Susie: The Passivity Problem

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
Plutarch (also attributed to WB Yeats)

Another end of semester. Another sigh of happiness/relief (mine) as the impressive final projects of students provide reassurance that they are not only absorbing knowledge, but thinking, really thinking as well.

Why is this even a momentary concern? Surely, if they are ‘doing the work’ they must be learning and therefore must be thinking. Right?


I have lost count of the times that students say that they don’t remember anything of subjects they have done in past semesters. This raises serious concerns when we consider the huge personal and financial investment that education represents. I ask them— why do you hit the mental ‘delete key’ and how can we make your learning adventure more ‘sticky’? They shrug in reply.

One thing I notice at the beginning of each semester, is that there is an increasingly visible demonstration of mental passivity and a lack of intellectual curiosity. The semester begins with the inevitable questions of what do we have to learn? Where is the criteria sheet? How do you want it? When is it due? Will it be in the exam? Check, check, check.

While this may seem like well-planned study schedules of diligent and conscientious students, it is more about ‘which boxes do we have to check and when?’ Any curiosity is about schedules and is answered by the (standard) course outline.

When confronted with approaches like this, I remind them that very few (if any) life paths require such a simplistic approach and suggest that starting to think would be a good idea. To write their own criteria. They look at me blankly.

In my subjects (Advertising and Communications), assessment items tend to be open ended and creative challenges, so when we discuss academic freedom, students stare at me like the proverbial deer in the headlights. And they panic. I have observed this over several years—anxiety, inhibition, fear and appalling lack of confidence in exploring and proposing innovative or novel solutions. Students have been conditioned to look at what others have produced and become anxious if their work ‘is not like the others’. They stick rigidly to the reassurance of a criteria sheet even when it has low expectations of their capabilities. This is alarming in preparing them for any industry and indeed business community that now demands ‘different’ thinkers and severely punishes those who cannot deliver.

So what is happening? Maybe the students are just lazy?

Not at all. They are far from lazy. Many have passion, energy and commitment, with hopes and dreams of bright futures and the desire to change the world. So I ask again, what is happening?

From an early age, we unintentionally encourage and cultivate passivity. Sit still, be quiet, do as you are told, follow the rules, read this, answer this, believe this, do not disagree, do not question. Right answer, wrong answer. Wrong method. Do not share. Write about others’ work—not your own thoughts.

So somewhere we have a disconnect between our educational ideals and what actually happens in the learning experience. Where is this disconnect I ask?

I have an answer and it is twofold—a chicken and egg type of answer. One part is the obsession with measurement and the other the culture and practices we employ to deliver all that we can test.

Contemporary measurement is the result of good intentions. The ultra enthusiastic application of standardised systems. In a well meaning conspiracy, we conclude that the more knowledge that is shoved-at or crammed into students, the more they obediently absorb and regurgitate it and the more we measure it, ergo higher GPAs, and better prospects. And don’t forget the bragging rights.

Measurement is also our reassurance of sameness and control.

In a rapidly changing world that requires innovative and flexible thinkers, sameness is safe, but is also a fool’s comfort. Employment statistics, industry reports and personal experiences show us that knowing a lot, passing exams and achieving high GPAs are no guarantee of employability or a predictable career path. Recently, major companies such as Ernst & Young changed recruitment policies wherein a degree is no longer a requirement as their research “found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.”

The control aspect of measurement is wielded by demanding blind obedience to marks and grades, and by attaching social and potential economic value and personal worth to them. The higher your marks the better person you are.

We have created a powerful industry out of standardised intellectual obedience, adherence to formula. LSAT, GMAT, formulaic exams, multiple choice and approved answers etc.

Awards are mostly for grades achieved though compliance with a criteria sheet and not necessarily for learning, effort or level of inquiry. Focus is on the end result and not the process. As if that wasn’t enough, we add the forces of formulaic classroom design, curriculum design and delivery methods. Assessment, rubrics, boxes and the bell curve. Adherence to rules above all. Constraints, metrics, data, limitations.

Before you protest angrily about the importance of standards, level playing fields etc. please let me reassure you that this is not a binary argument of standards vs none. There are powerful reasons, times and places for benchmarks and specific standards, for checklists and adherences to tried and tested methodologies. We all want high standards in social exchanges, goods and services. We know that no playing field is truly level. As for checklists, they can be both elegant and lifesaving, as illustrated in the excellent book The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande who powerfully articulates where and when such methods are of critical value.

The rigid and often blind capitulation to blanket standardised practices however, has become detrimental to the imaginative capacity of students as they seek to offer new insights in solutions to 21st century problems. It is this standardising, that in turn, creates then entrenches a culture that no longer works.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in validating a culture of limitations, and its artificial and extrinsic controls of threats or approvals we seriously diminish the power of intrinsic motivations. This further hinders the crucial development of creative confidence, personal resilience and discourages initiative and best educational practice.

Curiously yours,