“The understanding is not a vessel which must be filled, but firewood, which needs to be kindled; and love of learning and love of truth are what should kindle it.” – Plutarch
Understanding student-centered learning approaches to education
Student-centered learning is an approach to education that puts the student first. It stands in direct contrast to teacher-centered learning methods. To understand student-centered learning, we will first discuss the opposing method, as this is the method of instruction most people are familiar with and what is traditionally used in schools.
Teacher-led learning is what is known as a didactic approach to learning. The term didactic means taught. This type of learning puts the teacher at the center or front of the classroom, offering instruction to students via planned lessons. These lessons are usually created by the teacher and based on standards that are adopted by the school. The teacher plans lessons and presents them to the class in the form of lecture, textbook assignments and worksheets. Sometimes the class engages in group work or projects based on the material that is being taught. The main thing to understand about didactic approaches is that the students are being taught, and this is something that is happening to the students passively.
In contrast to these teacher-centered methods, are methods that are auto-didactic, or, self-taught. These methods include those that are student-led, student-centered, or student-directed. All of these terms refer to varying degrees of the student being in charge of their own learning process. Students no longer have something happening passively to them, they are now responsible for what is happening directly. This no longer has them in the passive position of receiving information but in the active position of determining what information is important, where to find that information, and how to view that information. Auto-didactic approaches range from unschooling, a term for students who are given little to no direction and left to learn from the world around them, to classrooms where “student choice” is an addendum to a direct instruction curriculum. Student choice offers students some choices, such as what project to work on, or what book to read, but still follows a specific curriculum.
The origins of student-centered learning
Student-centered learning is not a new approach, but it is quickly becoming a popular approach among progressive educators who believe learning should be relevant and engaging to be effective. John Dewey in the early half of the1900’s spoke out against curriculum centered schools and was a proponent of methods that were more balanced, offering the student a chance to connect with knowledge and to acknowledge their prior experience. He also spoke on the importance of hands-on experiential education and providing opportunities for students to learn to function in society and to reform society for the better, rather than focusing on content. John Holt was another influential education reformer who championed the cause of student-led learning. His more extreme views are seen as the foundation for the form of education that is known today as unschooling, whereby students are free to direct their time and energy how they please. Today approaches range from completely auto-didactic methods such as unschooling to classrooms that allow from some student choice in learning for some activities, but mostly rely on direct instruction for the bulk of the material.
Why student-centered learning works
The argument for student-centered approaches begins with an understanding of human psychology and child development. Most people who have been parents or caregivers have witnessed the natural curiosity that young children have and the expression of that curiosity in endless questions, experimentation and a thirst for information. This natural desire to learn, however, is often quickly diminished when children reach school age. Students often don’t find the information coming to them as relevant to their own lives or useful for that matter. They don’t see a need for learning these particular topics or skills and don’t see how this “education” will benefit them. Children are told that they must study in order to get into college or to get a job, but that kind of deferred gratification (12 years of suffering in exchange for a reward) is not exactly enticing to most. Many others will learn what they are asked to, but often forgetting the information quickly as it may not be useful or reinforced in their daily lives.
Studies have demonstrated that using a student-centered approach produces a higher understanding of a topic, higher level reading, and more motivation to learn (Bell, 2010). From math scores at a project based school in Britain (Boaler 1999) to reading scores at schools from rural Iowa, to inner-city Boston as well as those in Maine (Thomas, 2000), studies reveal the benefits of student-centered approaches with actual increases in performance and improved test scores as well as motivation.
The OSE approach to student-centered learning
The OSE approach is a sort of middle ground between these approaches. Staff are engaged as facilitators of the learning process and act as mentors, helping students to craft their own learning path and plan their own projects. Students are free to choose whatever it is they want to learn and manage their own time with the learning process. OSE offers some helpful planning frameworks and useful learning tools for developing skills that are important for engaging in self-directed learning in the 21st century.