January 16th, 2013

Teacher-Centered, Learner-Centered or All of the Above


In November I had the great privilege of interviewing Parker Palmer. If you don’t know his book, The Courage to Teach, it’s one not to miss. If you haven’t read it in a while, it merits a reread. After reading it again, I found new ideas I missed the first time, old ones I have yet to understand completely and others I hadn’t thought about for far too long.

Parker writes that academics have a tendency to “think the world apart.” “We look at the world through analytical lenses. We see everything as this or that, plus or minus, on or off, black or white; and we fragment reality into an endless series of either-ors.” (p. 64) I see us doing this as teachers and I can’t think of a better example than how being teacher-centered is juxtaposed with being learner-centered. You are either a teacher who lectures (now considered bad) or you are a teacher who involves and engages students (now considered good). In short, this orientation pits teaching against learning.

It is true that for many years the pedagogical focus was on teaching. We assumed (and not without justification) that if teaching improved, so would learning. When teachers demonstrate characteristics like organization, enthusiasm, clarity and fairness, research has shown that students learn more (as measured by higher grades). But the reality of so many students coming to college minus important learning skills stimulated an interest in learning and, along with it, the realization that perhaps we had emphasized teaching too much. Our preference for and focus on learning has now tipped the scale in the other direction.

The thinking that teaching is either teacher-centered or learner-centered breaks an inseparable bond and does so to the detriment of our students and ourselves. Learner-centered teachers still need to lecture, as in tell students things. After all, faculty are the definitive content experts in the classroom and our knowledge and experiences can be immensely helpful to students as they work to master course material and eventually find their way to careers and lives that matter. Meanwhile, those who are teacher-centered should work to engage and involve students. They must recognize that students can learn from each other and that the deepest learning happens when students have the opportunity to practice and obtain feedback.

The best teaching is not one or the other, but a combination of both. As my colleagues Ricky Cox and Dave Yearwood write in the January issue of The Teaching Professor, “It is time to re-assert the role of teacher as a multifaceted individual who contributes to learning inside and outside the classroom. Teachers positively impact students on many levels, including curriculum design, intellectual challenge, personal growth, career guidance and other less tangible ways. Our students not only know us as teachers who design their course, they also know us as people who listen to their aspirations and struggles. Indeed, students’ memories and experiences with teachers are often just as important to their success as the skills they develop and knowledge they acquire.”

Parker Palmer explains why seemingly paradoxical things should be joined. “The poles of a paradox are like the poles of a battery; hold them together and they generate the energy of life; pull them apart, and the current stops flowing. When we separate any of the profound paired truths of our lives, both poles become lifeless specters of themselves…” (p. 67)

It is time for us to start addressing the more complex and interesting task of joining together teacher-centered and learner-centered instruction. The question for those who aspire to be learner-centered is not how to abandon lectures, but to understand when “teaching by telling” effectively advances the learning agenda. Learner-centered teachers should not leave students to muddle through on their own, but must know when to intervene and what kind of interventions enable students to discover their own way to understanding. Teacher-centered instruction does not get bogged down in a morass of policies and prohibitions that establish the teacher’s authority, but explores how to set boundaries within which students can make choices and move toward autonomy in learning.

Reference: Palmer, P. The Courage to Teach. 10th Anniversary Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.

12 comments on “Teacher-Centered, Learner-Centered or All of the Above

  1. Completely agree with the author that "it is time for us to start addressing the more complex and interesting task of joining together teacher-centered and learner-centered instruction."

  2. Good post – a practical yet responsible way to examine teaching. Reminds me of some vigorous "over coffee" debates/discussions with colleagues. Know the differences between pedagogy, andragogy & heutagogy, when to use each, combinations, and when to use all of them!

  3. How far has a pendulum swung away from "teacher-centered" classrooms and swung toward "learner-centered" classrooms? Check the "tags" at the end of Ms. Weimer's posting: "improving lectures" is the only gesture toward the teacher; the rest — "learner-centered, learner-centered instruction, learner-centered pedagogy, learner-centered teaching, Student-Centered Teaching" — all focus on the learner. Clearly, these two kinds of teaching should co-exist and complement each other, and that's what Ms. Weimer and Parker Palmer are trying to get at.

    So what's my point? Things have names; without a name, it's difficult to argue that a thing exists. Which leads me to this question: What do we call that kind of teaching and learning? Is it simply "teaching"? Er what?

  4. A little off topic, but the following quote from this article reflects one of the aspects of my job that I enjoy most and that I fear will be lost with a move away from the physical classroom to the cyber classroom:

    "students … know us as people who listen to their aspirations and struggles. Indeed, students’ memories and experiences with teachers are often just as important to their success as the skills they develop and knowledge they acquire.”

    • Old School, not at all off topic; rather, it encourages us to move from the tired L&T or T&L dichotomy to a practical reality – coping with change now upon us. Can I add though, beyond abstract fear – over the loss of 'memories & experiences with teachers', we might ponder how to best meet the student needs (learning) in the current context. Partly, this will involve evolving new language, while avoiding rhetoric and fads. One thing for sure, the younger generation is growing with technology in hand and with fundamentally changed pressures (for gaining employment) and expectations (of us as 'teachers' and of the education industry, which it is). What are we going to do about it? Embracing the 'teaching' professor is a good start, I think. But, what does this term (teaching professor) really mean, exclude or otherwise suggest?

  5. great topic and great discussion — helps to think of both teacher-centered and learner-centered on a continuum rather than an either /or paradigm and our abilities as teachers to move effortlessly on that line, as and when the class or topic demands, is a skill we can cultivate.

  6. This is a false dichotomy. Being learner-centered does not mean rejecting traditional teaching methods! It means selecting those which best support the learner, rather than which are easiest, most comfortable, or most familiar for the teacher.

  7. I've been reading Deborah Britzman lately on the subject of teaching. I'm not entirely on board with her (psychoanalytical) approach to the critical pedagogy, but she has this brilliant way of articulating the inter-personal, reciprocal nature of education that somehow gets lost in a lot of discussions about teaching, esp. amidst the back-and-forth over teacher-centred v. learner-centred learning. For example, one way that Britzman describes teaching and learning is: "what it means to become human with other humans in the classroom" (Novel Education). It's easy to forget this in today's high-enrollment classrooms, but education is interpersonal, is a co-formative process, and involves a meeting not just of teaching techniques and learning skills, but of people, personalities, and histories.

  8. I came across the link to this conversation in Faculty Focus today, I realize this conversation may have gone on,, but the topic is of much personal interest, and I have stumbled across some ideas I think are related to this discussion and worth sharing.
    1) Let's recast the either or of teacher centered and learner centered into the place of two overlapping circles – the overlap being "learning centered." The center and interaction between teacher and learner where the teaching/learning takes place.
    2) To support that construct Hebrew has a word lamad that can be translated and is translated in the Bible as either teach or learn. Deut. 4:1 and Deut. 5:1. Why not one word for both? They are in fact inseparable, no teaching without learning, no learning without teaching (even if it means we teach ourselves).
    A couple of thoughts, I think may be worth passing on.

Comments are closed.

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "Teacher-Centered, Learner-Centered or All of the Above"