In much contemporary education, there is a growing trend toward praising the benefits of learner-centered versus teacher-centered education, but what do we actually mean by those terms? Are all people using them the same? As you’ve probably come to expect in the field of education, terms are rarely precise, or when they are, it is common to have two or more working definitions for the same term. That is certainly true when it comes to the terms teacher-centered and learner-centered. The more I have conversations with people around the world about education, the more I see a few working definitions for each of these terms.
This is important because I also see a fair bit of labeling, as if some consider teacher-centered an insult, and still others considered learner-centered a less rigorous, fluffy, touchy-feely approach to education. Some argue that teacher-centered is dry, stodgy and heartless. Others argue that learner-centered is idealistic, unrealistic, and irresponsible. As expected, there is much more nuance to the conversation. To use one term or the other does not usually put you in a single camp, nor does it really tell us what sort of practice a person embraces. In fact, there are many variations at work, and many of us are more teacher-centered in one context and more learner-centered in another. It might vary by content, goal, student age or background knowledge, or any number of other factors. As a result, the following do not represent all the possibilities, but they offer more nuance than what we see is some articles and discourse about the subject (including some of my own).
1. Essentialism – One camp that proudly promotes teacher-centered education includes those who hold to a philosophy of education known as essentialism. The earliest champion of essentialism was William Bagely, author of Essentialist’s Platform for the Advancement of American Education in the late 1930s. A more recent name associated with Essentialism is E.D. Hirsch with his focus upon “core knowledge.” He is the one to popularize that series of books about what every kindergartener (or name your grade) should know. Essentialists argue that a key function of school is to root young people in the essential knowledge for good citizenships, the basics. This is teacher-centered because the teacher is the one to direct the class, promote high academic standards and discipline, and lead student practice and rehearsal of the basics. The content is not selected because of student interest but because it represents the essentials.
This is where things get confusing for those who want to put each idea into crisp non-overlapping categories. While essentialism is typically a teacher-centered approach, core knowledge curricula is most recently promoted through computer-based instruction (like what is use by K12, a very large curriculum provider for public virtual schools). In the case of K12’s curriculum, much of the content is introduced through readings and computer-based instruction, with teacher facilitation of some online sessions and careful review of student progress. This is not what might initially come to mind for a teacher-centered environment, but it is teacher-centered in that the teacher or authority selects and delivers the content.
2. Perennialism – This philosophy is also teacher-centered, and there can be similarities between the content in essentialism and perennialism. However, perennialism is not just about the basics or essentials. It is rooted in the classics, the great ideas that have stood the test of time. Students learn by studying and analyzing the great texts, led by a teacher. The teacher decides what is taught, when it is taught, and how it is taught.
However, as with essentialism, there are models today where the great ideas and books are a focus, and students are directed to texts and analyze them. Yet, it might be done more independently, with students having a greater measure of (at least partial control) over the time, pace, and learning pathways. In other words, the teacher leads the content and the class, but some measure of student voice may well help inform what happens.
3. Teacher-Centered Practice – Others who talk about being teacher-centered are not thinking specifically about essentialism or perennialism. Instead, their concern is more with the way the class is managed. The teacher decides what is learned, when it is learned, how it is learned, and how learning is assessed. The teacher designs lessons with the goal of keeping students engaged and focused upon their learning. The teacher manages classroom behavior.
1. Progressivism – This is the educational philosophy that comes to mind for many people, and John Dewey (sometimes Jean Jacques Roseau) is a common name associated with it. Progressivists emphasize learning through experience and experimentation. Hands on and real world learning is the priority. The emphasis is less upon a planned curriculum and more about the needs, interests, and readiness of each child. Progressivists place a heavy emphasis upon the learning community, and the teacher serves more as a guide and facilitator.
2. Existentialism – This is a philosophy of education that has high value for student freedom. Students have choice about what they learn and how they learn it. Teachers serve as guides and facilitators, but students typically have immense choice, sometimes almost all the choice. The democratic schools (schools like Summerhill and Sudbury) are examples of existentialism in action. In the example of democratic schools, there may or may not be teachers who facilitate classes. These schools sometimes don’t even have people called teachers. However, there are also more moderate examples of existentialism, where there teachers are stronger and more visible guides for student learning and progress, as is the case with some of the project-based learning charter schools around the United States. In fact, in these schools, there is often great choice and freedom for students, but they must still show (with the help of a teacher or learning coach) how they are meeting various required standards or fulfilling requirements for graduation.
3. Student-Centered Practice – Then there are many who do not think of such educational philosophies. They may work from an established school curriculum or standard content, but they also find ways to adapt to the unique needs, interests, and abilities of each learner. Some may provide chances for students to choose some topics, choose how they demonstrate their learning, and maybe even choose how to monitor and show their progress.
4. Teacher-Led Student-Centered – There are others who still run their classes quite similar to what we see with the teacher-centered approaches, but they describe themselves as learner-centered because they are committed to helping each learner get what is needed to be motivated and make progress. Differentiated instruction, which calls for adapting the learning strategies and types of assessments to make sure each student is learning, is such an approach. There are still common learning objectives for all students and the teacher leads and directs most parts of the class. However, amid that the teacher centers his/her attention on what each student needs to develop and make good progress. This approach might also, for example, take into account Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences or try to understand the learning style of each student (although, if you’ve ready my blog, you probably know that I am suspicious about many of the claims about learning styles in educational design).
From Teacher to Learning-Centered
Then there is another approach, one that we might called learning-centered. This one recognizes that sometimes students don’t know what they don’t know. They might not know the most important questions to ask to grow in readiness to become a doctor, for example. There is a curriculum and an expert teacher/mentor to direct instruction. However, the teacher’s job is to help students progress toward greater levels of independence as a learner. As learners are ready, the teachers relinquish greater control to the leaner. Learners eventually come to own more of the learning process, even to the point of being able to select what is to be learned (when appropriate), how to learn it, how to self-monitor for progress, along with how to assess and prove what is learned. Learners are given growing levels of control over the time, pace, and path of the learning. Proponents of this approach warn of doing the educational equivalent of throwing students into the pool with the hopes of their learning to swim. Give only as much guidance as needed, with the goal of them eventually being able to swim independently. Different students will be ready for such independence at different times.
These are eight of probably dozens of common understandings of teacher-centered and learner-centered education. As you can see, there is overlap. Some may use the term teacher-centered while having a practice that embraces many elements of a learner-centered approach. Just as common is the teacher who is proud of being learner-centered, but also has strong convictions about having some of the control or the curricular focus common in a teacher-centered philosophy. In the end, it isn’t especially important to know where we fit. Instead, exploring these approaches serve as a helpful way to clarify our own convictions about education.