Learning Is Not Passive

I like to define learning as a process where students’ actions, thinking, and feelings are different than they were before a given engagement. Learning is an intensely personal undertaking. It is a process shaped by the learner’s prior knowledge and assumptions, the depth of thinking they engage in, and opportunities to refine, revisit and clarify understandings.

Educators understand the personal nature of learning and the need to create the conditions necessary for deep learning. We appreciate that students learn best when they first consider previous experiences and understandings1, take ownership for and invest in their education. We acknowledge that a student’s misconceptions and assumptions will adversely affect their ability to add new conceptual knowledge.2 And, we recognize that merely delivering content does not ensure learning has taken place.

However, we need to ask whether the science and what we know about how kids learn, has adequately shaped what we believe and value. Does our philosophy of learning reveal itself in practice?

Every action conveys a belief. Consider the adage “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you are telling me.”3 It is easy to talk, but can we walk the talk? If we say we care, do we act in a caring way? If we say we believe in giving choices, do we provide options that students would want to

have? If we say we know that learning is an active process, do we choose pedagogies that activate prior understanding then honour student questions and curiosities?

The Inquiry-based framework for teaching and learning is cited as one of the pillars of the modified BC curriculum because, when an inquiry process is appropriately activated, active student participation is required. Simply put, “inquiry is about being open to wonder and possibility. Inquiry is accompanied by a mindset of optimism. It starts by asking a question and leads to the creation of a plan or set of actions with the hope of getting closer to the answer. Inquiry involves reflecting along the way about what seems to have worked or not, and figuring out where to go next.” And while defining inquiry so that we can imagine engaging a practice of inquiry is essential, knowing how to lead and effectively implement inquiry-based learning techniques has proven to be very problematic for many educators.

One model I have found particularly helpful in constructing and planning learning inquiries is that of the 5 E’s: Engage, Explore, Explain, Extend, and Evaluate.

I created a diagram (below) and poster to help clarify the 5E process as a framework for learning, and for lesson and unit planning. The following provides an overview, which is not exhaustive by any measure.

The model begins with a stage of Engagement. The teacher considers methods and activities to pique student curiousity and activate their prior knowledge and conceptual understandings, providing opportunities for the students to compare their ideas with those of their peers. During this stage, the teacher learns about what students already know, or think they do. Students are encouraged to articulate questions they have while bringing forward personal understandings (or misunderstandings). During this phase, the teacher is careful to facilitate by drawing out student thinking, ideas, and questions connected with the area of content engagement, not delivering content or some eloquent introduction to the new unit.

The Explore stage emerges naturally out of the cultivation of student questions and areas of knowledgeability. Now, the teacher provides time, resources, and coaches students as they work to investigate and seek out answers to their questions and queries. The teacher adopts an attitude of learning alongside students, teaching through prompting, asking refining questions and continued modelling of profound wonder and investigation. During this stage, students interact with each other to refine ideas and frame better questions. They seek answers but are not left on their own, nor are they expected to discover all there is to find. The teacher plays an active role in discovery and consideration of resources.

During the Explain stage, teachers activate their inner expert and help students weave together their discoveries while explicitly noticing and filling in any conceptual or knowledge gaps. Formal language, theories, rules, or protocols are introduced (if not already discovered by students) to provide a shared language which facilitates students’ abilities to describe previous experiences, observations, and thinking. The Explain stage seeks to have student and teacher explanations further inform thinking and catalyze reflection on how thinking and understandings have grown or changed.

This article was first published in The Link, November 2017

Author: Greg Gerber

During the Extend stage, teachers aim to have students extend their learning by applying their conceptual understandings to new situations, across disciplines or contextual domains. In other words, students work to use their knowledge in a context or problem or research area they have not previously encountered. Extensions may take many forms, from engaging projects designed to deepen learning, to drawing evidence-based reasonable conclusions, to applying their learning to new contexts, or to integrate one concept with other concepts or other perspectives.

And finally, the Evaluate phase, preferably construed with the specific goal of encouraging and facilitating deeper learning throughout the inquiry cycle, sees assessment informing each one of the previous four stages of the 5 E’s. Students assess prior understandings during their engagement with the content area then communicate their ideas and possible directions for finding answers with peers and the teacher to further refine thinking. As new information is found, student groups assess its validity and question the quality of their original inquiry questions. The teacher takes on the coaching role and adopts a functional attitude of journeying alongside the students while continually monitoring and assessing learning. Throughout the inquiry cycle, assessment encourages more in-depth investigation while also tracking student achievement.

No, learning is not a passive process. Enjoy the journey as you guide your students using pedagogies of inquiry.


  1. National Research Council. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9853.
  2. Derry, S. (1996). Cognitive schema theory in the constructivist debate. Educational Psychologist, 31(3-4), 163-174. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00461520.1996.9653264
  3. Quote is loosely attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson based on a quote from his essay titled “Social Arms” in 1875.  The original quote read “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”
  4. Healthy Families BC. (2013). Healthy Schools BC Resource Guide for Teaching and Learning. Victoria, BC: Ministry of Education