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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


One Perspective on Student-Centered Learning

I don't think student-centered learning should be all that controversial.

October 13, 2015

I am reflexively wary of buzzwords. Any mention of  “adaptive software” sets my teeth grinding. Whenever I hear the phrase “college and career ready,” I’m tempted to light myself on fire.

Even “flipping the classroom,” something I’m pretty sure I do on a regular basis, can hit me in a way that triggers a gag reflex.

I suppose the issue is that these buzzwords come bundled with so many other issues, it becomes hard to see what’s underneath. While I find the single-minded focus of corporate education reformers to make students “college and career ready” (as judged by standardized metrics) has pernicious effects on children and learning, who can disagree that schooling should in some way prepare the attendees for their futures?

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when commenters seemed to object to Lee Skallerup Bessette’s discussion of “student centered” learning in the context of the conflict between Berkeley lecturer Alexander Coward and the university’s math department[1].

“Student centered” seems to be one of those buzzwords that can set some people off. Perhaps this is because in some cases it is read as a kind of implicit (or even explicit) criticism of “traditional” forms of instruction, such as lecturing. [2]

I believe that the inherent conservatism embodied in colleges and universities tends to serve us well, preventing wild swings after unproven trends (MOOCs, cough cough), and I certainly understand resistance born out of feeling as though something untested and faddish is being crammed down one’s throats.

I also think what makes for effective teaching is often dependent on the particular mix of subject, instructor, student, and institution. The idea that there is a universal best practice for teaching seems frankly ridiculous.

But these critiques of “student-centered learning” don’t have anything to do with the thing itself. They are built on imaginary bogeymen.

For example, “student-centered learning” does not mean catering to students or spoonfeeding them material. “Student-centered” learning does not prioritize keeping students “entertained.” “Student-centered” learning does not require the use of digital tools or technology.

While there are principles undergirding “student-centered learning,” no one is proposing any prescriptive use of universal techniques.

“Student-centered learning” is not even a method.

“Student-centered learning,” at least as I understand it, is a philosophy that embraces the idea that learning something is the student’s responsibility, and that the most lasting learning tends to be rooted in complex challenges and multifaceted experiences[3].

I know that I’ve experienced lectures that seem highly student-centered, that transcend straightforward information transfer and engage the audience in a deep and reflexive learning process.

I also know that this is a pretty high bar for a lecture and that most of us are not capable of this, at least not on a multiple-times a week basis. Because of this, we look for alternatives that may help students interact with the content and enhance their learning.

In my class, I teach writing as a kind of problem solving, where we have an audience and a purpose and we have to craft a communication that meets those demands. To help students improve at this, I develop a series of challenges that they must try to negotiate. I support them in these challenges, but I spend very little time telling them explicitly what to do. We talk about how writers read, how they think, how they go about writing, but the way the students combine these things are unique to each person.

I do not read individual drafts and tell them what to fix. I answer most of their questions with questions of my own that redirect them back to their own process. I use a grading contract that gives them the freedom to experiment and fail, and that  privileges more labor over less under the theory that the best way to increase writing proficiency is to read and write[4].

All of these challenges are developed by putting students first, asking what they need in order to attempt these tasks in ways that are productive and that create a lasting relationship with the material.

Sometimes these things may look unusual and appear challenging to tradition. [5]

For example, right now, the students in my first-year writing class are writing jokes. They are doing this in teams of 4 to 5, utilizing the same kind of collaborative process you’ll find at any late night television show. I introduced this with a very little bit of humor theory, and a lot of jokes.

While the assignment may appear to be outside of academic writing, I’ve found that it fits nicely with a number of the principles that I’m asking them to absorb and practice: attendance to audience, precision of expression, the necessity of revision as part of process.

The group nature of the exercise is also important, as once they enter the so-called “real world,” almost all of the writing – almost all of the work they do, period –  will be subject to some measure of collaboration.

My job while they’re working is to observe them, to be present and available when they appear stymied, to nudge them back on track if they seem to have wandered too far away.

I can see that each student is likely learning and experiencing something a little bit different, and some of what they’re learning is more about themselves than about writing.

But I’m okay with that. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m trying to prepare them for the real, “real world,” which has very few professors professing, where if they’re going to succeed in their work it will come from their own initiative.

“Student-centered learning” isn’t an educational panacea. If someone is selling it as such, I hope they stop.

It’s a system of values that embraces the notion that students are indeed central to their own learning.

I’m wondering what’s so objectionable about that.

[1] I don’t personally have enough information to comment on Coward’s situation one way or another. I’ve never felt particularly constrained from experimenting with my teaching mostly because, as NTT faculty, I never got the sense that very many people were paying attention to what I was doing.

[2] I suppose there’s an irony here in that according to students Alexander Coward’s chief attribute as a teacher appears to be the quality of his lectures.

[3] If I’m wrong about this, those who study this more formally should let me know in the comments.

[4] This is the subject of a longer, future post, but mid-semester, I realize that my use of a grading contract that deemphasizes the grades on the assignments and privileges labor has made my course more rigorous. I’ve substituted one kind of rigor (tough grader) for another (more work), and so far, the results are promising.

[5] Though they also become tradition. Peer response workshops in class are now widely used and many-times-over validated by research as an effective tool that fits under the umbrella of “student-centered learning.”


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