Vol. 5. No. 3 F-1 December 2001

Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

***TESL-EJ Forum***

Student-Centered Learning: What does it really mean?

Karen Stanley, editor

What exactly constitutes "student-centered" versus "teacher-centered" learning?

Perhaps this question seems obvious at first, but let me mention a couple of different instances that may reveal some of the complexities involved.

(1) In a graduate linguistics class (focused on curriculum design), in which all students had been alternating in presenting material each week, a complicated topic had come up. The instructor asked if we wanted to investigate and explain it, or if we'd like him to. The entire class (ranging in age from our 20s to our 40s) without exception asked the teacher to explain it (it would take at least a couple of entire classes to do so). We then discussed the question: When all the students request that the teacher spend an extended period of time in front of the class explaining things to the students, is that "student-centered" or "teacher-centered"?

(2) A teacher (and generally a *good* teacher) who was a strong proponent of student-centered learning was overheard commenting on the fact that so many of the students in her class had the foolish idea that they wanted to be taught a lot more grammar. Clearly, the teacher felt that that was not in the best interest of the students' learning English (the question of teaching grammar is a different question, and not the one I'm looking at here). She had also obviously decided that, in spite of the vast majority of her class *wanting* more grammar instruction by the teacher, she was not going to teach grammar. Is her response student-centered or teacher-centered?

These two situations serve to illustrate my basic questions:

What follows are edited posts which appeared on the TESL-L email discussion list between March 28, 2001 and April 5, 2001 in response to these questions. Comments by Forum readers to the editor or the various contributors are welcome.

David Ross
Intensive English Program, Houston Community College, Houston, TX USA

Karen Stanley asked:

>What is it that constitutes student-centered versus teacher-centered classrooms?
>Is there a difference between teacher-centered and teacher-fronted activities?
>What are the pros and cons of these types of approaches?

This is a crucial question that recalls to me the lyrics by American folk icon, Bob Dylan:

"Your debutante just knows what you need
But I know what you want."

("Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again")

In this case, the "debutante" is the orthodox applied linguistics establishment which has tended to buy into the redefinition of the teaching art in terms of the "guide on the side" as a replacement for "the sage on the stage." The teacher as "facilitator" rather than "source of wisdom" is "what you need" according to contemporary learning theory. [-1-]

But our students often demand more than facilitation. They want visible evidence that they are being taught something, and the ironic result of this clash of expectations is that the teacher ends up having to rely on the traditional coercive power of her position to enforce compliance with the supposedly emancipatory vision that she is attempting to implement. ("You'd better get into those small groups, or you'll get a zero for participation!")

Far better, in this case, to be in tune with student expectations ("I know what you want") as well as contemporary theory to produce a more satisfactory result.

Elaine Pascale
Suffolk University, USA

Karen Stanley raises a very good question regarding what is student-centered and what is teacher-centered. I'm sure we can all relate to this.

I wanted to address a point that David Ross raised about a clash occuring as students want "evidence that they are being taught something." I feel this clash is ever present for even the most well meaning teachers and administrators. Students are taught very early in their academic careers to respond to the rewards of grades. In college they couple grades with credits as the objects of desire. As much as we want them to take control of their education, they can't shake those shackles.

I've tried various tactics such as having the students devise grading scales for papers and presentations (they list what they feel is important and what percentage is allotted to each). Still, it is my final word that establishes the grade and I don't feel that they feel any more empowered over their papers than if I just handed them a list of criteria. I've had them teach, choose materials to use in the classroom, create a collaborative course objective and syllabus, etc. It still ends up with them saying, "what do you want from us?"

Any suggestions?

Lola Katz
Cross Cultural Communication Consultant, Israel

Karen Stanley raises an interesting issue about the difference between teacher centred instruction (TCI) and learner centred instruction (LCI).

It seems that too often popular labels in methodology cloud good judgement. Teachers may opt for one methodology, popular at the time and sometimes blindly follow what they think are applications of that methodology without looking at the realities of their classroom situation. [-2-]

Theoretically, the difference between TCI and LCI should be the difference between the WHAT and HOW of a classroom methodology. The former should relate to the classroom syllabus and learners' needs as perceived by the administration. Hopefully the content of what is taught in a classroom will address learners' needs and they will be in that particular classroom because the syllabus caters to their end needs. The latter should relate to what methodology is used to realize these needs. We need to remember we are teaching people and not material. A teacher will need to set tasks, and activities within those tasks, appropriate to the level and learning style of the learners. At all times, learners should know why they are doing a task. Either it should be clearly stated or could be part of deductive process, one of the outcomes of a task.

In my opinion, LCI doesn't preclude a teacher's active participation in the process, if learners have wants they feel will assist them in completing their tasks.

So, to relate to the issue Karen referred to in her posting, if I had been the instructor in her class who had been asked for an explanation, I would have agreed to assist, if the learners had exhausted their own resources for solving the problem. Similarly, if learners need some grammar to help them understand something, who is the teacher to say "You don't need it!" without at least some attempt to address these wants.

Karen makes a nice distinction between teacher centred and teacher fronted. Teacher fronted, as an outcome of LCI, is a justifiable part of LCI. It may even be a justifiable part of LCI without being an outcome thereof, if the teacher uses it as an introductory springboard for LCI . If however, instruction is teacher fronted merely because teacher thinks that teacher knows best, then we would have to label it TCI.

Casey Peltier
English Language Institute, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, USA

At the risk of sounding very non PC about the issue, I want to share a practical approach to making the classroom learner centered.

I teach the basic level of Oral Communications Skills (listening/speaking) at a university-based intensive English program. All of my students are fresh off the boat, every semester. The first half of the semester I run a typical teacher-centered curriculum, choosing all the activities. [-3-]

Halfway through the semester, we have mid-term conferences. I ask the students to fill out an evaluation of the course so far and to tell me what they especially like to do and what they haven't seen addressed and want to do.

Their answers reflect their educational backgrounds, of course, but even more to the point, their age. The class almost always has three or four students over 30 who know exactly why they are doing what they are doing, unlike the younger students who are "improving my language" so they can enter an American university.

The older students grab the ball and run with it, and the curriculum is set for the rest of the semester. This half semester we'll add work on understanding rapid speech (the surgeon/sports enthusiast who wants to understand people in bars), presentations (the foreign auto executive), and rhythm and intonation in longer pronunciation exercises (the businessman who wants to "sound better"). In a past semester, one student suggested we do the listening units as homework and use class time only for the hardest of them (a teacher of Arabic language who appreciated the scarcity of class time). Her classmates thought this was a nifty idea.

It's a rare younster who knows what is good for his/her language development, but the older students usually can tell you what they need and then work on it happily. It's amazing how easily all the students accept their classmates' ideas!

Jim Williams
Academic Coordinator, Pacific Rim Language Institute
Rowland Heights, California, USA

Putting into practice my view of what student centered learning is entails modifying the lesson plan to the needs of the students. This doesn't necessarily mean eradicating traditional policies or successful applications.

First, this means to me that teachers can use classroom participation points as standards of evaluation and not as motivation. Moreover, this technique becomes student centered when the teacher modifies the particular exercise to meet the needs of the individuals attending the present session. An example would be a role-play focused on shopping at The Radio Store. The text may instruct and prepare the teacher to have student A be the clerk and student B is a customer buying a radio. However, the participating students may be a small group of culinary Reniors that spend more time at Smart and Final. If the teacher can modify the lesson to allow student A to be a purchasing agent for American Airline's Culinary Department and student B could be the manager of a small grocery supplier, then the current exercise becomes student centered. The students will probably figure out the practical value of the exercise and choose to participate, thus, allowing participation points to be awarded.

Second, in my view student centered doesn't demand the eradication of teachers standing in front of the class lecturing. It implies that unsuccessful strategies and applications of lecturing be quickly eliminated. [-4-]

I remember an inside joke that my classmates and myself had in one high school algebra class. We wanted to petition the administration to provide pillows for this class. The students agreed that this teacher was boring. It wasn't an individual student. It wasn't because the class happened at a certain time of the day. It was the lecture style. Students stared at the back of the teacher's head copying the information on the blackboard. I believe this to be an unsuccessful style. On the other hand, I remember plenty of more successful teachers that could engage students and allow their participation in the lecture, and the teacher used the interests of the students to lead them to the academic objective.

Student Centered means customizing and constantly up-dating traditional policies and tried-and-true applications.

John Harbord
Language Teaching Centre, Central European University, Hungary

Karen Stanley's thought provoking posting on the subject of teacher and student centred learning has stimulated a number of responses criticising slavish following of prescribed 'new' methodologies. While I am certainly not a fan of modish bandwaggoning, I fear that contemporary methodology is in danger of getting an undeserved bashing here.

I as teacher might think that closed pairwork, for example, is a good thing, because it allows for greater opportunities for each student to speak while at the same time lowering the potential embarrassment threshold (in that the rest of the class is not listening to the speakers). Having studied the writers whose work led the EFL world to go down this avenue, I might feel that adequate research has been done to suggest that, when not used to excess, this is a good strategy for improving students' oral fluency.

Students, in contrast, might well have come from a country in which a premium is placed on direct teacher-student interaction and on grammatical accuracy. These students will feel deeply uncomfortable at being asked to participate in pairwork activities because they fear their unobserved errors are being allowed to fossilise, and that they are not getting value for money, because they are being forced to listen to the bad English of a fellow student rather than the fine English of the teacher.

It is not particularly student centred to say 'stick to your old ways', or 'whatever your teacher at home did must be right'. Instead, I as teacher try first of all to look at the students' request impartially and to evaluate it in the light of what I know about language teaching and learning, based on my training and my experience (both of which I happen to be lucky to have lots of). If there are in my opinion good reasons why following the students' desire rather than my own judgement will be detrimental to learning (and that's why they are here), then I will explain and justify why I find that their request is not appropriate, putting my explanation in terms that I hope they will understand. I might well make concessions, devoting a little time to what they want, so that they feel that their desires are not simply being ignored, but these concessions are aimed at maintaining my relationship with the students, not improving their English. Even the best of methods will not work with students who believe that they are being shortchanged with new-fangled methodology. [-5-]

Of course, I might equally decide that the students' request stems from a genuine weakness of my syllabus or methodology in relation to this particular group of students, in which case, of course, I would happily revise my approach and do what they asked.

All of us, whether experienced or less so, have to use our professional judgement on a case to case basis in order to make what may not ultimately turn out to be the best decision, but what was the best decision we could make in the circumstances, and perhaps with hindsight to learn from our errors. Professionally, more cannot be asked of us than that.

Andy Nash
New England Literacy Resource Center/World Education USA

In addition to making my own thinking explicit, so that students understand why I'm teaching the way I am, I think it's valuable to make teaching and learning a focus of on-going discussion and negotiation in the classroom. In my classes, when students have requested traditional methods, I've said, "I'll teach the way you're asking me to teach for two weeks and then the way I think best for two weeks, and then we'll discuss it."

What happens is that we all get a chance to examine the strengths and limitations of our preferred approaches. We usually come to some compromise, born of everyone feeling "heard" and thus being able to appreciate the other guy's perspective a little more. The compromise works because everyone feels ownership of the decision, and the whole process models the kind of respect and flexibility we like to see in the world.

In addition, through discussion of why we each have certain preferences, the students develop a greater metacognitive understanding of their own learning, and a greater awareness of alternatives. They become more open to trying new (to them) approaches because other students - not me - have described their effectiveness.

Sean Gomez
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

A balance between a teacher-centered classroom and a student-centered classroom is appropriate. I am one of the only teachers at my institution who teaches using a communicative approach. The rest of the staff uses a grammar-based approach. Therefore, when students arrive in my class they believe (whether it is from prior study at our institution or from learning experiences in their country) that one must study grammar explicitly to learn English. They also believe that group and pair work does not improve their language skills, but that each student must speak directly to the teacher and be corrected at every mistake. [-6-]

What I have done is incorporate more grammar into the course by assigning grammar exercises for homework. I have also cut back on the amount of pair and group work and included much more one-on-one instruction - going around the classroom, a student at a time, until all 15 students have had a chance to practice the speech and be corrected. I have explained to them the benefits of a communicative approach and pair/group work, but they simply prefer the traditional methods. I therefore have struck a balance. Whether they are learning more or faster is relative to how much and quickly they think they are learning. It seems to satisfy almost everyone, which is all that one could hope for.

Anthea Tillyer
City University of New York (USA)

I think that there is so much disagreement on the meaning and implementation of the "student-centered" classroom, that it might be better to use other terms!

In my own mind, "student centered" means "learning centered"; that is, teaching is subordinated to learning. It is much more important that students learn than that teachers teach. If teachers are doing what they think they should do, have been trained to do, and are asked to do, and the students don't learn, what's the point of that? That is a teacher-centered or program-centered situation. There is a disconnect between what the students need in order to learn and what the program is prepared to offer.

I don't think that "student centered" means that the students have to run everything. I think it means that learning and the needs of the learner should determine things. In most cases, people learn better if they have a say in what they learn and how they learn it. To ignore student input on these crucial issues is the opposite of "student centered". But the bottom line is that putting the learning of the students first and above all is what makes a successful classroom.

Here's an example of what is NOT student centered: choosing a movie to show in class because the teacher likes it, without regard to its value to students or their learning; curriculums that wade through books page by page, regardless of whether students need these particular items, are also examples of non-student-centered teaching; classes in which the teacher talks more than all the students put together are....well, we don't need to define that!

Teaching needs to be subordinated to learning.

Nicholas Lusty
Erlangen, Germany

Anthea picked some very good examples of what is not a student-centred class, but proceeded to describe a lesson where the teacher spoke more than the rest of the class put together as being not learning-centred.

While I agree that the teaching does not equate with learning, neither are the two incompatible. Coming originally from a science background, most of my knowledge was gained from a good old fashioned teaching approach, and especially as one gets older, I find when I learn languages that there are often times where a teacher-centred lesson is also the most appropriate learner-centred lesson.

Most classes in which I have learned languages and taught them have had two basic types of students. I do not deny that those that pick up language quickly by listening and speaking (for whom the modern student-centered approach works well) forms the majority, but there is also a group that does not have such a strong innate ability to "soak up" language, where structured teaching plays a much more important role (I learnt my Italian fluency outside the class, not in what were for me "those awful role-playing exercises"). [-7-]

I would argue that a learning centred approach needs a mixture of all the best parts of all theories, not dogmatic adherence to the latest method. While I think there is no doubt that at least for beginners, the communicative approach should be dominant, we should not forget the effectiveness of the now out-of-fashion audio-lingual or even straightforward grammar/vocabulary approach as a support. I've certainly had examples where students have asked for this, and can denying it ultimately be "student-centred"?

And to return to the original point, in extremis I believe there must also be lessons where the teacher dominates the speaking, but which remain learner-centred. Indeed a change of style occasionally can only refresh the class.

Bill Snyder

MA TEFL Program, Bilkent University, Ankara, TURKEY

Karen Stanley's original post on the meaning of "student-centered" has certainly generated an interesting range of responses. One thing I notice in them is that people are consistently seeing the term as referring to the relationship between the teacher and the students, something that happens in the individual classroom. But to me, the term is an institutional, curricular one.

A student-centered educational program is not one in which the students run the show, in which their every whim is catered to; rather, it is one that is run for the benefit of the students. Any educational program is going to reflect multiple interests - student, teacher, administrative, societal. In a student-centered program, the focus of all participants is on helping students acquire what is needed based on a consideration of all these viewpoints. It rests on the belief that all these actors have some understanding of what students need. So, the views of students have to be taken into account, but are balanced against others' perceptions.

For example, here in Turkey, in some places some students may want English to chat up tourists, but their teachers in the university preparatory school may know that they need an academic English to succeed in getting their degrees, which will probably be more valuable to them in the long run. Catering only to the students' wants here would lead to long term regret. However, ignoring those wants may lead to resentment and lack of motivation. A sensible program would see that casual speaking skills may not only help keep students in, but may also serve them in the long run as well.

Viewed from this curricular perspective, I don't think the people who have written in defending making decisions to give students what they need, rather than what they want, need fear being called "teacher-centered." It is only when the students are not considered at all, not included in the process, and not informed about why they are doing what they are doing that curricular decision-making becomes administrative fiat. And institutions run like that usually turn out to be not very teacher-centered, either, if you know what I mean. [-8-]

The process of making students feel included and valued in the educational process takes place most immediately in the classroom, in the ways so many posters have described, but it shouldn't fall on the individual teacher alone. It needs to be an institutional value.

Table of Contents Top TESL-EJ Main Page

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work.