Scholar-centered studying requires changes in perspective –

Student-centered learning requires adjustments in perspective

contributed by Steve WheelerAssociate Professor, Plymouth Institute of Education

Who leads learning in your institution? Is it the teachers or the students – or do both contribute equally to the best possible learning conditions? It’s a fine balance.

Carl Rogers advocated student-centred learning, while John Dewey emphasized the importance of learner participation. Seymour Papert firmly believed that the best learning occurs when learners take ownership. The progressive education movement believes that education should not be imposed on students, but should be a conscious, consensual process in which each learner actively participates. Education is not done to us. Education is something we do. Education is at its strongest when learners are at the center of the process and able to make their decisions about what is happening.

See also The underlying assumptions of a curriculum

For students, education should be about taking control of learning, while for teachers, it should be about letting go. But this can be a difficult task for some teachers because we tend to teach the way we were taught. Perhaps the biggest objection traditional educators have to student-taking is the argument that students don’t really know what they want and therefore cannot effectively direct their own learning. Progressives respond by suggesting that the strongest learning occurs when it has personal meaning, and only the student can construct that.

The middle ground is that students can be given the freedom to learn while being scaffolded by experts within prescribed knowledge sets. What students learn is important, but so is how they learn. The big question that all educators will need to answer in the years to come is how do we create a balance where students are in control of their own learning and teachers provide the best possible support. An important movement will be from passive reception to active engagement. It requires effective management of expectations – from both students and teachers.

In Experience and Education, John Dewey emphasized the importance of students driving their own learning through active engagement:

“I think there is no more sensible point in the philosophy of progressive education than its emphasis on the importance of the learner’s participation in the formation of the goals that guide his [sic] Activities in the learning process, as there is no greater deficiency in traditional education than the failure to ensure the active participation of the student in the construction of the goals related to his studies.

Unfortunately, students cannot do this when the school regime prohibits student voice in favor of a teacher-dominated pedagogy. We have to find the right balance.

The last word should belong to Paulo Freire (and his seminal work The Pedagogy of the Oppressed): “The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make a mark on the students. What the educator is doing in teaching is allowing the students to become themselves.”

Dewey, J. (1983) Experience and education. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith Publishing.
Horton M and Freire P (1990) We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Rogers, CR (1983) Freedom to learn. New York: Prentice Hall.

Photo from the National Photo Company collection via Flickr

A fine balance by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Student-centred learning requires adjustments in perspective; Image attribution Google

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