Why I like Passive Professional Learning

I like to learn ‘passively’. I like to sit in an auditorium and listen to a speaker present their research and build a case for a particular approach or finding. I love to listen while having my perspective broadened, my assumptions challenged, my thinking pushed.

While I enjoy hearing case studies, I don’t need to be given practical ideas that I can use in my classroom tomorrow. All I need are ideas and principles. I’m more than capable of considering how I can bring them to my context.

I enjoy discussions, but I need to have time (sometimes a lot of it) to process the ideas and information I’ve heard. When I’m made to plunge into discussion too early, it disrupts the deep thinking that I need. I feel frustrated as without that, I feel forced to just skate across the surface of ideas. That’s why sometimes I baulk when I know I’ll be attending an event that focuses on networking, hands- on activities and group discussion.

My psychologist says I’m a “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP). I prefer to say that I have “high sensory processing sensitivity” as to me its more helpful than ‘HSP’ which suggests I run around being offended all the time.

From the Wikipedia entry on HSP

a large body of research[17][18][19][20] now suggests that sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS) is innate and found in about 15–20% of humans and is characterized by a greater depth of processing of sensory input, leading to a greater awareness of subtleties[21] along with the probably necessary result of becoming more overaroused by levels of sensory stimulation that do not bother others.

And its true, I do have many of the characteristics of high sensory processing sensitivity. I pick up subtleties and need to process information deeply. Bright lights (especially fluorescent), crowds and noise can overwhelm me. I pick up on other people’s moods and can be deeply affected. At the train station, aware that the person next to me is highly stressed, I find myself absorbing their mood and feeling it too. On busy days, I have to withdraw to a quiet space.

I don’t know if I can describe what being overwhelmed feels like, but it’s as if my brain is full of chaos, I can’t think or focus. It’s a physically draining, stressful and deeply unpleasant experience.

Therefore, I don’t  thrive at conferences. As much as I loved  EduChange, for example, the combination of quick presentation after quick presentation, small group discussions and larger networking activities completely overwhelmed my ability to process. I felt stressed and guilty because instead of using the break times to catch up with people I’d hoped to see, I was using them to escape outside, to find stillness and clarity. I felt frustrated because there was so much information and too rapid for me to process – I couldn’t absorb it.

I’m apprehensive about attending the Social Ventures Australia Education Dialogue this week. I’m honoured to be invited,  the list of speakers sound amazing. However, a significant part of it will include discussion. It may be fine, but I fear that the noise, the multitude of ideas, and the stimulation of meeting new people may overwhelm my system again. To cope, I can always walk away and then return. But it reflects poorly on me when I take that option. It can be interpreted as disinterest both in networking and in the ideas.

I’m not against discussions. I value them. Hearing perspectives, exploring and testing ideas add to my depth of understanding and lead to valuable and ongoing professional connections. But I like a gap between presentation and discussion. I learn best when I have time to process new information. I also prefer working in smaller groups where I can really listen to what people have to say and tease out ideas.

But back to my first statement about preferring to  learn ‘passively’.

Passive learning is an odd concept. I seems more illustrative of what our bodies are doing than what is taking place cognitively.  As I sit, listening to a lecture, my body may be passive, but my mind is actively listening, processing, critiquing and evaluating what I hear. There is nothing passive about it. I wonder if such a thing as ‘passive learning’ even exists.


14 thoughts on “Why I like Passive Professional Learning

  1. Great post with a lot to think about for those who organised PL. I delivered some PL the other day and during a discussion opportunity one of the participants remained sitting on his own. He got my attention and asked an insightful question. He had clearly been thinking deeply about the material. He then apologised for not joining the discussion. He went on to explain that he needs time to process information before joining the discussion. I, on the other hand think by talking – which has its own pitfalls. They are equally valid ways of learning. If we are to personalise learning we really need to find space for both approaches.

  2. Hi Corinne,
    As I read your words I could hardly contain my inner voice from jumping out and yelling, ‘that’s me!’. I too find conferences extremely challenging – I love the content but it’s the socialisation that bugs me. I can be completely engrossed in a presentation from a guest speaker but then come break time I grab my coffee or lunch plate and disappear outside to think things over. You have given me much to think about – thank you for your honest writing once again,

    • Hi Kerri,
      Thank you, that makes me feel so much better. I used to feel that it was a sort of character flaw in myself, as there is such an expectation to socialise. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in needing space to think.

  3. Hurrah that you’ve blogged this!

    I liken myself to a “conference wallflower”, usually walking around outdoors during breaks processing what I’ve heard rather than making awkward small talk with people I don’t know. It’s often the same at uni – quiet, thoughtful, seemingly oblivious to the social nuances playing out around me. It belies my online presence, both on Twitter, and as the PR Exec. within the MQ Education Society. Whilst it may appear that I’m rude or otherwise socially inept, that’s not my intention – it’s me – if people don’t like it, they don’t need to associate with me.

    Perhaps passive learning is something we as educators need to consider in our classrooms – learners don’t need to demonstrate their engagement or learning in the same way. Barrelling questions at students in quick succession following a lesson may not be indicative of their understanding.

  4. mesterman says:

    Thanks for the post Corinne! We’ve shared many experiences – both intense and passive – and it always reinforces the idea that ALL learners need a level of personalisation and that, as adults, we should exert that despite the established norm of “doing whatever the leader tells us” in our own learning. Whether this is requiring us to sit passively, to join hands, to do any particular thing at any particular time, we need to give some responsibility to the participant to make their own choices rather than constantly exert what the people on the stage believe we should be doing. There must always be choice.

    • Hi Matt, thank you for commenting. I think you’re right about choice. Participants need to take responsibility for making them. I guess it’s our role when running events to try to provide a space where differences are respected so people feel safe to do so.

  5. At the risk of being yet another “me too” commenter, your post resonates a lot with me. I find it hard to connect and get involved at times at professional learning events – for example, I was really excited to meet you at EduTech because I had enjoyed our back and forth comments across Twitter and then I got all self conscious and backed off from trying to strike up any meaningful conversation with you. This was a bit silly on my own part but illustrates the inner turmoil that can strike even when one wants to engage with someone or something. Your writing explains your perspective well – by doing so, you help hold up the mirror for me to evaluate my own experiences.

    • HI Graham, thanks so much for reading and commenting. It has been heartening to learn that quite a few people feel this way. I did really enjoy meeting you at EduTech. I remember I was surviving on about 2 hours sleep each night at that time, so I wouldn’t have been much good at any meaningful conversation. I spent most of the time there just watching and listening. But I remember you greeting me very warmly and how welcome that made me feel. Hopefully next time we find ourselves in the same place we can have more of a conversation. 🙂

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