Monday, December 10, 2012

Should we be student-centered?

In an earlier time (my youth!), the traditional approach to teaching was teacher-centered.  Students gathered before the person in the front of the room and received information.  When I studied language (Spanish, German) in classes, we listened to lectures, read and memorized dialogues, did exercises and listened to tapes.

In more recent times, this view of teaching has been shaken up.  The buzzword you hear in professional development and read in the copy accompanying teaching products is student-centered. The way it was presented to me in my certificate training was "sage on the stage" vs. "guide on the side".  The focus turns from the teacher teaching to the students learning. The teacher facilitates as the students plan, explore, collaborate, and share what they have learned.

I am all for the empowering of students!  I thoroughly agree with helping them to become self-directed, curious and creative learners.  But I'm not so thrilled with the label, for several reasons.

First, the word is an umbrella term. It not only refers to a group of related pedagogical principles (see one overview in the link below), but it's also used to refer to any activity where attention is on the student's life, interests or needs.  I see many lesson plans (online and my own) that include "student-centered" activities such as having them work in small groups or pairs, surveying them to find out their needs, asking them to personalize their answers, etc.  To my mind, those are still largely teacher-centered.  Sure, I'm paying attention to the learners and collecting information about their needs ... but I made the plan, I  decide when they move into groups, I decide what information to collect, I take the survey home and decide how to use the information in a future lesson plan.  Don't I still hold most of the real power?

Second, in my explorations on the topic I read again and again that student-centered learning is achieved by shifting power from the teacher to the student:

by Geraldine O’Neill and Tim McMahon 

I think another model may be more useful.  For the student to be empowered, must the teacher's power be diminished?  Isn't the shift really from authoritarian power (respect is defined by compliance) to individual power (respect is defined by acknowledging the unique gifts offered by each person as well as their needs and ambitions)?  To my mind, the student-centered label retains a hierarchical mindset.  It continues to put someone on a pedestal (just a different person).  It does not acknowledge the individual power of the teacher, nor of the others at a school who support both teacher and student.

Third, I'm not so sure that the focus should be on people at all.  We've recognized that a spotlight on a person who is a font of knowledge is not effective.  Should the spotlight be turned to the seekers of knowledge?  Or should it be turned to the knowledge itself?  Imagine that the teacher and learners are each using their own spotlight to explore a topic.  When we work together, more light is shed on a subject.  When learners step out of the school, they take their spotlight with them and use it alone or with others as they choose.  That's autonomy.

The first time I encountered the proposal that we all, students and teacher, put the subject in the center of the circle was in Parker J. Palmer's excellent The Courage to Teach (Ch. 4, see diagram on p. 105).  He says:
To be in the truth, we must know how to observe and reflect and speak and listen, with passion and with discipline, in the circle gathered around a given subject.  (p. 107)
He also shares this quote from Robert Frost:
We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
The paradigm-shift that gave birth to the phrase "student-centered learning" is revolutionary.  But I wonder if it isn't time to step even further along that path.  I'd like to see the line between student, teacher, and the others at a learning institution eliminated completely and replaced with equal respect for our experience, skills, responsibilities, needs and aims.  We are all there to support the same thing: learning.  Who is the learner?  Who is the teacher? 


  1. Being Student-centered helps keep interest high whereas being teacher-centered or content-centered is guaranteed to bore 'some of the people some of the time.' Here's a rather novel approach that builds lessons around student experience towards gaining competence in communication tactics. Called Catalyst Taskbook, check it out here:

  2. Hi Grover, Thanks so much for your attention and the link. It looks very interesting!

    I'm fine with learner-empowering activities, just not fond of the term "student-centered". I think the term implies a zero-sum view of power, which is unnecessary at best. Definitely not suggesting a content-based approach! Just that both teacher and student can let a passion for the subject drive their exploration. I hope that clarifies my opinion a little! Kathy

  3. Good reflection on it Kathy. One of the concepts that hit me right in the eye when I started reading Paulo Freire was the fact that we learn all the time and we learn with and from each other. When I mean each other, according to Freire's word, does not simply mean "the together", but taking from each other what is necessary for growth and development. Whatever needs we have in order for that to happen. The dialogic process makes much more sense to me than simply putting teaching-learning in a table. Life is organic and as so, content and the people involved in the process will need to interact in such a way that, like we find in Palmer's quote whose work by the way I do not know, the whole thing becomes meaningful.

    Thanks for writing it.

    1. Hi Rose!

      You mentioned the dialogic process ... yes! Is it really a dialog when it's not among equals? The students were under-appreciated before, but does that mean the teacher must now take their place?

      I really enjoyed the training we took together (just concluded this week :( ). Dr. Fanselow gave me so much to think about and probably was the catalyst that helped these thoughts fall together. I mean, "student-centered" is some of the jargon that he advised us to move past, right?

      I hope we can keep in touch, it was nice being in class with you,

    2. Hi Kathy,

      Sorry for not coming back sooner. :)I have been organizing 2012 stuff, so I can start fresh 2013 classes. Like you I had been impacted as well. He really made us move from theory to different ways to see practice through the obvious that like he said was hard to see.

      No, it is not a dialogue in my opinion if we don't consider each other equals. And that may be the challenge really we will face because this is not just about how the teacher sees the students, but also how they see the teacher and what they expect from us. But all should be about learning, right? I try to provide a fair space for dialogues in class, probably not doing it the right way yet cause it doesn't always work. I suppose that some students don't see the point of it or they don't understand it. They have been programmed to just do as told and follow the rules. Try to change that, and their whole world falls apart. It is a matter of persistence and patience, I guess. That is what I am going to look forward to, among other things, in 2013... that is how to implement those dialogues through recording and taking students onto the boat. I count on you to discover new things together and help each other analyzing the transcripts.

    3. Wow, it would be great to work together on transcripts sometimes! I think it's time to go back and re-read the handouts from our training, too. Repetition, right? Ha ha!

  4. Hello Kathy,
    You reflected upon some very important points here. What are the cstch phrases of the day doing to us besides boxing us in another definition that might not define what the teaching/learning process involves?...

    I teach a training course for EFL teachers in Mexico, and we are just about to delve into this topic...I was wondering if I could have the trainees in my class reference your post and use it to generate discussion.

    Thanks in advance, Ellen

    1. Hi Ellen,

      Oh yes, please invite your trainees to discuss and comment. I teach adults, so my opinions come from that perspective. How would these opinions work for people who are working with children? I'd love to know what your trainees think.


  5. Hi Kathy,

    I loved the suggestion (I'm guessing it was a suggestion) you made at the end of the post:

    I'd like to see the line between student, teacher, and the others at a learning institution eliminated completely and replaced with equal respect for our experience, skills, responsibilities, needs and aims.

    It is beliefs like these that make the difference - gave rise to the paradigm shift you mention. But, sadly, it is also the lack of these same beliefs (in both students and teachers) that has held back the "evolution" of the "paradigm" of "student-centredness". I'm also guessing this evolution is something you also want to see.

    The key thing for me is that many teachers and students have not challenged their own beliefs (have not asked the two questions you had at the end of the post, for example) - and have not tried to do this "together. For example, "In this classroom, who are the LEARNers?" - the answer has to be "ALL of US". The "issue", however, is that we probably want to LEARN different "stuff" for different "reasons".

    And, if (as TEACHers) we focus on what we want to "teach" (grammar...lots of it, in many institutions)...and if students focus on "passing the exam" (as many of them do - in more formal learning environments), there probably isn't a lot of "space" to ask the kind of questions you are suggesting.

    The real question is, of course, where did we get these beliefs from - in the first place?

    Take care,


  6. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for reading my post! I agree ... Beliefs. In my early days of employment, I sometimes used to feel powerless to make changes at my workplace (corporate) because it was all so hierarchical. Over the years, with the help of mentors, I came to realize that there IS power within me. It's not about changing others but about being the change myself. The others may or may not join in. If whatever I'm doing is effective, though, it will get a second look. Then several people work together. Over time ...who knows? But that's how culture shifts happen, IMO! (It does help to have -- or be -- a mentor ...)

    I love your blog, so rich with ideas! I've already had a few "Yeah, what he said!" moments.

    Looking forward to reading more,