My wife and I are big fans of going out to dinner. At least once every weekend, we’ll head out to one of our favorite establishments and enjoy ourselves. Given the opportunity to go out for a meal, who wouldn’t? With our busy home and work schedules, the whole restaurant experience can be a huge change of pace. A hostess escorts us to our seats where a waiter or waitress will attend to our every need. We don’t have to shop for groceries, prepare the meal or even clean up. Given the company and the quality restaurants my wife and I frequent, it’s almost always a great dining experience.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the practice of dining recently. My wife and I had a great meal recently and I suggested we try to make it at home. We tried to narrow down some of the ingredients but ultimately, we had no idea how the dish was prepared. We couldn’t agree on whether the dish had more cumin or more basil or whether the chicken was baked or pan-fried. While we enjoyed the meal we had at the restaurant, when we finally had to do the work on our own, we weren’t able. Being a passive diner did not prepare me to be an active cook.
In some ways, that’s how teaching and learning is. In some learning environments, students are just like a passive diner. The student walks into class where an instructor directs the entire learning experience. As the instructor breaks into an hour-long lecture, the student can sit there passively as the lesson unfolds. Like my dining experience, however, they don’t have to do the hard work. They’re not asked to “shop for the groceries” or “prepare the meal.” At the end of the lesson, they’re not even asked to clean up the dishes.
I recognize that I may be stretching this “passive” metaphor a little too far. But the end result is very similar. In a passive, teacher-centered classroom, however, the students are often as prepared to do higher order work as I was to cook. Students will be able to complete knowledge or comprehension level activities but it would be challenging for them to do anything more. The difference is in the activity. It’s kind of like attending a musical performance. While I’ve attended a variety of concerts and recitals, I’m still unable to play any musical instrument competently. To be an accomplished musician, a person must actively practice.
In my collegiate instructional role, I’m constantly reminded of the brilliance of Chickering and Gamson and their Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (1987). They write “good practice involves active learning.” Or stated more directly, learning is not a spectator sport. It’s true for learning to cook, to play a musical instrument or almost anything else.