Student-centred Learning - Background


In traditional education methodologies, teachers direct the learning process and students assume a receptive role in their education. Armstrong (2012) claimed that "traditional education ignores or suppresses learner responsibility". With the advent of progressive education in the 19th century, and the influence of psychologists, some educators have largely replaced traditional curriculum approaches with "hands-on" activities and "group work", in which a child determines on their own what they wants to do in class. Key amongst these changes is the premise that students actively construct their own learning. Theorists like John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky, whose collective work focused on how students learn, is primarily responsible for the move to student-centered learning. Carl Rogers' ideas about the formation of the individual also contributed to student-centered learning. Student-centered learning means inverting the traditional teacher-centred understanding of the learning process and putting students at the centre of the learning process. Maria Montessori was also an influence in centre-based learning, where preschool children learn through play.

Student-centered learning allows students to actively participate in discovery learning processes from an autonomous viewpoint. Students spend the entire class time constructing a new understanding of the material being learned in a proactive way. A variety of hands-on activities are administered in order to promote successful learning. Unique, yet distinctive learning styles are encouraged in a student-centered classroom, and provide students with varied tools, such as task- and learning-conscious methodologies, creating a better environment for students to learn. With the use of valuable learning skills, students are capable of achieving lifelong learning goals, which can further enhance student motivation in the classroom. Self-determination theory focuses on the degree to which an individual’s behaviour is self-motivated and 'self-determined'. Therefore, when students are given the opportunity to gauge their learning, learning becomes an incentive. In being active agents in their learning, students corroborate Carl Rogers' theory that "the only learning which significantly influences behaviour is self discovered". Because learning can be seen as a form of personal growth, students are encouraged to utilize self-regulation practices in order to reflect on his or her work. For that reason, learning can also be constructive in the sense that the student is in full control of his or her learning. Over the past few decades, a paradigm shift in curriculum has occurred where the teacher acts as a facilitator in a student-centered classroom.

Such emphasis on learning has enabled students to take a self-directed alternative to learning. In the teacher-centered classroom, teachers are the primary source for knowledge. Therefore, the focus of learning is to gain information as it is proctored to the student, providing rationale as to why rote learning or memorization of teacher notes or lectures was the norm a few decades ago. On the other hand, student-centered classrooms are now the norm where active learning is strongly encouraged. Students are now researching material pertinent to the success of their academia and knowledge production is seen as a standard. In order for a teacher facilitate a student-centered classroom, he or she must become aware of the diverse backgrounds of his or her learners. To that end, the incorporation of a few educational practices such as Bloom's Taxonomy and Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple intelligences can be beneficial to a student-centred classroom because it promotes various modes of diverse learning styles, thereby accommodating the varied learning styles of students. The following provides a few examples of why student-centred learning should be integrated into the curriculum:

  • Strengthens student motivation
  • Promotes peer communication
  • Reduces disruptive behaviour
  • Builds student-teacher relationships
  • Promotes discovery/active learning
  • Responsibility for one’s own learning

These changes have impacted educator's methods of teaching and the way students learn. In essence, one might say that we teach and learn in a constructivist-learning paradigm. It is important for teachers to acknowledge the increasing role and function of his or her educational practices to work within their own biases, and create a student-centered environment. As educational practices evolve, so does the approach to teaching and learning. The mindset about teaching and learning is constantly evolving into new and innovative ways to reach diverse learners, and is impacted by new research and inquiry such as Gardner and Denig's dialogue on multiple intelligences. When a teacher allows their students to make inquiries or even set the stage for his or her academic success, learning becomes more productive.

With the openness of a student-centered learning environment, knowledge production is vital when providing students the opportunity to explore their own learning styles. In that respect, successful learning also occurs when learners are fully engaged in the active learning process and teachers cater content to specific learning needs. A further distinction from a teacher-centred classroom to that of a student-centered classroom is when the teacher acts as a facilitator, as opposed to instructor. In essence, the teacher’s goal in the learning process is to guide students into making new interpretations of the learning material, thereby 'experiencing' content, reaffirming Rogers' notion that "significant learning is acquired through doing".

In terms of curriculum practice, the student has the choice in what they want to study and how they are going to apply their newfound knowledge. According to Ernie Stringer, “Student learning processes are greatly enhanced when they participate in deciding how they may demonstrate their competence in a body of knowledge or the performance of skills.” This pedagogical implication enables the student to establish his or her unique learning objectives, and mate them to their specific learning biases and needs. This aspect of learning holds the learner accountable for production of knowledge that he or she is capable of producing. In this stage of learning, the teacher evaluates the learner by providing honest and timely feedback on individual progress. Building a rapport with students is an essential strategy that educators could utilize in order to gauge student growth in a student-centered classroom. Through effective communication skills, the teacher is able to address student needs, interests, and overall engagement in the learning material, creating a feedback loop that encourages self-discovery and education. According to James Henderson, there are three basic principles of democratic living, which he says are not yet established in our society in terms of education. The three basic tenets, which he calls the 3S’s of teaching for democratic living, are:

  • (Subject Learning)- Students learn best from subject matter thoughtfully presented.
  • (Self-Learning)- One must engage oneself in the generative process.
  • (Social Learning)- Empathy is wealth in this regard, social interaction with diverse others the target for generosity.

Through peer-to-peer interaction, collaborative thinking can lead to an abundance of knowledge. In placing a teacher closer to a peer level, knowledge and learning is enhanced, benefitting the student and classroom overall. According to Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), students typically learn vicariously through one another. Through a socio-cultural perspective on learning, scaffolding is important when fostering independent thinking skills. Vygotsky proclaims, "Learning which is oriented toward developmental levels that have already been reached is ineffective from the view point of the child's overall development. It does not aim for a new stage of the developmental process but rather lags behind this process." In essence, instruction is designed to access a developmental level that is measurable to the student’s current stage in development.

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