What Every Parent, Teacher and Trainer Needs to Know About Teaching and Learning: Passive vs. active learning in lectures and presentations: The myth of “activity” — We do learn without observable action

Many trainers will talk about lectures and presentations as examples of passive learning, and spit on the floor to show their disdain for them.

That’s more a reflection of the lack of understanding of modern learning theory than anything else.

Usually, trainers call this kind of learning “passive” because there is no observable indication that the learner is actually doing or accomplishing anything. That’s a bit trainer-centered.

In fact, since learning occurs in the brain, which is hidden from view, and no learning can occur unless the brain actively processes information, there really is no such thing as passive learning. The brain is ALWAYS active, except in comatose people, and so it’s always learning anyway.

So long as people attend to, and process information available through the senses, they can learn and are learning, whether the trainer sees the activity or not.

On the flip side, what trainers often call active learning involves visible activity, at least from the trainer or observer’s position. Trainers like active learning. But here’s the catch. It doesn’t matter what is observable per se, because, as we said earlier, learning occurs hidden from us in the brain. It’s quite possible to have people participate in visible learning activities and have them NOT learn much at all. It all depends on how the process the experience.

From a trainer’s point of view, visible and active learning (engaging in active learning activities) is valuable, because it allows for processes that are critical in learning environments — the opportunity to practice things, even mental things, and the opportunity for learners to receive feedback. Without those opportunities, it’s hard to learn efficiently.

Further, when learners are engaged in various learning activities, the trainer can observe them, and know “how they are doing”, and modify instruction on the fly.

So, the issue isn’t so much whether learners are active or passive, since brains are almost always active, but whether visible activities are valuable for other reasons.

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