Is Student-Centered Learning Like Opening Pandora’s Box?

I recently met with a group of veteran teachers from “traditional” schools to discuss student-centered learning. Perhaps because most of the educators in my Personal Learning Network all seem to agree about the importance student-centered learning, I had expected to focus on the “how” rather than the “why.” While I feel there is a good deal of research on the science of learning to support the idea of active engagement and formative assessment, I was very interested in hearing the perspective of teachers with genuine concerns about student-centered learning.


Pandora’s Box

In the Greek myth, Pandora opens a box containing all the evils of humanity and, of course, once they are out, they cannot be put back in. When we try new things, there is always the risk that we will lose something that worked before – and that it will be hard, or impossible, to go back to the way things were. Whether we are considering revising our own practice or coaching others on trying something new, it is helpful to consider potential obstacles to a new approach. The two main objections to student agency that I’ve come across are both of the “Pandora’s Box” type, and both come down to matters of control: behavior management and content coverage.

(Un)Damming the River

The most common concern I hear from advocates of a teacher-centered model is that a dynamic lecture keeps students “focused.” If teachers move about the room, talk loudly and confidently, and show engaging images (whether they be chalkboard diagrams or SmartBoard animations), the students pay attention, and when students pay attention, they aren’t getting distracted or causing trouble. The underlying paradigm here is that student energy is like the force of a rushing river, and unless we wall up that energy and quickly plug any leaks, the dam will break and students will go wild.

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I relied on lecture as my go-to teaching strategy for many years, so I have felt, first-hand, the worry and discomfort that my lecture would run short or that a student would ask a question I couldn’t answer, causing the whole class to devolve into chaos. I was fortunate to work in schools that encouraged teachers to observe each other’s classes and lucky enough to work alongside educators who had cultivated a very different relationship with their students. Once I felt comfortable and confident enough to “open the floodgates,” I realized that my students’ energy and desire for independence wasn’t something to be walled off, but something to be harnessed.

To continue with the metaphor of a rushing river, by gradually releasing control of the class to students, I began to see my job as a builder of irrigation canals rather than dams. To do so, I had to understand student skills and interests so as to guide them in a way that would be beneficial. Rather than one wall to contain an entire class of students, the rushing river was diverted in a number of channels that helped create fertile soil in which seeds of understanding could be planted.

This is a large part of why I believe digital tools for blended learning and formative assessment are becoming essential to effective teaching – without the aid of digital tools for gathering and organizing data, one teacher simply cannot learn about her student’s strengths and needs in enough detail to support individual learning pathways.

Learning as Cultivation

Thinking about learning as a process of cultivating and guiding student engagement brings up the second most-common concern I have heard from educators who are thinking about increasing student autonomy: content coverage. It can be difficult, when you’re handed a list of “must-cover” topics, to think about stepping back and considering anything other than making sure you have lessons that target each topic in your curriculum. At the same time, though, this is the situation where it is essential that we do step back and ask the question: “Just because I’ve covered a topic, does that mean a student has understood it?”

Before we even get to the question of whether the content we are covering is authentic and relevant to the student’s future needs, we have to at least wonder if our instruction is having the desired impact. In William Damon’s article, Peer Education: The Untapped Potential he cites a variety of reasons why children can learn more effectively from their peers than from adults. These reasons are founded on research by some of the most recognized names in educational psychology, such as Lev Vygostsky and Jean Piaget. In short, when students explain things to each other, there is a smaller gap in understanding than when explained by a teacher, making knowledge acquisition easier. Students also tend to view peers as more credible than adults, and they are less defensive about ‘being wrong’ because the power differential has been removed from the interaction.

Even if you make no adjustments to the content you are covering, there is a good chance that allowing students to approach content acquisition via small group discussions or reading circles (yes, even textbooks, primary sources and scientific research can be read in circles) will increase the amount of learning for students at all levels. In next week’s entry, we’ll look at strategies that support effective groupwork, and we’ll consider the next (perhaps, controversial) step of using leveled groupings to differentiate and personalize content.

Have You Opened Pandora’s Box?

I would love to hear your story about why you love (or loathe) student-centered or teacher centered learning. Have you made the switch from one to the other? We can learn as much from our trials as we can from our successes. Please leave your stories and questions about student-centered learning in the comments section below.


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