I am doing a lot of thinking about the overuse of binaries in describing learning and learning spaces. One that comes up frequently is the active-passive binary, typically in discussions about the value of lectures in higher education.
I was challenged by a PVC on this a few years ago when I was doing some work on ‘good, inspirational teaching’. He commented then that it was not about learners being passive in lectures: they are cognitively engaged. Ideally, this is true. This suggested that my use of the word ‘active’ needed to be defined more usefully because he had picked up on an unintended meaning.
In writing about active learning and the active classroom, the idea of passivity does not seem as useful for describing a non-active learning space or state. More useful, perhaps, is the idea of dependency. In a lecture or other didactic situation, the learner is more dependent on what the teacher provides than in an active situation in which the learner is expected to be more resourceful. In any learning situation, the learner brings their ecology to bear on their learning. Where the situation is active, the learner is expected to draw upon what they already know, and when that context is social, the learner is in a co-operative dependency. This way of thinking makes ideas about networked learning and communities of practice easier to comprehend too.
So, while the proposition of passive learning disregards the learner as having a role at all, considering ideas of dependency does more to recognise the intent of the instructional design and the learner’s agency in any situation.