December 07, 2011

I Don't Believe in Student-Centered Learning! Part 1

Yeah, so I thought I might get your attention with this one! I recently read a great article by Larry Kuehn in the December 2011 edition of the BCTF "Teacher newsmagazine", which provoked me to do some thinking on the topic of this thing we are calling "21st century learning". He was writing about the recent announcement of the new BC Education Plan which has five key elements:

1. Personalized learning
2. Quality teaching and learning
3. Flexibility and choice
4. High standards
5. Learning powered by technology

Honestly, I don't have a problem with any of these words...however it depends on the interpretation of what these words mean and how each of these five ideas will be implemented. I am going to focus specifically on the first item which the ministry of education is defining (personalized learning) as:

"Under the Plan, teachers, students and parents will work together to make sure every student's needs are met, passions are explored and goals are reached. This means student-centered learning that's focused on the needs, strengths, and aspirations of each individual young person. Students will play an active role in designing their own education and will be increasingly accountable for their own learning success. It's all about putting students at the centre of education." 

Sounds good hey! Well not to me. You see I don't believe in student-centered learning anymore! However I do believe in making learning fun (hence my web address for my blog: I want to involve students in the learning and planning process, and allow them to bring their enthusiasm and interests to the classroom; but there is a distinction to be made. Let me put it to you this way, if we believed that students are at the centre, then this new education plan could be construed to mean that every child comes with their own idea of what they want to learn and we support them in whatever they want to learn about or don't want to. So if a student wants to learn about dogs every year, then dogs it is! Or each of my 26 students comes with their own interests and ideas, and from the moment they arrive I have to run around finding ways to support each of them. I don't think this is what is meant by personalized learning exactly, at least I hope not! Although, according to the article, in personalized learning, the content is not primarily determined by the curriculum, but rather the student has a great deal of choice of content and the teacher's role is to steer the student learning toward competencies - whatever they are!

Maybe I'm getting it all wrong then, because I teach with a different philosophy.  I am using Egan's Imaginative Education Theory and Vygotsky's Socio-Cultural Theory as a philosophical basis for my teaching. Both write about how mediation through "tools" is the central component to learning. This is as simple as thinking about how stories, games, imagery, metaphors...can be used in all areas of learning (not just Language Arts!). Further to that, Vygotsky believed that there is no possibility to learn anything directly, and this means that the social interactive nature of learning must be emphasized because we mediate through our use of language and through the learning of concepts from a human historical perspective. Secondly, is the notion that "scientific concepts" must be presented at the onset of learning. This would be similar to providing students with the "big concept" up front. As a result of this understanding, I have a perspective that the teacher's role is critically important and it is the concepts that I bring to my students which will help them to grow. During my master's work I wrote about the role of the teacher as mediator. 

"my artwork of the role of the teacher as mediator"

What becomes important is how I bring these concepts to my students, and how we find ways to work together around these concepts. This certainly does involve getting feedback from my students on what they like, struggle with, and want to find out. Vygotsky and Egan agree on a key premise that: "learning leads development", and that there is a strong collaborative element that is necessary for learning. This can be contrasted with Piaget, Binet, Freud and others who believed that learning was an innate characteristic of human beings. These are the true child-centered learning theorists. If Piaget was right, then not much of what we do would have an influence on students because we would have to wait until they are developmentally ready to teach them something.

The way I plan my lessons, the activities I choose, the methods in which I have students complete their work, the assessment practices I create, etc...all need constant reflection about whether I am bringing my students to a full and deeper understanding of a particular concept. So to be equally clear, my role is not to be at the centre of the learning either. It is the concepts themselves that need to be at the centre of learning then. By leading students with scientific concepts this does not mean that we see students as incapable or that their ideas are not valued; on the contrary, it means we trust them even more because we bring them bigger, more abstract concepts and we allow them to move beyond their immediate circumstances to understand their place in the world (and human history). Vygotsky (1978) said:

"Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapersonal). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals."

So I do strongly believe in creating a learning atmosphere where students can push beyond the pre-set curriculum and find wonder and enjoyment in what they are doing (you might see this in some of my other posts). From the initial concepts I teach my students, they can branch out into individual pursuits and go deeper by connecting their individual passions, interests, and skills to what we have been investigating. To me this is what could be what is really meant by "personalized learning". Perhaps you can understand why I am having issues with that wording of "student-centered learning". I created an illustration to help. I must give credit to a group of educators that I work with in a learning project called "Strong Schools Strong Classrooms" and in particular a colleague of mine who is completing her doctorate work. She came up with the word "spheres" to describe the participatory engagement of students in her work.
"my diagram to describe the centre of learning"
At the centre are the core scientific concepts (for me this means the concept themselves, but also the educational theory I am using), teacher and students work collaboratively around these, beyond that ideas can be shared and bounced off other teachers and students in the school, then parents and other community members. In my classroom I don't rely on government initiatives or plans to guide me or sway me. Likewise textbook resources from publishers do not dictate how and when I will teach concepts. Actually these are at the furthest "sphere" of my attention. These outer spheres can be helpful when they point back towards the core concepts, but we need to be clear on the direction and point of origin. This is where reflection and changes to practice can occur. Discussions I have had recently with my "SSSC" group have sharpened and helped to form many of these ideas that I am writing about here. 

In this way I can bring one lesson (not 26) to my students with the possibility of an explosion of ideas that ripple out from there back and forth. So, yes, I may have 15-26 different things going on in the classroom, but all the students are connected in some way to the central idea, theme, or lesson that I have brought to them. Moreover, I cannot accept a pre-packaged program and run it in my classroom (unless there is a very strong theoretical, clearly defined basis that I agree with for its implementation). So what are we doing then, what are we waiting for? Changes are already necessary or are you not dissatisfied with how things are? With the new education plan, I predict that there will be no money - okay. But can we make time though for teachers to collaborate, research and plan together? This is what will have the greatest impact.

If you disagree with what I have said, I would love to have some dialogue around this. In my next post I want to continue this idea of teachers as curriculum developers and give some examples of more lessons I have created(we are not waiting for changes - we are making them now!)

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