
We didn’t actively learn our accents. We just speak in a way that we absorbed through exposure over many years to the people around us.
4. Modeled Instruction
Modeled instruction is a form of teaching that involves a teacher or expert showing the steps involved in how to do something. It is very similar to direct instruction, and some might say it is a type of direct instruction.
Modeled instruction is particularly useful when a topic has many difficult parts. It can be the passive part of a lesson that takes place before active learning occurs. The teacher may model the task before giving students a chance to do it themselves.
It can also come in handy when a task is interesting but too difficult for untrained students to do themselves.
An example may be having a fireman come to a school to do a demonstration of fire safety. Children may not have the strength or skill to unravel fire hoses … but it may still be interesting for them to watch and learn!
- Read Also: A list of 107 Effective Teaching Strategies
5. University Lectures
Most college students are familiar with university lectures. A lecture involves a hall of many students watching an expert professor at the front of class giving their opinions on a topic.
Students rarely get a chance to ask questions in lectures. Their job is to take notes and listen intently to the “safe on the stage”.
This method is based on old biblical method of giving sermons as well as the ‘socratic method’ of greek philosophers giving speeches in public squares.
Podcasts are a new and interesting form oflearning that have proven very popular for informal learners.
A podcast is a recording that people download to their personal mobile devices to listen to in their own time. It is asynchronous, which means the listener can’t communicate with the speaker. The recording is of course not live.
So, the listener just gets to listen.
Nonetheless, there are language learning podcasts, full podcast courses and podcasts on just about any topic you want.
So, clearly, many people find this form of passive learning very useful and effective.
7. YouTube Videos
I love YouTube videos! They’re a free and amazingly accessible way of learning just about any topic.
A YouTube video that has been pre-records and uploaded is limited in its ability to get viewers to actively learn.
Nonetheless, YouTube is one of the most popular websites in the world … because people find them so valuable!
While it’s hard to actively learn through YouTube, viewers do have some freedoms, like slowing, pausing and rewinding videos to learn at their own pace.
Books are a classic but invaluable form of learning. There is an entire industry of self-help books that people pay good money to access and read.
Books are packed with gems of information. With libraries, we can freely access amazing amounts of information to learn just about anything we want.
Textbooks – the classic ‘learning book’ in classrooms – are very commonly criticized as a 20th Century passive approach to learning. They are, as well, being slowly phased out of contemporary classrooms.
9. Observational Learning
Observational learning was proven as very powerful by Albert Bandura in the 20th Century.
Bandura conducted the famous Bobo Doll experiments to prove the power of observation. In these experiments, children observed adults playing with dolls.
- The first group of children saw adults being aggressive with dolls (hitting them, kicking them and sweating a them).
- The second group of children saw adults being neutral to the dolls and acting in non-aggressive ways.
As you might expect, the first group of children were subsequently much more likely to be aggressive when it was their turn to play with the dolls.
Bandura concluded that children learn through observation of adult modelling. He called this his “social learning theory”.
10. Expert Debates and Interviews
Debates between experts on topics can be very well attended by ardent followers of those experts. While watchers do not get a chance to interact, they do get to listen to arguments and counter-arguments on important topics.
Expert debates are commonly used in politics, such as via primary debates in presidential elections and the annual Politicon in the USA.
Similarly, entire halls can be booked out for interviews of experts on topics. Religious leaders, scientists and authors are common guests for sell-out interviews.
11. Presentations at Work
Many of you would be familiar with PowerPoint presentations at work. Slide after slide after slide during meeting after meeting has spawned the term “death by powerpoint”.
These sorts of presentations are an example of a passive approach to learning. We sit back and just watch while someone gives their presentation. Wouldn’t it be so much nicer to learn the content … more actively!?
Is Passive Learning a Myth?
Often we like to create a bogey man concept to use as a contrast point to our ideals.
Passive learning is often described at a surface level as the Ultimate negative. We must ‘learn by doing’, they say.
However, it is possible that in fact our minds are very active while we make observations. Albert Bandura, for example, highlights how learning through observation can be very powerful.
So, isn’t all learning active? We can actively watch TV, critique an idea in our mind, or be inspired to think up new ideas while reading a self-help book.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Passive Learning
- The teacher retains a lot of control over student learning and the direction of the lesson. This can be invaluable for classes with behavioral difficulties or when you need to convey information about something fast.
- Lessons are tightly structured allowing certainty for the students.
- Present important information to large groups of people at once.
- Great for exposing new information to people. It can be a good and necessary introduction to a topic before any active learning occurs.
- Lack of feedback prevents teachers from picking up on what additional support students’ need.
- Lack of feedback prevents teachers from knowing how well the students understood the information.
- Lack of feedback means students cannot ask for clarification.
- Students often do not get support that is personalized and specific to the needs of the learner.
- An active approach will allow for learning through discovery and trial and error, which helps students understand their topics in more detail, especially the underpinning reasons for why things are true or false.
- A passive approach implies that there is one true or right way to learn and one truth. A more active approach will allow students to reach their own answers rather than following the lead of the educator.
- A passive approach prevents creativity and spontaneity in the classroom.
- A passive approach privileges repetition which is a surface approach to learning, rather than allowing students to learn through experience.
Personally, I believe active learning is on balance a superior form of learning because it helps create more connections between ideas in the brain.
However, passive learning does have an important role in our lives. It’s an incredibly powerful way of picking up cultural knowledge and learning new behaviors.
Similarly, many people find great value in reading books, watching documentaries and listening to podcasts. Heck, I learned to speak Spanish via podcasts!
So, try not to fall into the trap of turning passive learning into a big bad bogey man. Sure, active learning is on balance a great way of supporting learning. But simply saying “passive learning is bad” is far too simplistic.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.