Sitting on Thrones of Passivity


“Okay everybody, come stand in a circle and hold hands,” said the professor to her class.

Cue the groans and begrudgingly slow movements of college students, lethargically half-walking, half-dragging themselves to a standing position and forming the most oblong and haphazard circle there ever was. The students are not physically impaired, they do know what a circle is supposed to look like and the professor is not crazy. This is merely the reality of years of passive learning.

Students pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend liberal arts colleges across the country each year to learn multifarious subjects and have their minds awakened to philosophy, theology, the words of Wordsworth and the discoveries of David Bohm. Just please don’t make them get out of their desks.

I never noticed the impasse developed in the classroom until now, in my senior year. In an introductory theatre class, I have a professor who makes us *gasp* stand and move around like it’s a Phy. Ed class. The looks on my peers’ faces, and probably mine too, is one of discontent and annoyance. How dare she, a professor of performance, which 99 percent of the time involves motion, make us move? Why can’t she just show us another video of people acting and moving their bodies?

Aside from acting schools in NYC or the two-hour labs of science classes, traditional universities sit upon the throne of passive classrooms. Year after year, students are filed into the seats of classrooms and lecture halls to sit for an hour or two and essentially watch the professor work.

Part of college is learning how to sit—sit in class during lecture, sit in the library doing homework, sit on your bed watching Netflix. It is ingrained into the minds of students that to grow up, to be smart, to be successful, one must passively sit and take in information.

Never is this more apparent than when suddenly the cycle is broken and students are made to stand, to actively use their bodies and interact with each other in the name of education. Yet in those moments—those infrequent, ill-received moments—a new experience of education is produced. A sense of class comradery is developed, and, all the while, students are actively engaged in the material they’re learning.

Some professors love group work and group projects because they allow students to apply knowledge and think more critically. Some students love group work because they can rely on a classmate to do all of the work. But if group work became something not just for grading but for learning in the first place, if group work and critical thinking became a building block of the classroom instead of lecture, the entire experience would change.

I have a sister who teaches high school chemistry, and she has embraced an active-learning class environment. Instead of lecturing her students each day in class, she compiled a collection of YouTube videos of her lectures, no more than 40 minutes apiece, that her students watch for homework and come to class with questions about. Class time is then free for applied learning in labs, group work and/or projects. If this can work for a group of high schoolers, it can work at universities.

I understand the need of transmitting information, and sometimes lectures are the best conduit for sharing knowledge. However, with advanced technology at our fingertips and constant classroom innovations, there is no reason passive learning must be a daily routine. Students can be so much more than Norbs Nation hoodie-wearing twenty-somethings packed into kindergarten-sized desks. Our future jobs and careers will not entail such passive days, so why not prepare us for those futures?

Consistent active learning may be a struggle at first, but so was learning how to sit and pay attention for six hours at a time, and students adapted to passively listening, sleeping or daydreaming while information grenades were continuously thrown at them.

That’s the thing about college students: we adapt. We are not fragile. We pay bills and find innovative ways to cook ramen with Keurigs—tasks far more complicated than standing in a circle for five minutes. Even though we may not look it, we can handle active learning. We might even like it (but you didn’t hear that from me).




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