Moving Students from Passive Consumers to Active Creators

In the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, an arrogant graduate student in economics embarrasses Will Hunting’s non-academic friend (Ben Affleck) by pointing out his lack of education and tries to prove his own intellectual superiority by spouting out facts and perspectives he read in a book. Will (Matt Damon), an MIT janitor with a genius IQ, enters into the conversation, cutting the grad student off mid-sentence. Will says,

“You got that from Vickers, Work in Essex County, p. 98, right? Yeah, I read that, too. Were you going to plagiarize the whole thing for us, or do you have any thoughts of your own on this matter?… See, the sad thing about a guy like you is that in 50 years, you’re going to start doing some thinking on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact there are two certainties in life: 1) Don’t do that. 2) You dropped 150 grand on a f—— education you could’ve gotten for a buck fifty and late charges at the public library.”

The graduate student replies that at least he’ll have a degree, to which Will responds, “Yeah, maybe, but at least I won’t be unoriginal.”

In a 1999 article for Crucial Link, a Virginia Middle School Association publication that is no longer published, I wrote that screenplay writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, “…[P]oint out that maintaining a list of facts and parroting them to all who’ll listen superficially furthers the ego, but nothing else—a very weak and undesirable goal….We teach students to reason no matter where their scores fall on the Otis-Lennon test. Every one of them will experience depth, no one will be left only to the shallows.”

In the same article, I shared comedian and author Steve Allen’s comment from Dumbth: The Lost Art of Thinking with 101 Ways to Reason Better and Improve Your Mind: “Montague reminds us that the root origin of the word education is educere, which means to care for, nourish, cause to grow. To educate, then, does not mean merely to inject with knowledge but to help to master the process of investigation, what knowledge is for.”

So let’s think about today’s students: Are they passive consumers or active creators? Learning is more than listening and parroting back to a teacher. In fact, very little content is retained in long-term memory unless students have constructed knowledge for themselves.

Author and professional trainer Sharon Bowman says that, “Learning is fundamentally an act of creation, not consumption of information.” Can our students create science, not just hear about it and repeat it back to the teacher? Can they create math, art, technology, social studies, physical well-being, civil discourse, and compassionate communities? Can they write a book, not just parrot back its parts?

Successful Learning

Our students can cite the five freedoms protected in the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution, and they can multiply numbers written in scientific notation. They know the differences between denotation and connotation as well as the differences among alleles, genes, and chromosomes. These are curriculum elements we have explained from the front of the room or about which students have read or viewed media. Most students record the information in their notebooks or personal technology, quiz themselves on it close to test time, then echo it back to us on the unit test. In our overloaded curriculum, we count this as successful learning and move on to the next unit.

It’s not successful learning, however. If we’re convinced of the merits in moving students from passive consumers to active creators, we wonder how to manifest it in our daily lessons. How can our students create something with this content or set of skills instead of just repeating it back to us? Here are some ideas to get the creative powers flowing:

  • Ask students to create metaphors and analogies from their own lives to explain the abstract ideas they learn in their classwork.
  • Give students multiple examples of well-written paragraphs and ask them to work in partners to figure out what makes them so well-written, then compare their criteria with others and apply the new insights to a new set of well-written paragraphs to see if they are correct.
  • When teaching grammar and punctuation, ask students to create a new language from scratch first. Beyond the alphabet code they inevitably will create, ask them to explain how they will show gender, plurals, proper nouns, ownership, direct and indirect objects, and more in their new language. This activity creates much deeper appreciation for our language conventions.
  • Instead of asking students to report what happened or who a person was in an historical event, ask them to take an informed stance on the event or person and to defend their position.
  • Ask students to edit their own work. We can place a dot at the end of the line or in the general area in the math algorithm or lab write-up where there’s an issue, but they have to find it and correct it. Whoever does the editing, does the learning.
  • Role play with inanimate objects. Ask students to write about the day in the life of a comma/exponent/legislative act, create a whole-class representation of a mathematical process, or argue a point of view from three different perspectives.
  • Ask students to build physical models of abstract ideas like essay themes, scientific method, math algorithms, metabolism, altruism, supply and demand, the effects of railroads, and meritocracy. We may not be able to imagine them ourselves, but that doesn’t mean our students can’t do it really well. Our job is to get out of their way.

Teaching by Phenomenon

As many readers have surmised, this is a call for more project-based learning, integrated learning, and inquiry-method across the curriculum. These three methods provide more opportunities for true student creation than simply listening and repeating content. One of the countries with whom we are compared on international test results most often, Finland, recently made a startling move in this regard: They are no longer teaching by subjects. Instead, they are teaching by phenomenon: “Phenomenon teaching essentially combines different skills to teach a broad topic. For instance, a single lesson teaching geography, geology and languages might include asking students to identify various countries and discuss their climates all in French” (

Our own James Beane and the middle school movement have called for this approach for years. Even the Common Core State Standards call for increased emphasis on flexible applications of math and language arts, not just knowledge storing. We are wise, then, to start gathering great questions with which to inspire our students, but on which we can hook the learning we are hired to teach:

  • What makes a blog post or essay go viral?
  • How do we clean up the local water supply?
  • Could you really do that stunt in that summer blockbuster movie?
  • Why do we want to be different from others and belong to a peer group at the same time?
  • Could reading fiction improve what we learn from nonfiction?
  • How did Pythagoras figure out his theorem?
  • Is reality television changing society?
  • Why do we honor celebrities so much?
  • Using tools of the 1700s, how can we prove the earth is round?
  • Are there more than three dimensions?
  • Can we make the physiology of the human body more efficient?
  • In a world of plenty, why do so many people go hungry?
  • How does my personal technology really work?
  • What finally convinces people to change a habit?
  • Do political parties help or hinder our democracy?
  • Why do humans pay so much attention to social status in communities, and does that emphasis help or hinder us?
  • If we had to build a model of the Internet, what would it look like?
  • Why don’t dragons exist, and can we change that?
  • Why does racism still exist, and what can we do to stop it? Alternatively, what is the root of prejudice, and how do we keep it from growing?
  • How does the sun’s energy get into our human bodies?
  • What makes something poetic?
  • What is required to establish and maintain a peaceful society?
  • Seriously, man, what exactly is Cheese Whiz?

Playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw once said, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” Many of us think our role as teachers is to help students find their true voice and talents. This implies that both are already there, fully formed, but buried under layers of insecurity or frittered away in unproductive activities. We need to rethink that, however, so we do not impose assumptions or limit students to yesterday’s foibles.

We can start each day fresh and emphasize creation, not consumption, as the way to discover what’s meaningful. We can follow Montague’s lead and cause children to grow a moment at a time, asking a question instead of providing an immediate answer, facilitating an experience in which students build something to solve a problem, making students a part of their own story—teaching them how to garden instead of just showing them dried-flower displays.

The best way to learn how to do all this is to do it. So later today, brainstorm at least five ways to make tomorrow’s lesson one in which students build or create something in order to learn. In doing so, you’ll create something new in you, too; it’s a journey shared.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His latest book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2015.


  1. As a new art teacher, I think this article is about what I want my students to do everyday. It’s not about just copying what’s already out there or regurgitating facts. Students should be encouraged to build their own knowledge and style. The article has some really cool ideas too, like using metaphors and analogies to create art, making models of abstract ideas, and taking a stance on historical events or figures. These are all great ways to get students thinking and creating. I’m also going to keep the author’s advice about teaching by phenomenon in mind as I plan my lessons. This article is going to help me make my art class a fun and creative space for my students.