Inspired by a recent thread about student-centered versus student-driven learning in a Facebook group and on Twitter, I turned to my keyboard to think through the topic. In recent years, it has become popular to champion what many refer to as student-centered classrooms and schools, often described in contrast to what people think of as teacher-centered contexts.
Yet, education is a messy field of study when it comes to definitions. Consider the phrase “student-centered learning.” One person’s understanding of student-centered learning might simply refer to teachers taking the time to get to know their students, adapting their teaching methods based upon the knowledge gained. For those teachers, student-centered learning is really a synonym for differentiated instruction. Another teacher might use the same “student-centered” phrase to describe a classroom where students are granted the authority to decide much of what and how they learn.
With so many competing definitions of the same terms, it can be challenging to make sense of the current landscape. So, I’ve decided to complicate the matter by offering my own definition of terms. I certainly don’t claim to be the definitive source for these terms. Instead, I offer them as working definitions to provide a way for us to add greater depth to the student-centered versus teacher-centered conversation in education.
While some people might think it would be nice to have a set of universally-accepted definitions, that is beyond the scope of this article. For now, it is enough for me to contrast different approaches, and I’m using the following terms to achieve that goal.
Also, while we might think of these terms as being part of a continuum, that is a bit too linear for me. The continuum construct is easier if you are just comparing and contrasting two terms, but it gets complicated when we add the others into the mix. As such, some people might choose to look at the following in a linear fashion, but in the real-world, there is often a mixture of these philosophies and perspectives in the same classroom and school. One concept might be the focus, but others are still present, influencing the culture and climate.
With that introduction established, consider the following.
Some people use this phrase to describe sage-on-the-stage teaching methods, instances where teachers lecture and students are expected to “sit and get.’ Yet, the more consistent use of the phrase in the literature relates to where the power resides in a classroom or school. A teacher-centered classroom is one where the teacher is in charge of deciding what to learn, how to learn it, what will be graded, and how it will be graded. The teacher chooses the pace of the learning as well as determines the learning pathway followed by each student.
This term is also used even when the teacher doesn’t actually have full say over what is learned or how it is learned. There are many classrooms where the teacher is given a set of standards or maybe even a pre-existing curriculum. That teacher might have some choice and voice in what to do and how to do it, but part of all of those decisions might have actually been made by an outside group or organization.
A nuanced but important distinction from teacher-centered, the teaching-centered classroom puts the quality of teaching at the center of what happens. If you want to improve student outcomes, some argue, the best way to do that is the increase the quality of the teaching. So, while teaching-centered classrooms are sometimes also teacher-centered, the focus here is upon improving the quality of the school by celebrating and championing the quality of teaching. Get teachers to embrace and embody the best practices that are well supported by the research, and everything else will fall into place.
Content-centered is often teacher-led, but not necessarily. Instead, the focus is upon exposure to and experiences with a given body of content. These classrooms tend to be content heavy, but contrary to common straw-man arguments against content-centered education, these classrooms are usually about both content mastery and progress toward higher levels of thinking with that content. What is distinct about the content-centered classroom is that the focus is neither upon the teacher’s action or the student’s actions and interest. It is more about getting lost in what is being studied. Great content is at the heart of great schools.
While some might think that the content-centered and standards-centered classrooms are similar, a standards-centered classroom is often agnostic to specific content (as in a set reading list). Rather, attention is placed upon concise statements (called standards) of what students are expected to know and be able to do at different stages or levels of their education.
The focus is upon student’s making progress toward mastery of academic standards in each academic area. By its very nature, this tends to put heightened attention on what is happening with each student, and assessment tends to became a greater focus. Diagnostics that allow one to track students movement toward mastery of standards gets much greater attention in this type of classroom.
The learning-centered classroom makes student individual and collective learning the top priority. It could be focused upon students progressing toward mastery of standards, but it could also be about the relative progress (or improvement) of a student from the beginning of the semester to the end.
Because the focus is upon learning, there is obviously significant attention to what is happening with each learner. As such, it is common for people to describe the learning-centered classroom as also a learner-centered classroom.
This is a classroom where the focus is placed upon the learner. What are the individual needs of each learner? What are the interests, goals, and aspirations of the learner? What is the prior knowledge that each learner brings to the classroom? What is the cultural background of the learner? What are the beliefs, values, joys, and fears of the learner?
Notice that this is not just about getting to know a group of learners. It is about getting to know each learner in a deep and substantive way, and then adapting the learning plan accordingly. At the same time, some who describe their classrooms as learner-centered don’t necessarily engage in an in-depth investigation of these factors. Yet, the idea is that knowledge about each learner is what shapes decisions about what students learn and how they learn it. In some cases, the teacher is still making most of the decisions. In other cases, students are given greater voice and choice (even though I’ve set aside a different term for classrooms where that is the focus).
I thought twice about including this category, but without it, there is a significant gap. This represents classrooms where the focus is not actually upon the teacher, the learner, standards, or specific content. Of course, each of these are a part of the mix, but the problem-centered classroom is one that that is actually more focused upon engaging in acts of service, or understanding and engaging in solving real-world problems. Much learning happens, and in most schools or classrooms that embrace this approach, there are typically ways to document (if not assess) student learning along the way. Yet, the primary attention is upon doing something real in the world…and learning by doing that thing.
In some ways, this is the most direct contrast to the teacher-centered classroom because it is about where the power resides. The learner-driven classroom is the one where learners are the primary decision-makers about what they learn, how they learn it, and maybe even how they demonstrate their learning. There are instances where each learner has almost complete control. In other instances, the learner has to fit plans within a set of standards (so a mix with a standards-centered classroom) or some pre-developed fences within which the learners are permitted to work. In other cases, the learner is co-creator of what and how to learn, doing that work with the teacher (mentor, coach, guide) and/or other classmates.
It is probably sufficient to simply acknowledge that there are different levels of learner-driven classrooms and schools, but I’m compelled to create this last category to acknowledge what some might describe as the most immersive expression of being learner-driven. That is when the learner (and collective of learners) not only has voice, choice, ownership, and agency of the learning process. The learner also has significant influence on what happens in the entire learning community. Learners have say on the rules, policies, practices, the physical environment, and more. In fact, while less common, there are examples of schools that are entirely learner-led, with no teachers, or where learners can vote on which teachers stay or go.
I’m sure that I missed other important distinctions, but my main goal here was to acknowledge and reflect upon a level of nuance that gets missed when we simply contrast teacher-centered versus student-centered learning. While breaking things into these nine categories was an exercise in organizing my own thinking as much as anything else, perhaps others will find it useful as well.