February 23rd, 2015

Learner-Centered Pedagogy and the Fear of Losing Control


college students in class

In the spring of 1991, I returned to teaching after more than five years as a Benedictine monk. The monastery had been founded in China in the 1920s, and when exiled after the Chinese Revolution, the community had relocated to the Mojave Desert in California. During my novitiate, I had taken up a private study of modern Chinese history, even though my research and academic formation at Cambridge University had been in early modern English puritan studies. When my community sent me to study theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, I also studied the history of missiology and continued to read about the modern emergence of Christianity in China. So when the history department of a small liberal arts college in Santa Barbara asked me to teach a non-Western course after I left monastic life, I suggested Modern Chinese History.

I recall my fear, walking into class that first day. Twenty-five eager students greeted me expectantly. My plan for the first two weeks filled me with uncertainty. I explained that they needed to divide up into teams of two or three, do research on a Chinese province, and come into class with handouts and a report on what they had learned. These were bright students and eager to learn. They enthused about the prospect of the project and returned the next several sessions with excellent presentations and dynamic discussion about the interconnectedness of a region of the world that had previously been a mystery to them. Their engagement in the work reassured me, as we moved on to the next stage of the course: my lectures.

This proved a challenging task, as I spent my days outside of the classroom writing detailed notes that constructed a narrative of China’s nineteenth-century encounter with Western powers, and the Chinese Empire’s struggles to resist their aggression. I then moved on to the twentieth century miseries of war, revolution, radical social changes, and the trauma of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Without formal training, Chinese words, important Chinese figures and places proved challenging to pronounce, and so I filled the chalkboard with them as I lectured, and stuck close to my notes. Students were reduced to silence—except for the sound of pens on paper and periodic sighs or requests for me to repeat a line I had said. Students walked out of my classroom with fingers cramped, but notebooks filled with information. I recall the sense of satisfaction I had. I was doing my job.

But near the end of the semester, two of the brightest students in the course asked to see me. When we met, they asked a very simple question: “What happened to the course we loved at the beginning of the semester?” I asked them to explain. They recalled wistfully the excitement of doing research and reporting what they had found, listening to their peers’ reports and the dynamic exchanges between students about provinces they had studied. They confessed that the lectures had been difficult to follow, and even harder to record in note form. Half the time they had difficulty making connections or understanding the narrative that I had condensed from the sources I had used. By the end of the conversation, they communicated a message I have never forgotten: we want to learn, and not be taught.

Looking back on that experience, I realize that it reflects a pitfall many professors fall into: mistaking “teaching” with “learning.” In my insecurity and desire to control the contact time, I dominated the classroom and filled it with the fruits of my own learning, rather than creating an experience that would enable my students to learn effectively. Those two brave students (grades had not been assigned!) helped me realize that my job is to facilitate learning. That means creating learner-centered experiences, and not classrooms dominated by the instructor’s (my) fear of losing control.

This approach demands much more of the students, and requires much more preparation from the professor before the semester begins. Careful planning is needed to build effective progression of learning, so that students of varying abilities and learning preferences can deepen their understanding in different ways and at different paces. However, over the years I have come to appreciate that students learn best when they are challenged to take charge of their educational formation. Instructors must let go of their own fears and insecurities, and create spaces where learning is possible.

Kenneth L. Parker is a professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University.

This article originally appeared in The Notebook, the blog for the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at Saint Louis University. Reprinted with permission.

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  • toddconaway

    Words of wisdom, "…they communicated a message I have never forgotten: we want to learn, and not be taught."
    Kenneth, have you read "The Way it Spozed to Be" by James Herndon? Classic on the challenges that come with letting go of the control in a classroom. Highly recommended.

    Thanks for the post!

  • aiaswtas

    Many thanks for this post. This concisely explains what I have been trying to articulate to myself for a while.

  • America aAzquez

    How many students do you usually have in your classes?How much space? When you have 28 students and tney are all trying to look at their telephone messages all the time , and if you dare to turn around for one second., they'll take a picture if you and post it on Facebooik. It is impossible to implement any student centered/grup activity. %Then they'll start speaking Spanish amomg themselves, It is not easy to teach under such circumstances. Any suggestiosn welcomed!

    • Kenneth

      I can appreciate the challenge you face. My own pattern, since my courses are primarily discussion based, is to prohibit the use of all devices in my classroom. Computers and handheld devices must be stowed away and out of reach. That requires persistence, but it pays off in the end.

    • Jackie Strobel

      Planning a student centered activity takes time, but it is worth it. Design what is to be done and provide some questions to answer. Tell them they need to present to the class as well as submit their findings. During the group work, walk around to observe and answer any questions they may have. Ask how much more time they need to get a pulse. Identity and note who is engaged and who isn't.

  • Gerald Adams

    Great article Kenneth- I am with you on your key theme of a "paradigm shift" which should occur from the teacher- centered to a shift towards a more learner -centered stance in Teaching and Learning.
    This reinforces a famous saying : “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” ? Benjamin Franklin.

    I "teach" or more importantly " facilitate" student learning within a Problem Based Learning (PBL) environment. PBL draws from learning theorist and adopts a pragmatic pedagogical approach to teaching and learning which is designed to shift the responsibility of learning onto the student. It also borrows key concepts from other broader disciples such as philosophy, psychology and education mixing them together in such a unique manner that that assists the learner to start thinking about their own learning- which is where I believe the real paradigm shift should occur. I think that the process is simultaneous if it has to be effective.

    However- I still believe – maybe I differ slightly here- but "Teaching" is still an important part of what we do and controlling the learning dynamic is also an important aspect. Maybe- shifting away from telling, as alluded to by Franklin- is what is required in the modern world of Teaching and Learning – always challenging or being challenged ?

  • Dr Dee Gray

    Thank you for the post and comments. Teachers learn as they teach it is an intertwined process.

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