What is Knowledge: Active vs Passive Learning

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.

Two almost synonymous terms, information and knowledge, which are so powerful that they underlie almost every facet of our everyday lives. However, for all their similarities, these are two different concepts whose crucial and subtle differences can be quite significant for our daily and long-term pursuits. Intuitively, one may think that knowledge is more important than information, since while it is tremendously useful to have at one’s disposal lots of facts and information, it probably will not serve you in any meaningful way unless one learns to analyse them and put them in logical order, which constitutes knowledge. This ties in with what has been established for Active and Passive knowledge, namely merely knowing something (i.e. information) in the latter sense and the ability to use what one knows to construct something intellectual and/or artistic in the former, both of which clearly correlate with one other and can mutually benefit each other, as argued in some of my past experiences. I have recently come across this graphic and provocative pictorial representation which illustrates the relationship between Active and Passive knowledge rather well:

Information, as shown in this picture, consists of various and somewhat random dots scattered everywhere, whereas knowledge is the systematic (re)arrangement and organisation of all of these dots, which may be further abstracted as intellect, namely the ability to connect factual dots and form logical and relational connections between one premise and another. This simple illustration lucidly sums up what I consider to be the very essence of the academic intellectual exercise, which may be simplified and summarised as a two-step process: 1) gather information i.e. find and form dots, and preferably as many and as big as one can find so as to leave oneself with as much background information and resources as possible 2) analyse and connect them as systematically, intricately and creatively as possible, which may generate new and original arguments. It does not get better than this, methinks.

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. ‘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.’

The intrinsic difference between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ modes of learning is such that the former requires a significantly higher degree of cognitive/muscle memory and hence harder to achieve (but also more effective) than the latter. However, I still believe that ‘passive’ knowledge is a crucial and fundamental prerequisite for ‘active’ learning and it is useless to jump into the more effective way of learning before one has already done all the basic learning extensively and thoroughly. I recently chanced upon a youtube video explaining the immense benefits of sleep and the deep-lying threats of insomnia, which was pretty scary, especially for a night-hound like me (!). Lack and deprivation of sleep are extremely common in today’s fast-moving and technological world, since our eyes and minds are constantly preoccupied by smart devices and cyber-technology which are moving from second to second. It is hence impossible to switch off completely, which makes it very possible to be constantly engaged with one’s work 24/7. The video explains that while we may think that we are increasing our productivity and getting more done by staying awake and working longer hours, our concentration and efficiency go down exponentially which not only severely reduces the quality of our output but may also do irreparable long-term damage to our system. All this is well-known, but the video goes a step further by explaining that sleep replenishes certain neuro-mechanisms which are responsible for memory-formation and logical connection, without which the human brain can only receive external stimuli but not synthesise them, which practically makes us zombies. I particularly like the way it says that we are actually most productive while we are asleep, since this is the time our brains heal from all the exertions during our waking hours and put everything together (and yes, the metaphor here used is that our brain cells get damaged, very much like our muscles when exercising, when we absorb new information and excessive processing of information may actually kill the brain cells permanently and render one a vegetable…!). It goes on to say that lack of sleep is actually carcinogenic, since it weakens a particular type of defence mechanism which is our bodies’ way of resisting cancer-spread. By this definition, I am lucky to be still alive since I should have died a long time ago and many times over…!

This was a fascinating video to watch and it got me thinking about different modes of working. I appreciate what the experts said about new memory formation being restored and optimised while sleeping, since this is how we often feel, namely fully alert and energised after a good night’s sleep and that bitch of a task which completely bogged us down the previous day suddenly feels so much easier and lighter to handle, as we are that much more competent and intelligent after our sleep has restored all our brain cells to their healthy state. Sleep, therefore, seems to be another form of ‘passive’ learning, and here it is most effective after a strenuous session of ‘active’ working in the form of absorbing new information. It is fine going crazy on our tasks at hand and trying to do them all in one-go, but when we feel so exhausted (and yes, ‘active’ learning is much more exhausting than ‘passive’) that we cannot possibly go on anymore, this is the time to stop, rest, and let things sink in, since, as proven by scientists, sleep and rest do seem to have the magic effect of putting things together seemlessly and effortlessly, and the more one tries to cram in by being ‘active’ during the day, the more one absorbs while sleeping ‘passively’ at night. As before, let’s not underestimate the power of ‘passive’ learning, which, in this case, does seem to be somewhat magical. Another paradox of life.

To put this graphically, I have recently taken an interest in cyst extraction (along with chiropraxis, though that is a different story for a different time), which is really quite disgusting. However, there is pleasure in seeing cyst being taken out of a long-hidden, tiny, remote, almost unnoticeable part of one’s body, not only because the patient is no longer suffering from whatever pain or discomfort that patch of cyst has been causing him/her for God knows how long, but also because seeing a fair amount of toxic liquid/slime being squeezed out of a tiny cavity is sort of gratifying in a masochistic way. There is a term for this, which I recently found out was ‘popaholism’ literally ‘the love for popping things’. Cyst is truly awful, as it is in essence liquid trapped inside the recessed of one’s body, and seeing big amounts of it flooding out is kind of fun (call me sick if you want). I have written several times before that our knowledge can be broadly categorised as active and passive knowledge, the latter consists of purely knowing something which can be acquired passively (e.g. reading, studying, memorising) while the former is technically and cognitively harder in that it requires one to actually learn how to use one’s knowledge, which demands that one not only know one’s stuff but also understand it to the extent that one knows how to use it appropriately. There can be no active knowledge without passive knowledge, however, and I have argued before that it is essential that one spends enough time building up one’s passive knowledge so that when one comes to use it actively, one can eliminate as much hiccups as possible and just get on with it rather than going back to one’s passive repository repeatedly, something which I find exceedingly annoying. Cyst extraction serves as an analogy for this active/passive dichotomy in work preparation, since the bigger the cyst (i.e. the more liquid is trapped inside), the more gratifying it is to see it all come out in one go. In fact, having a big cyst facilitates the extraction process, since if the pimp is too small or hollow, nothing can be taken out. It is also better for the patient to have all the cyst extracted in one go rather than having bits of it come out cumulatively, which is not only annoying but also dangerous as it constitutes unclean cyst extraction which can have potential medical complications. With our work, too, it is important to spend as much time as necessary storing up as much passive knowledge as possible, since, although passive knowledge alone does not indicate mastery of the skill/task at hand, it can do wonders when we finally decide to go active with it, like a well-oiled machine that functions perfectly and fluently when required. Let’s oil our body then and fill it up with as much liquid as we can, even if it is as disgusting and toxic as slimy cyst. When we finally open the floodgates, it will be beautiful, at least for the popaholics and workaholics among us.

Originally published at http://keithtselinguist.wordpress.com.

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