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Putting Students First, Keeping Students Ahead

Putting Students First, Keeping Students Ahead
Teacher-led instruction does not lead to student autonomy in the same way that collaborative, cooperative learning does. Photo by Tiffany Bailey.

Student centered teaching is a practice for improving the quality of teaching and learning at all levels of education. It is a widely accepted practice with many different variations and formats.  Sometimes this abundance makes it difficult for even seasoned educators to effectively summarize the differences between “student centered” and traditional “teacher-led” instruction.  What makes the definition even harder is student centered education not really being a method, but a teaching philosophy, based on the fact that each human being learns individually. What is taught in a classroom is not necessarily learned, because each student has a different perception of what was taught. That is exactly how it should be, since we want to foster (critical) thinking skills. When we are asked to follow someone else’s thinking we will not create the same competence as we would by thinking it through on our own.

Supporting students’ learning and thinking starts in early childhood education and continues through the whole educational system. The modality for placing students into the nexus of their own learning changes along the way to reflect the demands of age appropriateness.  No matter how you implement student centered learning in your teaching practice, three basic requirements remain the same: creating reciprocal interaction between the teacher and students,  building a solid structure (or framework) for intentional teaching  and learning to take place, and constructively allowing students more choice within the structure or framework.

Problems will arise if any of the components are missing.  If the chosen structure or framework is too narrow, there is not enough (intellectual) space for students to choose from, and learning suffers because meaningfulness goes down in the drain. If there is no structure or framework of learning objectives, there will be no deep learning, as there is no intentional teaching. If there is not enough communication between teacher and students, the feedback process remains thin or vague and optimal learning is not achieved – not to mention the lack of individualization.  All three components (cognitive, constructive and cooperative) are needed thorough the planning and teaching/learning process if we want to place students into the nexus of their own learning – and keep them there.

Student centered learning is a highly qualitative measure, so it is sometimes hard to define and communicate the small differences, but the following general guidelines can be used in all learning situations.  These indicators may help to find the easiest steps for initiating the necessary changes in your practices and start moving towards more students centered learning and teaching. The three main characteristics to define whether a learning environment is student centered or not, are the use of cognitive, constructive and cooperative tools in teaching and learning. One very simple “measurement” is to pay attention to the amount of open-ended questions (as opposed to questions that have just single one correct answer). The other indicator is the amount of individualization used in the classroom, and the third learning environment supporting the learners’ autonomy in majority of tasks and assignments.

Open-ended questions cater for the cognitive growth of your students.  These questions also help your students grow as learners and understand the way their individual learning happens when they hear different correct answers to the same question.  Discussions about the different points of view leading to these answers helps students understand the connections between concepts, and thus caters for deep learning.  When you, as teacher, know how learning happens, you can easily guide students beyond rote memorization. The question to ask yourself while planning the lesson is: what will my students really learn from this?

Individualization sometimes seems like a bad word, or being something that only adds to the load for the teacher. But it does not have to be that way. Constructive teaching is student centered and acknowledges the importance of building the content to be learned so that it meets the students’ increasing understanding about the subject matter. Of course, introducing more complicated concepts after the basics have been learned is just plain common sense. But, the constructive way I have taught with also includes the idea of providing choices for students, so that the more advanced students can learn further at their own speed, while those students who may need extra time can review the content one more time, if necessary. This is not hard to do. It still is basic common sense: keep the learning meaningful for all of your students. I used to assign different homework to students, too.

Learners’ autonomy requires cooperation in the class.  Only cooperative learning is student centered, because teacher-led instruction is based on the teacher telling students what to do. Cooperation must happen between students to provide deeper understanding about the subject. Sometimes the students’ choice of words makes it easier for another student to understand, because they are at approximately the same language level, which is not the case with the teacher and student. Cooperation in the teacher-student relationship takes away the unnecessary power struggle between teachers and students: why have a battle when we are aiming at a mutual goal? Providing autonomy in class empowers students to learn more on their own, and makes them become more interested in things they learn at school. This of course decreases the need for behavior management in your class, when everyone is engaged in learning. Seems like a win-win situation to me!

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