For most people, the first image that comes to mind when thinking about education is a classroom. A professor is likely standing in front of a screen or chalkboard, and rows of students sit at their desks, laptops or notepads at the ready. Respected and knowledgeable, the professor spends the allotted time lecturing about course material and assigning homework for the next meeting.

Think of the word learning, however, and a different image might arise—one of an inquisitive child discovering the world. For them, learning happens in a reverberating echo of questions, a series of inspired whys, hows, and what ifs. The child experiences the world, discusses it with others, and questions the answers they receive.

This accumulation of knowledge through experience is a nascent example of what experts call “active learning,” an umbrella term for a number of practices that treat education as a participatory activity. The classroom lecture, in comparison, is an instance of “passive learning.” The distinction between the two concepts revolves around a central question: Does the act of learning require a student to do anything except listen and remember?

Through empirical and historical research, philosophers and scientists are beginning to conceive of knowledge as dialogical: we learn best when we converse with others. As educators increasingly recognize the diversity of learning styles in a classroom, it can be valuable to understand the distinction between active and passive learning.

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What is passive learning?

Lecturing as it exists today began in the European Middle Ages with the rise of the university. In class, students would often copy under dictation the full text of a teacher’s speech. This was meant to help them learn, but it was also a way to reproduce textbooks and distribute knowledge verbatim; there was little room for informal discussion. As academic institutions spread around the world, courses grew in size and scope, and lecturing was accepted as the most efficient and practical method of teaching.

This history led to what Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, described in 1968 as a hierarchical “banking model” of education: students in the classroom are filled with information, just as a piggy bank is filled with coins. Passive learning, in this sense, rests on notions of authoritative teaching and absorptive learning: the teacher imparts knowledge, and the student receives it.

The passive-learning approach can be seen in activities such as straightforward PowerPoint presentations, during which the teacher lectures and students copy down the text in class. Assigned reading is another example—though in this case, the text serves as a proxy for the teacher.

Passive learning has some advantages: it’s often easier for instructors to prepare a set course outline and notes that can be used every semester. They can also address hundreds of students at a time. For students who work best in silent contemplation, passive learning can be the ideal teaching method. For others who need to feel more animated in the classroom, however, active learning may be a better strategy.

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What is active learning?

When the term active learning was introduced by scholars in 1991, it was considered revolutionary. In fact, though it may seem like a modern concept, it has far-reaching historical roots. Long before the modern university, philosophers would teach their students through conversation, usually in small groups or simply one-on-one. Socrates, for example, was well known for prompting his students to think by asking questions and engaging in seemingly interminable dialogue.

The modern idea of “student-centred” (as opposed to “teacher-centred”) learning is grounded in a similar intention: in order for someone to understand a concept, they need to consciously engage with the material. They need to talk about it.

The key to active learning is the idea that students should be given agency. Pausing a lecture to have a group discussion, for example, is a common active-learning strategy in the classroom.

Some teachers end their lecture fifteen minutes early and ask students to write a summary of what they’ve learned; before students are dismissed, they share their key takeaways with their peers in small discussion groups. Other teachers use “peer instruction,” which requires students to prepare and present course material to the class.

Learning in the modern classroom

Today, classrooms are full of laptops, cell phones, and other digital distractions. Here, active learning has a distinct advantage. While technology can hamper the success of passive-learning methods, which require a student’s unswerving attention, it can also be used to encourage active learning. Online teaching platforms, for example, are centred on student participation through discussion forums and quizzes. Digital textbooks that incorporate interactive elements can also facilitate a transition to active learning.

Research suggests such a shift could have a substantial impact on student success: a number of studies have found that active learning can lead to higher student engagement, better grades, lower dropout rates, and lower failure rates.

Those findings make sense when we think back to how children gain knowledge. With active learning, a student’s experience in the classroom can become a microcosm of how humans learn more generally: by being curious, asking questions, and engaging with the world.