Can you have active learning if your approach to teaching is passive?

My task this week is to read and comment on teaching portfolios written by colleagues in my university, in two different faculties. This is proving enjoyable, as the window they offer into the different ways in which these teachers are challenged, and in which they are trying to therefore adapt and grow, provides an inspiring view of higher education and where it is hopefully headed.

However, I have been struck over and over by something that bothers me: the common use of fairly passive verbs to describe both their own teaching and their students’ learning. Here I am referring to terms like presenting lectures or tutorials; delivering content, or a learning message; allowing students to learn or engage in particular ways; covering the curriculum, and providing students with information or knowledge.

Yet, over and over, lecturers using these passive verbs iterate the desire for their students to become more active, engaged and engaging students who can embody a wide range of graduate attributes that will enable them to contribute meaningfully to the discipline whist studying, and to their professional field after graduation. I am wondering, now, whether and how students can truly attain this goal if the espoused approach to teaching is passive, embodied in the verbs noted above?


Research over the last couple of decades in Southern Africa and globally has repeatedly, both conceptually and through empirical studies, argued for an increasingly active, participatory approach to teaching and learning. Students need to be increasingly involved in their own learning, and teaching needs to create authentic opportunities for students to create knowledge, critique knowledge and apply their skills to field or subject-specific tasks that move them closer to becoming graduates who can contribute meaningfully, both to society at large and to their chosen profession. This kind of teaching, and related learning, is anything but passive, and yet the dominance of lecture and tutorial ‘presentation’, ‘content delivery’, and ‘absorption’ or ‘reception’ of knowledge continues to persist.

I wish I had answers as to why there is this continuing gap – often unseen by lecturers who are tasked with closing or crossing it – between the passive ways in which teaching seems to be described and even enacted, and the active learning expectations lecturers have of their students on the whole. This is a challenging question for academic staff developers, and for university managers who assign time and money to teacher-development on their campuses, particularly in an increasingly volatile higher education environment globally where hard questions are being asked about the form and shape of the education students are engaged in. Academics are not hired, oftentimes, because they can be or are good teachers; they are employed for excellence in research or potential to be productive researchers. The teaching they do often feels far less valued, visible and worth investing in.

This is not a new refrain, but it is worth pointing out, again, that if universities expect their lecturing staff to be cognisant of current scholarship and practice innovations in the field of teaching and learning, and be able to adapt, grow and apply new learning to their teaching such that their own practice is aligned with their expectations of students, time needs to be created for lecturers to do this meaningfully. Teaching needs to be more fully valued, and seen as valuable work worthy of personal and professional investment, rather than expected to be an area of excellence that must be worked in in lecturers’ own time outside of research and further study of their own towards postgraduate degrees.

Further to time is the need for the creation and sustenance of meaningful and ongoing support for lecturers who are working to reflect on, learn from, and enhance their teaching and create more responsive and relevant learning environments within their disciplines or fields. Rather than ‘parachuting in’* for short workshops every now and then, and then becoming frustrated when excitement and change cannot occur or be sustained, academic staff developers need to also be willing and able and supported in offering more long-term, relationship-based and collaborative assistance to teaching academics. While also not a new comment, there is frustratingly slow change on this front.


I don’t think the use of these passive verbs is accidental or meaningless; the words we use to talk about ourselves, our teaching and our students are powerful, and they invoke particular understandings of education and its role and purposes within our lived contexts. They have meaning, and they need to be used carefully. I think, in spite of excellent and challenging work being done in academic staff development around the world that critiques passive understandings of teachers as delivery people or messengers and students as clients or receivers, dominant conceptions of teaching and learning as delivery and receipt tend to hold, unchallenged because they are often invisible.

We need to listen for these words, and challenge them as carefully and firmly as we can, while offering support to those who need to cross the bridge from passive to more participatory teaching, bringing their students with them as they do. We need to be more united in calling for critique of dominant conceptions of lecturers, students, teaching, and learning. We need to continue to speak back to approaches to structuring university life that devalue teaching and therefore reduce the time for the work and relationship-building efforts that really go into creating meaningful higher education that can grow graduates who can and will contribute to enhancing social justice and the public good.

Participatory Learning in Action (PLA) techniques in tutor training

Objective tree 1I have been working quite a bit over the last two years with tutors in two faculties, EMS and CHS, along with tutor coordinators and T&L specialists. Our main focus has been to find new, interesting and interactive ways of training and supporting tutors so that they are better equipped to work with students in tutorials. This is enjoyable work, but also presents ongoing challenges and questions about sustainability because many of the approaches to tutor training in departments and faculties do not seem to find ways to give tutors more of a voice, and to draw in their own student and also prior tutoring experiences to make the training environment richer and more relevant to them.

The overall goal of the training programme I devised for CHS tutors this year was to do exactly that – to make it about the tutors, rather than about me or even the university. One of the ways in which I have managed to get them to engage on a more personal level is through using various PLA techniques in training, like the River of Life, Matrix Rankings, and Problem and Objective Trees. These techniques are fun to use, everyone can understand what is required, and they have helped tutors from different backgrounds to talk to one another across their different contexts and have built, even if only in the room during the training, a sense of shared purpose and community. The tutors’ feedback has also indicated the value of these approaches to them in terms of getting them to think about their own journeys through academia from a different angle, and also to get them to think about what the students they tutor might draw if given the same opportunity. So they are developing an empathy for their students. They are also using these tools to reflect on things like problems and challenges they are encountering, as well as highlights and rewards of tutoring, and then moving on to look at goals and objectives for next semester – what will they change and improve on? How will they do this? So these tools are helping them to approach their work more critically and also more proactively – they are being given a chance to develop agency, even if they still have to work within departmental guidelines (and sometimes confines).

The value of using PLA techniques in tutor training is significant. We need to continue to find ways of getting tutors involved in their own training and support, and make their voices, experiences and knowledge count in ways that recognise the contributions they make to teaching and learning. I think this is the way to create more inclusive training environments, and also more inclusive teaching and learning environments where tutors and tutorials are part of the whole learning experience for students, rather than an add-on or in. And this is a worthy goal to have.

TED Talk: Rita Pierson – Every kid needs a champion

TED Talk: Rita Pierson – Every kid needs a champion

“One of the things that we never discuss is the value and importance of human connection…No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship…Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

This is easier said than done, especially in the context of higher education. How do we build relationships with students who are already so disenchanted with the learning process? They’ve already had 12 years of learning experiences where they may not have been valued, where they may not have felt important. They arrive  in higher education institutions expecting that their job is simply to show up. How can we show them that learning is about more than showing up? Is there room for building relationships in the university classroom?

My own research has identified the significance of connection and of valuing students as important members of the learning experience. And in classes where we’ve started emphasising the learning relationship rather than the content, we’re seeing differences in how students think about learning. When we spend lots of time discussing the why of learning, rather than the what of learning, they’ve resisted at first but have come around to the fact that why something happens is more important than simply knowing that it happens. They’ve come to care about their learning and I believe it’s partly because they’ve come to know that we care about them.

“We are educators. We were born to make a difference.”

Note: this was originally posted at /usr/space.