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Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of  joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for ever more.  Psalms 16:11

Activating The Passive Learner

By Sharon Hensley, MA

Almaden Valley Christian School



“Although each child’s learning problem is unique, almost all children with learning difficulties share the characteristic of a passive learning style...” 

            Do you ever feel that your teaching goes in one ear and out the other?  Have you ever felt like you’ve reviewed the basics so many times that you should be awarded a PhD in “3rd Grade Studies”?  If so – you may be dealing with a passive learner. 

            Although each child’s learning problem is unique, almost all children with learning difficulties share the characteristic of a passive learning style.  By passive learning, I mean that most children with learning problems wait for information to walk up on its own, hit their heads, and sink into their memories without any effort on their part.  This, of course, rarely happens!  But passive learners don’t recognize that an alternative way of learning exists.  This passive style of learning may only be evident in a mildly learning disabled child in their struggle areas.  In more severely handicapped children, we can see this problem across all learning situations.

            How can we as teachers combat the passive tendencies of our children?  In this article, I am going to discuss three principles to help activate your passive learner.  These principles are:  Discuss Learning Realities, Develop Passions, Demand Active Thinking. 

            Now, none of these principles are magical cures to your child’s learning issues, but consistently applied, they can improve your child’s overall learning and memory.  I have even used these principles with my severely autistic daughter and have seen the benefits. 


Discuss Learning Realities

            The place to start is with the facts.  It is important that your child have an understanding of the effort involved in learning and the specific difficulties their own learning problems cause in the learning process.  It has always amazed me how many learning disabled children truly believe that “everyone else just knows stuff” and that other people do not have to work at learning.  It is very important for these children to understand that learning requires effort for everyone – not just them. 

            One analogy I have found successful is to compare our brain with a computer.  The computer can be plugged in, turned on and have all the right software; but it doesn’t have any information unless someone sits down and does the work to put the information into the computer.  Our brains are like that too.  The brain is turned on, but we have to do the work to put information into it.  After we’ve done the work of putting the information in, however, we aren’t done.  We also have to save the information so it will be there when we come back to work again.  On the computer, we can click the save icon, but our brains don’t have a save button – we have to think of ways to help our brain remember and save information (this is called a memory strategy!).  Obviously, this analogy only goes so far, and has to be adapted for younger children.  However, the idea behind it – that learning takes work - is the point that each of our children need to be reminded of. 

            In addition to discussing the need to be active in the learning process, children need to understand something about their own learning difficulties.  Many parents worry that if they tell their child about his learning disability that the child will use this as an excuse for not trying.  My experience, however, is that this is usually not the case.  Most kids already know that they don’t read as well as their sister or cousin.  They already have a sense that school is more difficult for them than for others.  But without adequate information, they will often assume their learning problem to be far worse than it really is.  For children with mild attention and learning problems, I highly recommend Dr. Mel Levine’s books, “All Kinds of Minds” and “Keeping A Head in School” (www.avcsbooks.com).  Both give very good explanations of learning difficulties aimed at helping children understand how their brains work. 

            As we explain their learning difficulties to our kids, it is important that we acknowledge to them that we understand how hard learning is for them.  We need to let them know we are on their team and will do whatever we can to support them.  But we need to be honest too.   We need to help them see that working through their difficult areas will be hard, but that doesn’t mean we can just skip those areas or tasks.  Their learning challenges are something that God can and will use in their lives to make them into the person He intends for them to be, so they can’t just be avoided or ignored. 


Develop Passions

            At the same time that we help our kids take ownership of their learning challenges, we also need to help them see their own strengths and learn how to capitalize on them.  By helping our children identify and develop the areas that they are good at and passionate about, we give them an avenue for active learning that can actually teach them HOW to learn effectively. 

            Since it is always easier to learn something when we are motivated and actively engaged, we can use the interests of our children to help them better understand how they learn best.  If a child has an interest in a particular area (for example, baseball), you can help him see that he is capable of learning.  And you can ask him to think through HOW he learns a new play or a new strategy.  Basically, you use your child’s strength to help them understand their own learning process. 

            You can also use an area of interest to make difficult learning areas more “palatable.”  Reading, writing and research subjects (such as history) can be done using an area of interest instead of standard textbooks or readers.  I used this approach with one of my daughters who was a somewhat unmotivated learner.  Her passion was (and is) horses and much of her school work used this passion to help her maintain her interest.  Today, she has her own business as a horse trainer and lesson instructor.  So you never know if a passion will turn into a career! 


Demand Active Thinking

            Once you have had the “understanding” talk and have done what is reasonable to make learning more meaningful, it is time to dig in your heels and demand maximum thinking effort from your student.  Although we have touched on the concept of “activating the brain,” we are now referring to something more specific.  Namely, that your student not only KNOW about active learning, but that he now APPLY these ideas to specific learning situations. 

            If you have a severely handicapped child, you may not think this is possible, but on a very basic level it is possible with any child.  But the real key to achieving this type of learning for our students is that we as teachers have to combat the temptation to be “passive teachers” as well.  By this I mean we don’t give answers, but instead help our children develop thinking, memory and learning strategies. 

            Fighting the tendency to be passive teachers is actually harder than it sounds.  When we, as teachers, set specific goals for our students to achieve, it is tempting to “help” the child achieve the goal by supplying too much help, too many cues, or even the answers when they are struggling.  Since it is easy to take our worth as teachers from the successful achievement of goals, we may not even notice what we are doing.  Often, when people bring a child for me to work with while they observe, the first thing they try and do is jump in and help the child perform well for me.  But when I tell them that I need to see what the student knows without help, it suddenly occurs to most mothers how much their child only “knows” because of the cues or help he receives from mom!  When that is the case, we immediately start developing a plan for increasing independent thinking and memory strategies. 

            Of course, there is a place for direct teaching.  We certainly do give our students the correct answers and information when we first introduce a skill or concept.  But we need to combat the tendency to make this the only type of teaching they receive.  Let me share a model of active teaching/learning that will help make this balance more clear.  It is the “Watch-Do-Teach” model. 

            There is a TV series you may have see with medical students on the show being taught with this model.  The idea is that the students watch a procedure once, do the procedure with supervision the next time, then teach the procedure to another student.  Now, that is a much faster learning time line than our learning challenged children could cope with!  But let’s look at the concept beyond the speed and we will see that it gives us an exceptional teaching model. 

            First of all, WATCH reminds us that we need to give direct instruction of new material.  For many of our kids, we also have to continue to give direct instruction of previously taught material because of memory issues (repetition is the key word for many of our kids!).  However, if we stop here, we are not activating our learners.  The next step, DO, reminds us that we need to stop after the initial explanation and ask our student to demonstrate that he can do what was just taught.  In addition, the DO step should also involve challenging the student to think through the process of how he is going to remember what was learned.  The more severe our child’s handicap, the more limited he will be at this step, but even very severe children can be taught basic memory skills.  The final step, TEACH, is vital to the active learning process.  In this stage we are reminded that when our child says “I don’t know how to do this,” that our first response should be to challenge them to figure out how they can remind themselves of the process that was previously learned.  This may involve thinking of the memory strategy that was discussed the day before or thinking of how to look up an example of the process (perhaps in previous work or in a reference material).  The possibilities at this point are endless because the student is being challenged to think and take an active role in his learning. 

            Let me give two specific examples of these steps using a severely handicapped student (my autistic, mentally retarded daughter, Alison) and a mildly Learning Disabled student.  When I have used this teaching formula with Alison, I had to stay very basic.  For example, if I was introducing new reading words, I would start with WATCH by taking her through each word sound by sound and then teaching her the sign (she is non-verbal).  For DO, I would then have her read the new story which contained the words I had just introduced.  If she did not remember a new word when we came to it, I would remind her that this was a new word and ask her to think of the new words we had just worked on.  Then I would have her finger spell the word while I sounded out each sound.  Once she signed the correct sign, I would have her spell and sign the word again to reinforce it.  Later in the week, when these new words came up again in reading, the TEACH stage would be used, but in a modified way.  Since Alison could not articulate memory strategies, I would have her spell any words that she did not remember and then ask her to try and think of the word by reading the sentence to her without the word to see if she could use context to figure it out.  Then we might play a matching game to reinforce the words and signs. 

            For a child with less severe difficulties the process would be basically the same except at the TEACH stage.  If I was teaching a math concept, for example, I would teach it and demonstrate it, then ask the student to show me that he could do a couple of problems without help while I watched.  After that, if he had questions, I would ask him to go back to the problems he had already done and explain the process to me.  If he couldn’t, I would re-teach it, ask him to do it again and ask him to explain it as he did the problem.  I would then challenge him to think of HOW he was going to remember the process for the next time (and yes – looking at an example IS an acceptable way of reminding yourself how to do something!).  If you need a good resource for teaching memory strategies check out “HELP for Memory” from Linguisystems (www.linguisystems.com). 

            As I said at the beginning, this is not a magic formula.  As with all good teaching, it requires work on our part and on the part of our children.  However, as we become more active teachers we learn that we help our children the most when we stop helping them too much!


Sharon Hensley has a Masters in Special Education and is director of Almaden Valley Christian School, a home education service in Morgan Hill, CA for families of children with learning differences, difficulties and disabilities.  Sharon is also a homeschooling mom of three and author.