June 1st, 2011

Changing the Way We Teach: Making the Case for Learner-Centered Teaching


“Why should we change the way we teach?” a marketing professor asked with an honest gaze and a smile that bespoke sincerity. It was early in a workshop session just after I’d introduced the idea of learner-centered teaching and explained why students should be doing more of the learning tasks themselves.

In a lot of ways the question links to one I recently asked myself: “Should I keep working on learner-centered teaching?” The folks at Jossey-Bass have been after me to do an update of my Learner-Centered Teaching book. For quite a while I resisted. Why revisit a place I’ve already been? At this stage in my academic career, do I have time to go back?

But then in January I decided I would look seriously at what’s been published since that book came out in 2002. I was amazed at what I found—all sorts of new research and discipline-based work in lots of different areas, and virtually all of it supportive of techniques that get students engaged and make them more responsible for their learning. I’m hard at work on a new edition, excited by what I’ve found to include and convinced that this evidence offers lots of reasons why we should change the way we teach. Here’s a brief summary of those reasons.

If teachers focus their attention on the learning experiences of students and make changes based on what we know about teaching that promotes learning:

Students will understand more of what they are learning – When students interact with the content, when they speak about it and work with it, they make it their own and it becomes meaningful to them. It makes sense. They see why it’s important, why they must know it and how it fits with what they already know and still need to learn.

Students will retain what they learn longer – When students are engaged and involved with the content, when they are really learning, as in understanding the material, they remember it longer. Their knowledge goes from being something crammed in their heads which bursts out and drains away on an exam to being a solid foundation on which more new learning can rest.

Students will learn more than just the content – When students are involved and engaged with the material, directing their learning of it and working on it with others, they are developing important learning skills. They are learning to ask questions, to find answers, to challenge reasons, to consider alternatives, to evaluate evidence, and to solve problems. The acquisition of those skills is enhanced further with constructive feedback from teachers. Students leave these kinds of learning experiences, not just knowing the content, but equipped to learn more on their own and for themselves.

Chances are good students will be changed by what they learn – Deep, conceptual understanding transcends whatever it is the student has learned. Understanding at that level has implications for who they are, how they think and what they see in the world around them. When students own the material and the learning process, learning is often a transformative experience—one that involves deep and profound change.

Students will love learning more – A good learning experience where the student conquers challenging content, finds out something fascinating, and through the process discovers an aptitude for doing something, this is what creates an ongoing hunger for learning.

I think these are compelling reasons to change the way we teach—to move away from instruction devoted to teacher-transmitted content and teacher-directed learning and toward more student-centered teaching. There is still a time and place for telling students what they need to know and ought to do. The process of moving toward learner-centeredness is a developmental one for teachers and students. But student discovery of what they need to know, their selection of the processes by which they learn it, their firsthand experience of the messiness of learning, and their need to assess what they have learned—we need to make more time and a larger space for that kind of teaching and learning.