Why we need Receptive Learning to have Active Learning

In a recent issue of Notices of the AMS, Benjamin Braun, Priscilla Bremser, Art M. Duval, Elise Lockwood, and Diana White make a compelling case to include active learning in mathematics. I want to make a less popular move and ask, what is so bad about the flip side of active learning, or in other words, what’s so bad about receptive learning?

The phrase “receptive learning” conjures up a vision of a lecture hall filled with students, eyes glazed over, starting forward as the instructor, with their back to the class, writes on a chalkboard. Students in this classroom become, as the radical educator Paulo Freire contended in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “containers… receptacles to be filled by the teacher.”

Last October, I presented a paper at the Bergamo Conference on Curriculum Theory and Classroom Practice, entitled “The Pedagogy of the Student: Reclaiming Agency in Receptive Subject-Positions.” In this presentation, which went on to be published in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, I discuss the active/passive dichotomy and the way in which being active has become masculinized and being passive has become feminized. I discuss work by feminist scholars who seek to reclaim the idea of receptivity. Zelia Gregoriou, in her chapter, “Does speaking of others involve the receiving the ‘other’?” (in the 2005 volume, Derrida & Education), argues for an alternate conception of receptivity, one that involves choosing to invite in, welcome, and host the other.

Imagine what happens if we reconceive listening not as a process of passivity, but as an active process of making sense of ideas? This is where things get tricky; do we want to define listening as an action (much like talking or raising ones hand is?) Or is listening, like receptivity, its own category of not-quite-passive but still not active actions? I suggest in my article that listening can be something that gives students agency without necessarily being active.

What does this mean for math educators? For one, I think the terminology “active learning” is misleading, insofar as it implies that “passive” or “receptive” learning is undesirable and that receptivity is a therefore a negative quality. I think that we need to consider the ways in which we want students to interact and to find ways to value and respect the act of listening rather than only considering talking to be the important part of learning. We can also think about the ways in which we use discursive moves when we teach; do we direct students to consider and think about each others’ ideas, or do we merely judge the ideas that students present to us?

I am a strong believer in group work and participation in the classroom. I am not calling here for a return to the days of boring lectures and disengaged students. But I do think that we need to be careful about the terminology we choose and the conceptions we develop in our ideas of teaching and learning.

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