Student-centered versus teacher-centered instruction

Oct 25, 2017

Maria: Lucas, I am interested in your experience as a student in our high school. Is classroom instruction centered around the needs of students (student-centered), including student voice and choice, or do you think it is more directed by the teacher (teacher-centered)?

Lucas: I find that, in most cases, teachers are generally willing to adapt their curriculum and schedule to suit the needs of students. Sometimes, I feel like certain topics aren’t given enough time in class or that students are expected to do some of their own learning outside of class, which is perfectly fine. Could you give me a short explanation of what student-centered versus teacher-centered instruction is?

Maria: In a teacher-centered classroom, the content, instructional strategies and assessment are driven by the teacher. The teacher determines what to teach, how to teach it and how to measure it, based on the teacher’s understanding of how to best shape the learning. Don’t get me wrong, teachers are trained to be fairly adept at this, and we have some very adept teachers who are highly skilled in delivering instruction.

However, in a student-centered classroom, students have meaningful input into content, instructional approaches and even assessments. They have a voice in their learning in a way that better meets their needs. A teacher’s role shifts to artfully facilitating the learning experience. I also believe that in student-centered classrooms, students take more ownership and responsibility for their learning because they become invested in it by being a part of it. It is analogous to the difference between being a passenger (teacher-centered) in a car and being the driver (student-centered). Student-centered learning also fosters more independence in students because of that ownership and role in decision-making about their learning. Do you get the sense that you are a leader in your learning, or are you diligently following along?

Lucas: Based on your description, I generally find a mixture of the two methods. While much of what we do in class is based in a predetermined curriculum, there are some instances where we, as students, are allowed to take our learning in the direction of our choice. For example, in one of my current classes, we are making presentations about a topic related to evolution. However, we are given the choice of what that topic is, and thus can focus on evolution from a perspective that is interesting to us.

I think this is very important, as it makes the subject of evolution much more tangible because we are able to learn about it in a context that we have chosen. Of course, there are many elements of the subject that require following a set curriculum, but I do think that there are benefits to having a balance between the two learning styles. Teachers understand the main points of the curriculum and make sure we cover those points while still allowing us independence in our perspective. However, this isn’t possible with all classes, as certain subjects involve more specific instruction and wouldn’t be as suitable for a student-centric learning style.

Maria: I am not sure I agree that all subjects can’t be student-centered. A student-centered approach can simply mean students doing most of the thinking. For instance, in a math class, the teacher can instruct from the front of the room, showing students how to solve problems on the board while students take notes, answer their questions and assess their work. Alternatively, the teacher could organize students to work out problems in small groups, so that the students are thinking about how to solve the problem while the teacher spends his or her time supporting that work by roaming around and asking key questions to push students’ thinking.

Students could explain their reasoning to the whole class, other students could analyze it to see if it makes sense, and then they could determine a real world application to demonstrate their understanding. In the latter case, students have done the hard thinking and problem-solving instead of passively listening to the teacher. I have heard some students say that they wouldn’t want to have to do that much work, however. They’d prefer to sit back and be a “passenger”! It certainly wouldn’t eliminate the “sage on the stage” method of teaching, but we have potential to significantly reduce it and have students more deeply engaged in the learning process. As we move into a world where content is less important (partly because it is readily accessible on a phone) and the ability to think critically, communicate well, and effectively collaborate is vitally important, I think it becomes more important to make the shift to student-centered classrooms where students are able to truly develop these skills.

Lucas: Your last response has made me think deeply about my experiences in class and I must admit that, under this description, student-centered learning styles can and are used in every subject. And I think this brings back the idea of a balance between the two styles. For example, I think that the math classroom you described would not be nearly as effective as a learning environment should it focus solely on one learning style over the other. For example, while it is important for students to be able to solve problems by themselves or in groups, I think it is also important to have a teacher introduce the topic and provide helpful tools to the students for their individual work.

I think that the true purpose of having a teacher is to provide these tools that can be used across different disciplines and to solve different problems, rather than simply relaying little snippets of knowledge without providing context for use for the rest of our lives. With a teacher-centered learning style, the teacher is able to provide these tools that the students can practice applying in their individual work, which would be the student-centered aspect. Of course, the teacher would help individuals who might be struggling to grasp a certain aspect of the tool or a certain intricacy, but this way students would truly understand how these tools relate to their future and what they are used for. For these reasons, I believe that a combination of these learning methods is the ideal situation to have.

Maria: That is a great observation -- a balanced approach is generally the way to go with most things in life. You know the adage, everything in moderation!

Maria Libby is the Superintendent of Schools for the Five Town CSD and MSAD 28. Lucas Fischer is a junior at CHRHS, interning in the Superintendent’s office as a writer helping to elevate education in our community. This year’s articles will be a dialogue between Maria and Lucas about important education topics.

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