November 16th, 2010

Doing Learner-Centered Teaching or Being Learner-Centered


The rereading, sorting, and occasional tossing of articles on teaching and learning in my files continues. And I continue to be amazed at what I’ve missed and forgotten. Here’s my latest find.

“In most of the writing on learner-centered education … the focus remains on the teacher—what he or she can or should do to achieve learner-centered instruction. Although a learner-centered model is based in a different set of assumption than a teacher-centered model, the starting point is still pedagogical techniques initiated by the teacher. In our view, such a focus objectifies students, distances teachers, and underemphasizes the most critical element in the classroom: learning.” (p.335)

At least they didn’t list my book on learner-centered teaching, but they certainly could have. In large measure it describes learner-centered techniques and strategies undertaken by teachers. After having thought about this, I have to admit I’m not sure I see another way to begin. Most students do not arrive in our classrooms having experienced approaches that make their learning a central part of the educational experience. If teachers don’t use these techniques, how else do students discover that learners (and teachers) can fill different roles in the classroom?

The authors explain further. “As we began to think and talk about what truly learner-centered classrooms would be like, we found that teaching techniques and pedagogy became nearly irrelevant. We grew less concerned about what we did in our classrooms and more concerned with who we were in the class and why we chose to do what we did.” (p. 335)

Their article is about what they call “being” in the classroom, and it emphasizes the need for teachers to move in their thinking from “doing” things in the classroom to “being” there as students do the learning. And I see that point—you can use learner-centered strategies in a teacher-centered way. You focus on the technique and its execution to the exclusion of students and the learning that is hopefully happening for them.

Moreover, the authors do recognize that teaching isn’t always about “being”—sometimes teachers must do things to and with students. “What we advocate … is active and overt choice about where to operate on the doing-being continuum.” (p. 354)

I’m keeping this article. It makes distinctions that are subtle and yet significant. Teaching can’t be learner-centered if the learning is not more central than the teaching.

Reference: Ramsey, V. J. and Fitzgibbons, D. E. (2005). Being in the classroom. Journal of Management Education, 29 (2), 333-356.