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.

Simon Barrie presentation on Graduate Attributes

“Curriculum renewal to achieve graduate learning outcomes: The challenge of assessment”
Prof Simon Barrie, Director of T&L, University of Sydney

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a presentation on graduate attributes and curriculum renewal by Prof Simon Barrie. The major point I took away from it was that we need to be thinking about how to change teaching and assessment practices to make sure that we’re graduating the kinds of students we say we want to. Here are the notes I took.


Assessment is often a challenge when it comes to curriculum renewal. The things that are important (e.g. critical thinking) are hard to measure. Which is why we often don’t even try.

Curriculum is more powerful than simply looking at T&L, although bringing in T&L is an essential aspect of curriculum development. Is curriculum renewal just “busy bureaucracy”? It may begin with noble aims but it can degenerate into managerial traps. Curriculum renewal and graduate attributes (GA) should be seen as part of a transformative opportunity.

GA are complex “things” and need to be engaged with in complex ways

GA should be focused on checking that higher education is fulfilling it’s social role. UNESCO World Declaration on Higher Education: “higher education has given ample proof of it’s viability over the centuries and of its ability to change and induce change and progress in society”.

GA should be a starting point for a conversation about higher education. If they exist simply as a list of outcomes, then they haven’t achieved their purpose.

How is an institution’s mission embodied in the learning experiences of students and teaching experiences of teachers?

What is the “good” of university?

  • Personal benefit – work and living a rich and rewarding life
  • Public benefit – economy and prosperity, social good
  • The mix of intended “goods” can influence our descriptions of the sorts of graduates that universities should be producing and how they should be taught and assessed. But, the process of higher education is a “good” in itself. The act of learning can itself be a social good e.g. when students engage in collaborative projects that benefit the community.

Universities need to teach people how to think and to question the world we live in.

If you only talk to people like you about GA, you develop a very narrow perspective about what they are. Speaking to more varied people, you are exposed to multiple set of perspectives, which makes curriculum renewal much more powerful. We bring our own assumptions to the conversation. Don’t trust your assumptions. Engage with different stakeholders. Don’t have the discussion around outcomes, have it around the purpose and meaning of higher education.

A framework for thinking about GA: it is complex and not “one size fits all”. Not all GA are at the same “level”, there are different types of “understand”, which means different types of assessment and teaching methods.

  • Precursor: approach it as a remedial function, “if only we got the right students”
  • Complementary: everybody needs “complementary” skills that are useful but not integral to domain-specific knowledge
  • Translation: applied knowledge in an intentional way, should be able to use knowledge, translating classroom knowledge into real world application, changing the way we think about the discipline
  • Enabling: need to be able to work in conditions of uncertainty, the world is unknowable, how to navigate uncertainty, develop a way of being in the world, about openness, going beyond the discipline to enable new ways of learning (difficult to pin down and difficult to teach, and assess, hard to measure)

The above ways of “understanding” are all radically different, yet many are put on the same level and taught and assessed in the same way. Policies and implementation needs to acknowledge that GA are different.

Gibbons: knowledge brought into the world and made real

The way we talk about knowledge can make it more or less powerful. Having a certain stance or attitude towards knowledge will affect how you teach and assess.

What is the link, if any, between the discipline specific lists and institutional / national higher education lists?

The National GAP – Graduate Attribute Project

What are the assessment tasks in a range of disciplines that generate convincing evidence of the achievement of graduate learning outcomes? What are the assurance processes trusted by disciplines in relation to those assessment tasks and judgments? Assessing and assuring graduate learning outcomes (AAGLO project). Here are the summary findings of the project.

Assessment for learning and not assessment of learning.

Coherent development and assessment of programme-level graduate learning outcomes requires an institutional and discipline statement of outcomes. Foundation skills? Translation attributes? Enabling attributes and dispositions? Traditional or contemporary conceptions of knowledge?

Assessment not only drives learning but also drives teaching.

  • Communication skills – Privileged
  • Information literacy – Privileged
  • Research and inquiry – Privileged
  • Ethical social professional understandings – Ignored (present in the lists, but not assessed)
  • Personal intellectual autonomy – Ignored (present in the lists, but not assessed)

Features of effective assessment practices:

  • Assessment for learning
  • Interconnected, multi-component, connected to other assessment, staged, not isolated
  • Authentic (about the real world), relevant (personally to the student), roles of students and assessors
  • Standards-based with effective communication of criteria, assessment for GA can’t be norm-referenced, must be standards-based
  • Involve multiple decision makers – including students
  • Programme level coherence, not just an isolated assessment but exists in relation to the programme

The above only works as evidence to support learning if it is coupled with quality assurance

  • Quality of task
  • Quality of judgment (calibration prior to assessment, and consensus afterwards)
  • Confidence

There is a need for programme-level assessment. Assessment is usually focused at a module level. There’s no need to assess on a module level if your programme level is effective. You can then do things like have assessments that cross modules and are carried through different year levels.

How does a university curriculum, teaching and learning effectively measure the achievement of learning outcomes? In order to achieve certain types of outcomes, we need to give them certain types of learning experiences.

Peter Knights “wicked competencies”: you can’t fake wickedness – it’s got to be the real thing, messy, challenging and consequential problems.

The outcomes can’t be used to differentiate programmes, so use teaching and learning methods and experiences to differentiate.

Stop teaching content. Use content as a framework to teach other things e.g. critical thinking, communication, social responsibility

5 lessons:

  1. Set the right (wicked) goals collaboratively
  2. Make a signature pedagogy for complex GA part of the 5 year plan
  3. Develop policies and procedures to encourage and reward staff
  4. Identify and provide sources of data that support curriculum renewal, rather than shut down conversations about curriculum
  5. Provide resources and change strategies to support curriculum renewal conversations

Teaching GA is “not someone else’s problem”, it needs to be integrated into discipline-specific teaching.

Be aware that this conversation is very much focused on “university” or “academic” learning, and ignores the many different ways of being and thinking that exist outside the university. How is Higher Education connecting with the outside world? Is there a conversation between us and everyone else?

We try to shape students into a mold of what we imagine they should be. We don’t really acknowledge their unique characteristics and embrace their potential contribution to the learning relationship?

We (academics) are also often removed from where we want our students to be. Think about critical thinking, inquiry-based learning, collaboration, embracing multiple perspectives. Is that how we learn? Our organisational culture drives us away from the GA we say we want our students to have.


Originally posted at /usr/space.

Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments of Teaching

Honourable_Bertrand_RussellA great post from Brainpickings, on Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments of Teaching:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Note: this was first published at /usr/space and is cross-posted here.