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Active Vs Passive Learning

How to you define active and passing learning and to that matter active or passive learners?

Traditionally approach for the learning leaders, instructors or curriculum developers when designing the learning environment has been to think of the students mind as empty vessels or sponges which can be easily filled with knowledge and students were expected to absorb most of it. This approach typically results in and encourages passive learning, where students are listening to instructors, reading books as per instructor’s instructions, looking at presentations or slides, etc. Passive learners always quietly take in new information, but they typically don’t engage with it. They do not interact, share their insight or contribute to it.

Interestingly enough, passive behavior to the most part is a learned behavior in itself. When the kids are born, most of them are not passive to start with. Almost every toddler wants to explore the world around them. They want to touch, feel and sense things to understand their environment better. They may want to crawl to the television to understand what is behind those pictures or want to hold the magic tool called ‘remote’ or emulate elders around the house, or do other funny or sometimes dangerous things, since they are and want to be actively engaged. It is primarily the cultural and behavioral factors and family norms and environment which plays a significant role in individual’s upbringing and results in converting children from adopting a passive style instead of staying active.

Things have changed dramatically today. The reality is that the learning leaders, program owners and instructors today strive to create a learning environment in which student is engaged and motivated even before the actual learning starts and student can restructure and merge the prior knowledge with the new information and get the new insight and start practicing it, i.e. “active learning”. The active learning puts the responsibility on student and encourages them to get and stay engaged in class discussions and exercises and compel them to read, speak, listen and think.

The focus of active learning is on changing behavior. And that is the true motivation for active learners. They want to engage, learn and put learning to practice so they can learn new things or get better at things they want to pursue. They are able to construct their own knowledge, discover relationships, and organize subject matter on their own that is meaningful. And for the program managers and leaders, engaged learners who actively seek to learn and to change their behavior is exactly what they want. To accomplish this learning leader’s needed to create environment that trigger the desire and motivation to learn and encourages active participation. Where people are not just showing up in class or attending it, but are engaged in conversation and contributing to it.

Knowing the importance of active engagement and learning is great, but how to enable and foster it? The key as we discussed earlier is the “Active learning culture”. One of the things it requires is using combination of formal and informal learning opportunities. For example: it may include a formal class, group presentations, hands on assignments, role play, simulations, collaborative learning, mentoring/shadowing, etc. Technology and tool enablers for this could be multiple resources such as formal training system, social networking and learning platform, push and pull models, well established development and talent management processes, etc. The concept is to provide complete and simple mechanism for the people to engage in learning at the time and the manner that makes most sense for them. Providing the rationale is another element which eases the transition for many learners from their passive role to being active. If they understand the purpose to why they are doing what they are doing, they will be more receptive and adaptive. Besides the tools, another key element which needs to be part of learning culture is to give both ownership and autonomy to learners to create and contribute in it. When a group is created with a purpose and responsibility to solve a problem or for informational exchanges, in social networking setup, the passive lurking behaviors go down. It is because these groups have a clear purpose and direction and with opportunities and autonomy to contribute, they become more actively involved and feel more accountable. This results in change of behavior for them. To foster the active learning culture further, learning leaders need to recognize and reward such groups or individuals who demonstrate such behavior. They are the critical assets for the success of such initiatives. This encourages them and others and fuel motivation. Public recognition of good behaviors always motivates others to follow and emulate them.

I will end this discussion with some quotes here which summarize the concept of active learning really well. Ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius once said, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; and involve me and I’ll understand.” This was further modified by Silberman, in 1996 as “What I hear, I forget; What I hear and see, I remember a little; What I hear, see and ask questions about or discuss with someone else, I begin to understand; What I hear, see, discuss and do, I acquire knowledge and skill; What I teach other, I master.