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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Active/Passive Knowledge

It has been proven in psychology that there are two main forms of cognitive mechanisms for learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge, one is known as ‘passive learning’ and the other ‘active learning’. The idea is that there is a difference in how we process new information from a spectator’s point of view and how we use new knowledge as an actor/performer, and needless to say that the former ‘passive’ form of learning is much easier for most people than the latter ‘active’ type, just as we feel much more comfortable watching a show than actually performing in it (!). A lot has been written about this in Applied Language Learning where listening and reading are typed as ‘passive’ skills whereas speaking and writing ‘active’, and in my experience of teaching foreign languages, students do tend to find speaking/writing significantly harder than listening/reading, since the latter only requires knowledge and the concomitant ability of recognising things whereas the former requires you to learn how to use what you know and co-ordinate it in one smooth act, which entails a bit more muscle/cognitive memory. To put it simply: it is much easier to listen than it is to explain.

I fully appreciate the value and validity of such research, which has greatly enlightened me both as a student and as a teacher. However, while I agree that acquiring active knowledge by practising is much more important and effective than passively taking things in on an armchair, one must not discredit the importance of passive acquisition and jump into active learning too early, since although it is very important to actively engage with a skill and get your hands dirty, ‘active’ learning cannot be effective unless one has already done one’s homework ‘passively’. I am speaking here from recent personal experience, which happened to me just last month when I was on conference leave. Whenever I engage with a research project, I either ‘passively’ read and explore or ‘actively’ draft and write. In the words of my old tutor at Oxford, ‘it has got to hurt or else it does not work’, meaning that one does not make progress until one ‘actively’ engages with the work and gets the writing done. In my usual procrastinating self, I had delayed the writing till the last minute and was frantically putting things down just hours before I was to come on. However, I had actually done a lot of ‘passive’ preparation by reading extensively and when it came to writing it up, I found the process exhilaratingly smooth in that I already knew with some clarity what I was to write, what I was going to say and how I was to present it, and apart from the frantic typing, there was relatively little trouble in getting the writing done, since I had, to a certain extent, written a lot of it already in my head with my ‘passive’ reading. If I had jumped straight into writing without having done all the reading that I had done, I would probably be held back by many mental blocks and would frequently have to go back to my notes and find out what to say. On this occasion, I was not writing from a blank page (even if I was writing on a blank page/screen) but from a pretty elaborate mental draft and was able to just type it all in. I was totally expecting disaster, but it turned out to be a lot easier than I had anticipated. I am about to present at another big international conference and I have not yet written it up, though I have done loads of reading as before. Wish me luck!

‘Active’ and ‘passive’ learning then are two closely related learning mechanisms, the former can only be possible when it is fed by the latter, and the more detailed and elaborate the ‘passive’ knowledge, the better it serves the ‘active’ knowledge. As the saying goes, ‘don’t run before you can walk’. By the same analogy, ‘don’t go active before you are done with passive.’

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