Active vs. Passive Responsibilities: Whose Job is it in Adult Education?

By Christopher Hannigan

Tutor: "This is time for work."

Student: "You're not my father."

Tutor: "You're not my boss!"

Student: "I don't give a f@#k about math! This is prison!" 

This is an actual verbal exchange between an inmate tutor and student in a one-on-one tutoring session at FCI-Petersburg. So, whose job is it? Is it the teacher/tutor's job to make sure the student is learning or is it the student's job? This is in an adult education setting - which carries inherent differences from a youth education setting - hence the issues are even more complex than usual. As an adult, individuals should have developed an understanding of personal responsibilities, priorities, and work ethics. Admittedly, the prison dynamic provides a rather unique role conflict which is not easily remedied.  Image courtesy

Let me first clarify. I am stating there is a difference between responsibilities and teaching. Responsibility speaks to the state of being accountable or having control over the learning process. While the act of teaching is the transmitting of knowledge and learning is the acquisition and retention of the knowledge. So, for the remainder of this article, active and passive will refer to the responsibility rather than to the act of teaching.

Let's take the active scenario. The teacher has the materials already laid out and ready to go before the student arrives. There is a lesson plan in effect and the homework assignment is already prepared. The teacher engages the student first, prompting him or her for answers. The teacher pursues the student in completing the assignments and will drag the student along, kicking and screaming, if need be. This is the teacher that will seek the student out to get an explanation of why a class or homework assignment wasn't completed or why there were poor results. Clearly, this type of teacher is investing a great amount of time, energy, and emotion into the student's education.

When we analyze the situation at hand we see there are strong points, both for and against, taking on this active responsibility. Hopefully, in the case of a teacher putting an enormous amount of energy and time into the process, the student will recognize such and will respond with a similar motivation. But on the reverse, the teacher may be viewed as spoon feeding the student and end up taking away all responsibility from the student. This may result in resentment and a lack of development of work ethics. After all, as educators we are to guide our students through the learning process not do the work for them.

We also need to consider the other scenario. The passive teacher expects the student to ready their own materials for the class and does not have a daily lesson plan. Instead, the student selects what they want to work on from a general assignment list; if they even want to work on anything that is. The teacher stays back and waits for the student to approach and ask for help if they encounter something that they do not understand. This is not a type of teacher who will seek out the student to see if they have completed an assignment, nor will they look over the student's shoulder to make sure they are completing the work. This is not to say the teacher will not teach the student or help them understand a concept, but they will only do so when the student expresses the need.

By electing to be passive, the teacher has to overcome the negative perception of being lazy or lacking the required motivational skills to be an educator. On the positive side, the passive approach challenges students to be responsible for their own learning. By making the student responsible, it should hopefully encourage pride in themselves and their accomplishments, motivating them to pursue learning to a fuller extent. Both approaches have their pros and cons, but neither one can be viewed as exclusively superior to the other.

My personal approach is the passive methodology. I am presented with the unique situation of teaching in the prison setting, which carries its own set of challenges not found anywhere else. On average, I have 60 to 80 students pass through my classroom on a daily basis. All of them are there by court order. Out of them, maybe 20 or so would be in the class by choice. Another 10 to 20 of the students want their GED, but would not come to class if there were no consequences. So with about half of the class having no desire to be there, any active approach by a teacher or tutor is futile and, for the most part, ineffective. This is why I have chosen to be passive in my responsibility. Doing so means the student has to take the initiative and show me they want to learn, they want my help, and they are willing to do the work it takes.

In a public setting, the presence of an adult student in a classroom would signal they had the desire to learn and the work ethic to do so; as they took the first step in choosing to come to class. In prison, that distinction is missing. By the student taking the initiative, I know who to focus my time and attention on. As well, I can identify those who will not put forth the effort to learn. All in all, despite the possible negative impression, I feel in the adult prison educational setting that employing passive responsibility is the correct approach.

I feel a desire to educate those who are willing to put in the effort to learn and grow, but not beat my head against a wall for those who don't. In the end the choice is yours. But I do implore you to not view the passive or active methodology as the correct one, but as a choice in which either answer can be the correct one if properly applied.