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.