Passive sitters: “they make excellent cannon fodder”

The one thing that intrigued me the most from this week’s readings didn’t actually come from the readings themselves. It was, rather, the contrast produced by the first comment following the “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire” article and the article itself (I’d link straight to the comment  if I knew how).

The article painted this colorful picture filled with students that were excited about learning. They were invested in the content, and they were invested in the game. They were so invested it was hindering other students’ ability to party, which as we know is the priority of weekend college nights.

That first comment though, reminded me much more of the reality of my own schooling. The commentor, username richardtaborgreene, described what he learned through his school years, and it was mostly how to sit while being just aware enough to get decent grades. He had learned to be what he calls a “passive sitter.” Which is what the world wants… right? Passive sitters are perfect for corporate jobs, the commentor continues, because “they make excellent low cost machine substitutes… [and] excellent cannon fodder” when wars should arise.  Passive sitters are easy to manipulate and make other people rich. The commentor describes school as a prison forcing students to assume the role of passive sitters while tamping down their excitement to learn about what interests them, and suppressing real learning.

The commentor says that he first experienced a type of inspired learning that more resembles that actual article he was commenting on at a mass research event hosted by IBM 40 years ago.  Where he, along with his team, was able to go “from zero to as good as world best experts in 3 days!!” and said that “NO UNIVERSITY ever exposed [him] to as much learning, as fun-ly gained, and as much educating, as powerfully delivered, in equivalent time periods.”  The commentor seems baffled that universities don’t engage in such events, but corporations do.

My education certainly has looked more like the comment than the article.  Most of my classes were lectures. Some tried to include group work, but it was forced and not terribly effective. I had a few seminars where we the students did most of the talking and were encouraged to “learn from each other,” but that didn’t take much more effort than a lecture. I’ve never felt that inspired learning though. I’ve never been so engaged in a class, or in a portion of a class that I couldn’t switch school off for a while to engage in other activities. I’d like to experience that, though. More than experience it, I’d like to provide my students with that experience. Which raises the question: How do I, having never experienced this ” mind set on fire” learning, teach in that manner? How can I make that transition from perpetuate-or of passive sitters to a pilot light? Where do I find my English classroom equivalent of the IBM mass research event? Or will I have to come up with my own (a daunting task to say the least)?

9 Replies to “Passive sitters: “they make excellent cannon fodder””

  1. I agree that it is hard to image how to have this type of experience without having it. I had the opportunity to take a class during my Masters called Sustainable Food Systems, where we did some reading assignments and online discussions for a few weeks during the semester and then went on a field trip over spring break to visit and investigate a local food system in our state. What made this trip and class incredible and life changing for me was that I was fully integrated into what I was studying and engaged. We lived at a small goat dairy farm that made cheese, toured farms, grocery stores, restaurants and farmers markets to talk with the people in the food system, and the entire group (25) would cook and eat together. Actually, what we cooked and eat was one of the biggest focus on the week long field trip, which was appropriate for a class focusing on local food systems and farming. The “classroom” work of reading and writing before the trip prepared me for the experience and gave me the vocabulary and framework to engage with the new ideas I was finding, but it didn’t change my mind or have any affect on my values or behaviors. But having personal conversations with farmers or driving around and seeing the culture and community that we were studying, made it real and personal for me and caused me to have to confront my ideas about the issues we were talking about. We concluded the class by writing a paper on one of several assigned topics, based on what we experienced and saw during our travels.

    But I realize that this type of field trip class may not be as well suited to the humanities as it was to applied sciences. I took a journalism class where we were required to write newspaper articles and magazine stories during semester, but we had to choose a real publication to pretend to write for. Most of the students wrote for the campus paper, local newspaper, but I wrote articles for an newsletter of the state sheep producers organization, which I was a member of. Many of us went on to submit and have our works published in these real publications. Maybe this is another way to create a more authentic experience in your classes.

    I think that we can encourage and create this type of immersive educational experience for our students, through whole classes, study abroad, internships or field trips. The challenge is that this type of teaching takes a large commitment of time, money and cooperation from other faulty in the department and university. But coming from an undergraduate university that put a strong emphasis on this, i can tell you that it has large benefits for students, teachers and later for graduated students.

  2. Do not be afraid! Bold statement coming from someone who’s only ever taught blackboard-and-chalk lectures … based on lecture notes made by someone else (sigh). I agree that course creation appears daunting. There is always the possibility that it would turn out to be a flop. But having something of your own means you can experiment and iterate. And perhaps as aspiring instructors, we really should observe different ways of teaching, not only in our own departments and but also in other areas of study.

  3. I too have many of the same questions…with no easy answers. I do believe though that our quest may start with the desire you articulate and the admonition Zhanyu has for us to not be afraid. Little steps I can experiment with now may eventually, step by step, lead to something more than students passively sitting in class doing the group work I ask of them and listening to my lectures…I though, am learning, that I must be active in my pursuit of greater teaching excellence. And as a PhD student that will be hard. But if I prioritize it just a bit, I believe it can happen. Am I wishful thinker?

  4. You’ve got some great suggestions here, but I’ll just add that recognizing that you don’t want to “do unto others” as was “done to you” is half the battle. It can be challenging to “gamify” texts or things we think are basic (like English composition), but when you think about it, our students are highly interactive, communicative beings. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble becoming a pilot light now that your own curiosity and motivation are engaged.

  5. Also — It is indeed tricky to cite that comment on the Chronicle because the discussion thread is closed — copy and paste (with quotes and attribution) is probably the only option.

  6. I think you posed some really interesting questions! And it made me think about some research that I have been involved with that has looked at the ways students approach learning in a classroom and the ways that students approach learning in their *favorite* learning experience. And the differences between these two situations is really interesting! I wonder if you could find any inspiration in your own *favorite* learning experiences?

  7. Some of the more inspired moments I have had in my education were related to the course material and not the instruction or the class itself. I remember having a huge ah-ha moment in 10th-grade history when the teacher mentioned the reason behind why the British empire clung to India for so long (until 1947) when civil unrest had become widespread starting in the early 1900s. It was because of the two World Wars. That prompted me to dig deeper into modern history related to India and the World Wars, something I read about to this day.

    Although my mind was “set on fire” after this, most of my classmates were not present mentally at the same time, so maybe setting students’ mind on fire is more at an individual scale rather than a classroom.

  8. — ” Passive sitters are perfect for corporate jobs, the commentor continues, because ‘they make excellent low cost machine substitutes… [and] excellent cannon fodder’ when wars should arise. ”

    I think you’ll find that, for the most part, the people who form the enlisted ranks in the US military — especially the ones charged with front line or convoy duty — aren’t passive sitters at all. They are the ones for which school simply hasn’t worked.

  9. An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a co-worker who had been doing a little research on this.
    And he in fact ordered me dinner due to the fact that I found it for him…
    lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!!
    But yeah, thanx for spending the time to discuss this subject here
    on your blog.

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