Ever since I was in teacher training classes in college many decades ago, there has been a raging debate about whether education should be Teacher-Centered or Student-Centered. There is some research both ways. But I would like to suggest that the answer is NEITHER.
The Teacher-Centered Approach
To arrive at this conclusion, we have to look at a little history and make some comparisons. How many of us have suffered through classes where the teacher droned on and on, we never said much, and we just took notes? Most of us have experienced something like this in our past. This is the extreme of teacher-centered learning.
I believe that student-centered learning arose in reaction to this scenario. Students who went through such classes later became teachers and revolted at this approach. They knew they learned in spite of the teacher, and they wanted their classes to be different. Combine this with the rise of humanistic psychology in the 1960s and beyond, which emphasized empathy, self-esteem, and inner-directedness, and you have the ingredients for student-centered teaching.
The Student-Centered Approach
Student-centered teaching is often called inquiry or discovery-based learning – at least in some arenas. Psychologist Jerome Bruner argued in the 1960s that “Practice in discovering for oneself teaches one to acquire information in a way that makes that information more readily viable in problem solving.” Thus, discovery learning was focused on putting students in problem-solving situations where they rely on their experience and prior knowledge while interacting with objects, questions, or experiments.
Just as described above for teacher-centered learning, this philosophy led to some extremes in the classroom too. There have been classes where teacher is facilitator, negotiating class rules with the students, setting up objects and materials to experiment with, and guiding the students in their discoveries. It is very hands-on, and is measured by projects or portfolios. Critics worried that this approach would lead to non-mastery of basic skills, non-learning of concepts, and mistakes or errors in understanding.
Here is a chart that summarizes key features of this debate:
|Focus is on what instructor knows||Focus is on what students know or want to know|
|Focus is on transmission of knowledge||Focus is on construction of knowledge|
|Students passively receive information||Students are actively involved in constructing information|
|Classroom is quiet||Classroom is often noisy and busy|
|Desired learning is assessed indirectly through objective tests||Desired learning is assessed directly through papers, projects, performances, portfolios|
What Really Happens in the Classroom
In all the classrooms I’ve taught in and observed, I seldom see either extreme of the teacher-centered or student-centered debate. What I see mostly is dedicated teachers doing their best to connect with their students and help them understand new aspects of knowledge. I would say it’s more of a LEARNING-Centered class (focused on the learning process — not learning centers). The focus of both teachers and students is on the process of acquiring or demonstrating proficiency with knowledge. It’s a blend of both Teacher- and Student-centered approaches. Some classes lean to one side or the other, but on the whole, the focus is how the students are actually learning.
Here is a chart that summarizes this blended Learning-Centered approach:
|Focus is on HOW the students are learning|
|Focus is on learning how to use knowledge in different ways|
|Students and teacher interact regularly with each other and the information|
|Classroom alternates between quiet and conversations|
|Desired learning is assessed while teaching (CFUs) and through both tests and papers/projects|
The Power of Engagement
It seems to me that the recent emphasis on “engagement” in education captures the heart of this blended, Learning-Centered approach that dedicated teachers have used for some time. Student engagement as a key to educational reform first became popular in 1996. In general, it refers to the amount of attention and interest students display in class and their motivation to want to learn more.
However, in practice, it has been defined narrowly as physical engagement (good attendance), social engagement (group work), cultural engagement (more diversity), behavioral engagement (class routines with novelty and variation), emotional engagement (positive emotions and advisors), or intellectual engagement (more choice in assignments and projects).
The DataWORKS approach to engagement
As part of the Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI) model of teaching, DataWORKS has developed a series of Engagement Norms. These are a combination of eight practices that are applied at least every two minutes during a lesson. DataWORKS defines engagement as “when the teacher asks the students to do something.” This gets the students involved in the process; they are no longer passive; they are using and applying what they are learning. It’s a dynamic interactive process that fully engages both teacher and students.
The eight engagement norms are: 1) Track with Me, 2) Read with Me, and 3) Repeat with Me – designed to engage the students in choral reading and using the language; 4) Gesture with Me – for physical application of a cognitive strategy; 5) Pair-Share – for getting students to discuss the concept or skill with a partner and practice it; 6) Attention Signal – an oral prompt for bringing students back to attention after their discussions; 7) Whiteboards – for having students write answers and giving the teacher a way to Check for Understanding of the whole class at once; and 8) Complete Sentences – for requiring students to demonstrate greater command of the new language of the lesson and use their voice.
The key point here is that engagement occurs in an EDI lesson every two minutes or more often. The teacher can present concepts or skills similar to the Teacher-Centered approach, but also the students use and apply the content many times during a lesson, similar to the Student-Centered approach. It’s the interaction of both the teacher and students with the content that produces the engagement. This is a very effective Learning-Centered approach to education. It gives the best of the two approaches, and, in my mind, resolves the debate.
Good education does not focus on just the teacher or just the student, but on the interaction between them. When this is maximized, then learning is also maximized. Objective measures improve because the students use and apply the concepts and skills presented. Subjective satisfaction for both teacher and students improves because they are engaged and feel a sense of accomplishment. It’s the best of both worlds!
I appreciate the distinction between learner centered and learning centered. As a professor, I find that there needs to be some time where I pass on my expertise, in order that students are able to grasp the material and how it can be applied and integrated. At the same time, the examples that I use are intended to “attach” the material to the students’ prior knowledge, and the activities that the students complete are meant to give them the opportunity to understand the material on their own terms and in converse with their fellow classmates.
So, I agree with you. It’s not one or the other – it’s both, and the main motivation for both sides of the practice is the learning process. Well said!