Secret Teacher: what’s wrong with being a passive learner?

This week’s Secret Teacher in the Guardian says we should try and build pupils’ confidence at a suitable pace, not bludgeon their personalities into something we deem acceptable. This is an extract…

…OK, hands up (if I must, sir), I would have been deemed a passive learner at school. But my passivity was a form of independence. I listened to the teachers, took what I wanted away from that, and salted it with my own opinions. I didn’t disrupt and I contributed when I felt it was a good idea to do so. Is there anything intrinsically wrong with that scenario?

Of course, it’s my job to encourage and nurture students’ ability to contribute to their own learning and development. But has the pendulum over-rotated?

To take the lollipop stick example, an exercise in which all present must be accountable for their contribution, does it not encourage students to placate teachers with an entirely facile utterance? What happens if a child is on the precipice of a substantial breakthrough? “Hold your horses, Lucy. While it’s fantastic that you’ve resolved the rudiments of Hamlet’s inner conflict AND got the apostrophe in the right place, there’s 29 other lollipop sticks we have to get through today.” And are we not, effectively, inviting them to take a backseat once their moment in the limelight has passed?

Yes, some children, particularly boys, tend to be more dominant than others, and it’s absolutely the job of a teacher to build a classroom environment where they’re prevented from ruling the roost. It’s part of our job too to help children overcome shyness or reserve, but not to forge their personalities for them. Some of my classes are more active than others. What I don’t have is any classroom jammed with ultra-confident, well-adjusted young people who have an equal contribution to make to every lesson.

A sample dictionary definition of passive is “accepting or allowing what happens or what others do, without active response or resistance”. I’m comfortable with students learning without active response or resistance if that is their preferred modus operandi – and I really don’t see why Ofsted shouldn’t take the same view.

The lollipop stick idea was popularised by Professor Dylan William and admittedly has some virtue. However, what is fantastically amusing is that we’ve picked up on a couple of the techniques while completely undermining the rationale. Namely the absurdity of our current grading culture: “Kids don’t work for things unless they get levels in them,” notes William. “It’s absolutely crazy – we’re like drug-pushers … we’ve got our kids hooked on levels and it’s going to be very hard to get them off.”

It’s proving equally difficult to wean us teachers off levelling – the crack-cocaine of student incentivising. Personally, I’ve given up on calling students Jody or James during registration and as a time-saver merely refer to them as secure C, borderline B/C, etc. They do, after all, have to know their levels ready for that Ofsted visit.

And what Ofsted demands Ofsted gets because the teaching profession is just a little bit too … passive.

This week’s Secret Teacher previously taught English at a state secondary in Essex…

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Your reactions to the Secret Teacher’s comments on passive learners? Has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction? Please share in the comments or via Twitter…

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  1. TinyTimB

    SchoolsImprove isn’t ‘passive learner’ oxymoronic?…. Or is it just that you are not displaying the ‘correct’ attitude /response?

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