I was mulling this question over recently with some of the tutors I work with. We talk a lot in the Writing Centre about getting students to participate ‘actively’ in the writing tutorials, and not sit passively expecting us to give them all the answers to their questions. A great deal of our training focuses on helping tutors to ask the right questions and draw students into the conversation in ways that enable them to talk about their writing ‘actively’. In education in general ‘active participation’ seems to be contrast in a binary way with ‘passive learning’, the latter being undesirable. I am wondering, here, if we need to be questioning more closely what we mean by actively? Do we mean loudly? Forcefully? With conviction and clear ideas? Or do we mean something else, something less – overt?
This is a difficult question to answer, I think, without wandering into tricky territory fraught with binary oppositions, which are rarely very useful to think with, like active vs passive; teaching as transmission vs teaching as collaborative meaning-making… I am sure there are many others I am not able to think of or express very succinctly here. and I am aware that I am probably gliding over lots of theory and research in this topic. But, this question is an important one because active participation in one’s own learning is so valued in higher education in general, and because much of the current constructivist and ‘authentic learning’ emphasis in approaches to curriculum development and teaching and learning relies on students to be active makers of meaning in their own contexts both within and outside of the classroom.
The question I am pondering, in a very un-theoretical way for the time being is: what does an active learner look like, and if we think he or she looks like just one kind of thing, does this lead us to exclude or discount other kinds of learning and students because they don’t look like this? I think perhaps the Writing Centre has a definition of an ‘active’ participant that we need to examine carefully, to ensure that we are not getting frustrated with students who don’t fit this definition, accusing them perhaps of not being very engaged or interested in their own learning, and wanting to be ‘spoonfed’ the answers. I think, further, that many lecturers think of active learning in certain ways – maybe ways that are quite tacit even to them – and that they often get frustrated or even angry when students in their classrooms do things that fall outside of this ideal that seem not to be active or engaged in these ways.
So, what I will be suggesting to my tutors when we reconvene next term is that we deconstruct our collective and individual notions of what an ‘active’ writing tutorial looks like. What if we sit with a student who doesn’t ask lots of questions and offer answers to all of our questions? Is that student less of an active and participatory student than one who has lots of questions and answers about their own writing? Is that student learning less or making less sense of their writing than the one who asks lots of questions? It is difficult to know the answer to this, and I think we have to be careful if we are assuming that students who raise their hands in class and have lots of answers and ideas are more active learners, and therefore getting more learning done than the quieter students who spend their time making notes, thinking and participating in their own learning differently.
Can we take what we think and know about writing as a process and apply it to our understanding of students and their learning; can we see active learning on a continuum, rather than in binary opposition to passivity and wanting to be ‘spoonfed’? I think if we, and if lecturers, could more critically examine some of our taken-for-granted ideas about the ideal students and their ideal behaviour (and we all, to different extents, have these students in mind when we design curricula and learning programmes) we could approach a larger number of students in ways that both meet them where they are and also include them in the newer and less familiar spaces they need to become comfortable in at university. We could have ideas about what active learning could be in terms of a process of growing and becoming more confident, capable and knowledgeable by degrees, and this could enable us to create more inclusive learning and teaching environments that make space for greater numbers of students to feel like they are okay, that they do belong, and that they are part of a process that will help them to grow, learn, change and become the people they hope to be (and we hope they can be too). Idealistic? Perhaps. Necessary and possible? Definitely.