Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The cure for passivity

Let me say at the outset that I enjoy and respect my students.  This is in no way intended to be a criticism of them as people.

However, I've noticed an issue with them this year that is pretty much across the board.  I know it's been there in previous years -- maybe I'm just becoming more sensitive to it, or maybe I have a disproportionate number of kids with this characteristic in this bunch of classes.

The characteristic is passivity.

They're extraordinarily well-behaved -- they're quiet, respectful, kind to each other and to me.  I think I've had to raise my voice maybe twice this year.  By and large they do their work, and any directed task I give them, they will happily dive into.

What strikes me, though, is the extent to which they want THE ANSWER.  Few of them -- there are exceptions -- will stop and try to put together what they know to figure out the response to a question, to go out on a limb and make an educated guess, or (even more seldom) to look for evidence on their own to support their answer.  They are perfectly content to have me or another student give them THE ANSWER, which they write in the blank, and forthwith stop thinking about it.

The result is that their grades on homework, labs, and problem sets are uniformly good.  Man, they have those blanks filled in like crazy, and usually with the right answers.  The problem shows up on quizzes and tests -- especially in my AP Biology class, where it's not sufficient to know the vocabulary.  To be successful in that class, you have to understand the concepts on a deep level, not just to regurgitate, but to analyze and synthesize.  If you compare the average grade on quizzes to the average grade on homework, there's a disparity that demands an explanation.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And the more I've thought about this, the more I've come to the conclusion that we in the public school system have created this problem.  We've taught them all to be passive recipients of information, to sit there and take notes, merely writing down whatever the teacher tells them to, rather than questioning it, thinking about it, trying to connect it meaningfully to what they already know.  Education has become simply the memorization of lists of terms, not the opening of new worlds, the expansion of minds.

We've forgotten, I think, that the root word of education is the Latin educare -- meaning "to draw out of."  The purpose of education is to put the person in charge of their own understanding, not to make them more dependent on some authority figure to fill their brains up with factoids.

It's getting worse, not better.  We're evaluating students (and teachers, and in some cases, whole schools) on the basis of student scores on standardized, multiple-choice tests.  We discourage thinking outside the box, emphasizing that they're to find THE ANSWER, not uncover novel ways of approaching problems.  We discourage collaborative learning -- usually, it's labeled cheating, and honestly, in the context of most classrooms, that's what it's become.  In most of what we call "cooperative learning," we enable one or two students to do most of the work, and the others to ride their coat-tails, rather than true collaboration where all minds are deeply engaged.

And upon reflection, I think a lot of it is based in fear.  Fear from us teachers that if we relinquish some control in the classroom, the students will revolt, disrupt, or (at the very least) refuse to learn.  Fear that if we don't test, test, test, we won't have any way to know if the students are mastering what we're asking of them.  And the fear runs all the way up the hierarchy; teachers don't trust the students, administrators don't trust the teachers, and the state departments in charge of oversight don't trust anyone.

I think the only way to fix this is with a complete overhaul.  Vocabulary lists and rote book work have to stop being the main way students are evaluated.  At very young ages, children are natural creative problem solvers; we need to hook into that, encourage it, start modeling factual knowledge as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.  If you want to know how a car engine works, sure, you need some vocabulary.  You're not going to get far if you don't know which part is the carburetor.  But  if all your mechanic knows is the definition of the terms, and how to recognize the parts on a diagram, it's doubtful that you'd trust him/her to repair your car.

And it's not just with auto mechanics that the fundamental goal is understanding how the pieces fit together, and how to creatively work through problems you've never seen before using the knowledge you already have.

That's the goal of all education.

After all, in this age, students have a mind-bogglingly fast access to the raw facts.  If, to solve a problem, run an experiment, understand a behavior, model a cell or organism or ecosystem, they have to learn the word mitochondria, they can do that in fifteen seconds flat.  I'd far rather they understand how energy flow through living things works and forget the terminology than the reverse.

We need classes that are based in active, project-based problem solving.  Ones where sit-down-and-listen time is occasional and of short duration.  Where students figure out what they need to know, and using us (and their technology) as resources, learn the terms and definitions in a real-world context, within which the vocabulary actually means something.  Where critical thinking and evaluation of source validity counts for more than grades on a multiple-choice test.

The transition to this model for schools would not be easy.  And such classes will demand a great deal from teachers, much more than the lecture/problems/homework/test model we've been using since the 19th century.  But walking into our classrooms this day, the second Wednesday in February, will be thirteen years' worth of students with tremendous potential, and thousands of dedicated, hard-working professionals who care deeply about education.

With that kind of talent, potential, and energy, it's eminently doable.

We just have to admit to the problems -- and commit to finding solutions.


  1. I admit that as skeptical as I am about the phenomenon of "unschooling" which, as a shock to no one my sister is practicing) this is actually the area where it does make sense to me - taking children's natural curiosity as a starting point and using exploration and "active, project-based problem solving" is the primary pedagogical tool. (I have other issues with unschooling though).