Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Teacher- and Learner-Centered Approaches

It has now been some time since I have made an entry in this blog. Perhaps no one is listening. No matter. I am writing mostly for myself – to try to become more clear in my thinking. Being snowed in for three days in Athens, Georgia has helped. Lately, I have been thinking about false dichotomies and misguided distinctions.

There is a legitimate distinction between teacher-centered and learning-centered approaches to instruction. However, this distinction is widely misunderstood and misrepresented. Teacher-centered approaches tend to emphasize the activities that a teacher will use to promote learning. Learner-centered approaches tend to emphasize the activities that will engage learners and result in desired outcomes. Stated in this way, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive nor are they necessarily incompatible. Because the goals of most teachers and instructional designers involve actions and activities that will result in improved learning and desired learning outcomes, a teacher-centered approach is likely to take into account those activities that are likely to be engaging and meaningful for learners. Moreover, once learner-centered activities are identified and elaborated, it is quite natural to consider how teachers can best support those activities. Considered this way, one can say that the difference has to do with emphasis and where one begins analysis and planning to support learning. The optimum end result is likely to include both learner-centered activities and teacher-centered support.

Imagine a Venn diagram (see the figure below) with a circle for teacher-centered approaches and an intersecting circle for learner-centered approaches. This results in four distinct areas: (1) teacher-centered without any learner centering (quite rare), (2) learner-centered without any teacher-centering (also quite rare), (3) both teacher- and learner-centered (highly desirable), and (4) neither teacher- or learner-centered (e.g., some museum environments). Associated with these two approaches is a continuum from structured, directed learning environments to unstructured, open-ended learning environments. Evidence suggests that the extreme ends of this continuum are not likely to be especially effective for a great many learners. Rather, some structure and directed learning blended with some open-ended activities are likely to engage many learners and result in desired learning outcomes, including a desire on the part of learners to pursue further study in the subject area.

A challenge for instructional designers is to determine for which learning tasks and learners it is appropriate to include more emphasis on structured learning or open-ended learning. A challenge for teachers is to realize that the roles and responsibilities are different depending on the nature of the particular learning activity. A challenge for learners is to realize the value of the particular approach and activity in which they are engaged – their roles and responsibilities are also somewhat in these different kinds of activities.

The question is not which approach to always use. The question is which kind of approach is likely to be successful for the particular goals, tasks, and learners involved. A thoughtful and reflective teacher or instructional designer will see value in both kinds of approaches. A thoughtful and reflective student is likely to succeed if the approach is clear and appropriate for that learner’s particular situation. This is not intended to be a middle-of-the road response to the debate about teacher-centered and learner-centered approached. It is intended to be a muddle-elimination response that recognizes the value of significant evidence in support of both approaches in different situations.

For example, a person who is not familiar with structural equation modeling is likely to desire and benefit from a structured, directed learning approach from a highly qualified expert with feedback on representative tasks that gradually build up competence and confidence. However, a person who is somewhat familiar with meta-analysis is likely to desire and benefit from a more open-ended approach with a highly qualified expert on hand to guide and suggest improvements in various learning tasks and activities. In summary, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive nor are they incompatible. In effective instruction, they are more likely to be blended together with both directed and open-ended learning activities.


  1. Mike,
    We had the chance to cross paths in the early to mid 90s when you were at the AF Lab in San Antonio. Spent a summer session together at U of Minn if I recall correctly.

    I liked the distinction you made about teacher and learner centered approaches not being mutually exclusive. I suspect one of the misrepresentations you mention above is confusing teacher centered with content centered as it applies to the delivery of the lesson. Content centered is often identified by teachers' comments such as "I covered the materials," or "I didn't finish covering the material." The significant impact of the design is critical to the very useful distinction you draw above. My current role is in job-skill training in financial services. Complex job-skills, as with your example above, often need the skilled teacher (expert) offering feedback along the way.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Always good to reconnect and catch up. I appreciate your comment and agree that the design is critical.

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  4. You said that the student-centered approach and teacher-centered approaches are not conflicting. After reading your explanation and the diagram, I totally agree. However, a question occurred to me with regard to this sentence: “The question is which kind of approach is likely to be successful for the particular goals”. I also agree this sentence. But, the context in my country may suggest something different. My question is whether the two approaches are sometimes in conflict, which is what I have experienced in Taiwan.

    About 75% of K-12 students in Taiwan go to private learning association after school. In particular, the 12th grade students are the majority. It is widely believed (by students and parents) that the private learning association can support students to get high grades in the national exam for the entrance of university. The teaching style in these associations is very structured, directive, and certainly teacher-centered. All the students (about 150-200 people) from different senior high schools sit in a big classroom to listen a specific subject taught by an instructor for 3 hours. It is very rare that students ask questions. On average, students have 2-4 subjects to learn each week in this manner. I was ever one of those students. So, I understand the torture of a highly structured and directed learning approach to a student, but I also admit the effectiveness of this approach after getting satisfactory grades on the national exam.

    Many researchers in Taiwan criticize that kind of teaching. Many parents also think about the problem because their children complain. However, they still send their children to the private learning association after school because they think their children’s future is more important than the so-called torture of highly structured, highly directive, intensive teaching in those classes. In this situation, it is recognized that the teacher-centered approach is a successful way to reach a goal (enter a good university). In addition, it is almost impossible to blend a less structured and less directive student-centered approach with this kind of teacher-centered approach because of the time factors, the number of students, and the pressure from parents (and students) to perform well on the national exam. Parents and students do not want to waste time exploring and inquiring and developing deeper understand because they pay so much money to the private learning association for the single goal of getting a high score on the national exam.

    Unfortunately, the situation in the school is not much better now than when I was a student in Taiwan. Teachers may design some activities to support inquiry but this is not the regular teaching approach. Students have too many exams and teachers feel obligated to simply impart knowledge as much as possible before the exam. It seems that if the goal is to get high grades to enter a good school, such a highly structured and directive teacher-centered approach is useful.

    To be continued...

  5. The example in my country may somewhat explain why so many people are inclined to separate student-centered and teacher-centered approaches. The reason is that they are thinking about a certain kind of learning environment that is highly structured and highly directive as opposed to a learning environment is more open-ended and supportive of inquiry-based learning. The difference is really in the type of learning environment. I agree that a teacher-centered approach can be less structured and directive and can support student-centered inquiry activities. But, is that feasible in my country? I am still considering the problem. If people’s desire for high test scores and admiration of the academic diploma from a top university (the goal) does not change, the learning environment in schools and the private learning association will not change. In my opinion, this is not only the problem of what kind of approach teachers choose in the classroom. It is also the problem of beliefs deeply rooted in tradition and culture. These cultural and traditional beliefs in Taiwan about education (based on authority) and learning (based on test scores) makes a highly structured and highly directive teaching approach dominant and restricts the development of more open-ended, inquiry-based learning approaches.

    Just try to write my thinking.

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