Why are my students so passive?

I was chatting with a colleague the other day and it became clear that we are both worried that our students are ‘too passive’ in their learning. After some reflection on my plp goals and how I have been adjusting my craft over the years, it has become clear to me that I have been trying somewhat obliquely, to address this concern for some time.

 As someone with a tendency to be a bit self-critical I initially jumped to the conclusion that I need to re-think my whole approach. I am obviously too much of a ‘sage on the stage’, not enough ‘guide on the side’. Maybe I should be flipping my classroom more? or having a timer on my desk to self-monitor my teacher-talk? More lollipop sticks and a no-hands-up rule? Maybe the issue is the layout of my classroom?

 And yet the feedback from students is good. They enjoy my lessons, they report that they love the subject, they make progress and they do well in the final examinations. We use lots of active learning methods in our units: simulations, problem-solving activities, data analysis… so why the nagging doubts that they are still too passive?

 What do I even mean when I describe them as passive? A dictionary definition of passive is “accepting or allowing what happens or what others do, without active response or resistance.” But I don’t think this captures what I am seeing in my classroom. Students are responding to what we do in class. They speak and contribute. They are not ‘resisting’ the class or homework I set.

 So what is the problem?

 Perhaps the issue is not passivity but rather a lack of deep engagement. I feel like my students are participants in my admittedly pretty active lessons but that they are not always deeply engaged. Participation is not the same as engagement. Engagement from the French engage implies a pledge or commitment. My students are invested in getting good grades and not wanting to let me (or their parents) down. But they are not yet, or at least not all of them, are engaged in the process of their own learning, and you know this when you see a student who really is engaged and then it is easy to spot the difference.

 Why does this matter?

 Well the notion of engagement is central to our mission and to our learning principles. It is a quality that is essential if learning is to be the powerfully transformative process that we want it to be. I don’t want my students to love Geography simply because I do, I don’t want them to solve problems simply because they have been told to, and I don’t want them to learn skills simply so they will do well in the exams. I genuinely believe that the study of Geography has a crucial role to play in helping our students address some of the major challenges of our time, and so it is essential that I help them to be the very best Geographers that they can be.

So what are my next steps? I have realised that my goal is not to reduce passivity, but rather to facilitate deeper engagement. I have a bunch of obstacles to doing this:

  1. Students like it when we make it easy. The business of learning is messy and difficult and I will need to deal with my innate tendency to want to smooth the waters for them.
  2. Deep engagement will look different for different students. Students who may seem passively disengaged on the outside may actually be deeply engaged internally so I just need to find ways to help them make that engagement more visible.
  3. Some of the approaches which might encourage greater active engagement are problematic: for example participatory models which give more student choice over content can be harder to manage at revision time; cooperative models can be frustrating for students paired with less motivated peers when the stakes are high; problem-based learning can leave students not sure what solution they need to  learn for the exam.
  4. It can be hard for students to prioritise more demanding work compared to high stakes alternatives such as tests and Culturama rehearsals

 So what are my next steps?

 I want my students to be more deeply engaged in their learning. Initial reading suggests that there are a number of strategies:

  1. Providing more choice where we can  for example with case studies
  2. Hold back from giving them the answers,a nd try to respond with more questions but I need to tell them what I am doing and why (so they understand why I am making it harder on purpose)
  3. Allowing even more time for review of learning during lessons – and accept that this may mean less content can be covered
  4. Digital blogging as a tool to promote great student reflection and collation of their own collection of case studies and further reading rather than relying on me to supply it to them
  5. Inviting in more outside speakers to add texture and relevance to class topics. Building on more student expertise where possible.
  6. Greater use of flipped classroom model to scaffold classroom debates and discussion so students feel more invested in the topic and less reliant on me to provide the right answers.
  7. Concept based learning strategies should help students to gain a deeper understanding of ideas.


https://d32ogoqmya1dw8.cloudfront.net/files/nagt/jge/abstracts/McManus_v49n5p423.pdf http://www.ibe.unesco.org/en/glossary-curriculum-terminology/d/discipline-based-curriculum https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/didnt-teach-learn/







4 thoughts on “Why are my students so passive?

  1. Hi Ellie,
    Firstly–congratulations on pushing ‘publish.’ Just a short comment looking at one of your targets:” “Inviting in more outside speakers to add texture and relevance to class topics” remember this too can be an extension of their portfolios. Students can blog and share directly with experts and ask for their feedback. I’ve had a good deal of success in year prior having students target journalists–it is (I think) an interesting and authentic learning experience to create for an outside audience. Perhaps some of the Geographers from this list who are already committed to blogging would be a good port of call for that? https://www.coetail.com/triciafriedman/2017/02/27/portfolios-for-geographers-mapping-out-the-mindset/
    Of course, there is also the potential to create student networks and ask our students to explore and converse with other students. Because you have already culminated a great PLN of Geographers through Twitter, you’d easily be able to facilitate an exchange.
    Thanks again for sharing,


  2. Hi Ellie,
    What a thought provoking, well researched post! You have summed up so many concerns we passionate teachers feel and are faced with every day, no matter what, who or where we teach. I understand completely your sense of their lack of self-directedness. It seems to be common worldwide. Teenagers are passive consumers. I really appreciate how you have mapped out your obstacles and next steps and I am looking forward to following how you tackle them! Students are so lucky that they have such passionate teachers to guide them and it is true that we wonder why they don’t all feel the same passion as we do! What teacher did you have that really connected to you and drew out your passion? What was it they did or said that gave you this drive? I had a similar concern earlier this term with my Grade 7 artists and asked them some probing questions (through a Google Form) about their passions and personal engagement to try to figure out what I could do to reinvigorate their enthusiasm for my subject. From F2F discussions I concluded too that they wanted more autonomy, which is a scary concept with a set and very full art curriculum (and for Middle schoolers) but never the less I am setting out to try to honour this! Dan Pink, in his book “Drive” talked about Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose being the factors that motivate individuals and this might be something that you could look into. Have you asked the students directly? It would be interesting to hear their reasons. Having rich discussions and lots of big questions that need time to unpack could be a starting point too. I love that you are thinking of getting them involved in blogging. I was involved in quadblogging with some other international art teachers a few years ago and this was great but the time impacted on my already tight curriculum, as I only teach the classes once a week. Having said that I would love to find a way to pursue this again so I will be watching your space to see how you get on if you do decide to do it!
    In return for your kindness and advice, you could see how adding the links to your research directly into the post and see if there are some connecting images that visualise your thinking. If the images are not my own I use compfight.com to find creative commons images. I look forward to your next and subsequent posts!
    Great to connect with you Ellie!


  3. Thanks again for ‘putting pen to paper’ or whatever you say in the digital realm. Passiveness is a really interesting topic that lots of us dwell upon. As you eloquently mentioned there are lots of intertwined issues; extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation, engagement vs participation that are worth exploring. From the student perspective it must be exhausting moving from lesson to lesson in a four period day and being present at each opportunity. I think they metre their efforts wisely during the day to survive sometimes. Your list seems bang on the mark and gave me some things to think about. I begin with Grade 11 again next year in Economics and want to flip some of the mini-lessons I do in class to homework giving me more time to extend their thinking in class to more conceptual levels.

    Thanks Andrew !


  4. Hi Ellie,
    Thanks for sharing your thinking with us. It seems that the process of writing this post has helped you to reflect on what are the next steps so that your students are not so passive. You have a great list of steps that I am sure will hook your students in.
    Your post really resonated with me and made me think of a book I have read this year. It is Alan November’s Who Owns the Learning. I love the book and found that there are lots of practical ideas to cure the passiveness of students, what ever the age. One way I have tried to do this throughout the year is by creating as many authentic and real life learning opportunities for my class.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    All the best,


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