There’s an interesting essay called “Five Meanings of Direct Instruction” where the author (Rosenshine, 2008) shows how even a term as commonly used as direct instruction can take on different meanings depending on who you talk to. Some people use it in the pejorative to refer to non-stop passive lecturing, while those familiar with the process-product research may use the term to refer to the list of interactive instructional techniques that the best teachers have been found to use (e.g., daily review, modeling, questioning, guided practice). Others, still, may relate direct instruction to scripted lessons, perhaps due to their familiarity with the success of the Direct Instruction program in Project Follow Through.

Ideally, the words teachers use would mean the same thing for everyone, but this often isn’t the case. I’ve seen “Balanced Literacy” come to mean, for some, dedicating equal time to the five major areas of reading instruction; phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary; and for others it being used as a synonym for Whole Language. “Inquiry learning” has taken on similar permutations in my career, ranging from simply asking students lots of questions and valuing their curiosities, to pure discovery learning through hands-on projects. While there are many fuzzily defined constructs in education, there are few fuzzier, as I will attempt to demonstrate, than the term “student-centered” instruction.

Inspired by “Five Meanings of Direct Instruction”, I’m now going to share five meanings I’ve encountered of “student-centered” instruction throughout my career. As you’ll see, the definitions vary so widely that it’s a wonder anyone finds the word useful at all. After each meaning, I’ll include a substitute that I find to be more helpful for talking about teaching and learning.

The “caring about students” meaning

I’ve heard people label any action that demonstrates kindness and compassion towards students, such as attending to their basic needs and valuing what they think and feel, as “student-centered.” Perhaps a teacher keeps snacks in her drawer in case a student is hungry or allows a student to miss an assignment because of an issue she’s been having at home. Or maybe a teacher chooses to use class time to address a national tragedy that might be on students’ minds. All of these examples could be, in my experience, referred to as “student-centered” teaching practices.

Substitute: She cares a lot about her students.

The “never lecture” meaning

I’m often told that any form of lecturing isn’t student-centered because the focus of the attention is “centered” on the adult at front of the room. To be “student-centered”, according to this second definition, is to replace teacher explanation as much as possible with activities that have students inquiring, exploring, and controlling their learning individually or in groups. A student-centered teacher under this definition can be found circling the room and “personalizing learning” by conferencing with individuals and small groups, rather than teaching from the front.

Substitute: He doesn’t lecture.

The “prioritizing students over self” meaning

The third definition I’ve encountered of “student-centered” is that of the teacher who makes every possible effort to do right by students, even if it means increasing their own teaching workload. Whenever there is a choice between a lesson that takes no time to prepare and a lesson that requires lengthy preparation over the weekend, the “student-centered teacher”, under this definition, will opt for whichever lesson plan leads to the most learning. This can be a positive attitude to have, but I’ve also seen the “student-centered” moniker used by principals to refer to the school’s resident workaholics; Those whose learning engagements are so complex and planning-intensive that you have to wonder whether they have a life outside of school! We’ve all met a teacher whose extra time spent planning lessons had little to do with “centering students” and more to do with signaling to others that they work hard.

Substitute: He works really hard for his students.

The “formative assessment” meaning

Instruction that is responsive to changes in students’ knowledge and skill is often referred to as “student-centered.” Teachers who rigidly follow a pre-determined sequence of lessons, regardless of whether the students have actually learned anything, are seen to be “centering” the pacing of a textbook or syllabus rather than what is going on in students’ heads. By contrast, the student-centered teacher, under this definition, uses formative assessment techniques to adapt instruction in response to evidence of student learning. On the basis of assessment, he may, for example, slow down or speed up the pace of instruction, create small groups to reteach the material, or give different students different tasks. Again, we see a definition of “student-centered” that is slightly different from the rest; As long as the teacher adjusts instruction according to evidence of student learning, she can be called student-centered.

Substitute: She uses formative assessment to adjust her teaching.

The “progressive education” meaning

Pedagogical progressivism, which is distinct from political progressivism, is an educational movement that uses the term “student-centered” (also: child- or learner-centered). As you’ll see from the description below, its meaning involves a particular philosophy about human nature and the role of schooling:

Perhaps the most important of progressive education’s themes, child-centred learning, states that pupils should direct their own learning. Set against a more traditional vision of ‘teacher-led’ or ‘whole-class’ teaching, child-centred learning relegates the role of the teacher from being a ‘sage on the stage’ to a ‘guide on the side’. It states that learning is superior when pupils find things out for themselves, and are not simply told information by a knowledgeable authority. To achieve this, teachers should play the role of ‘facilitators’, designing lessons that are active, relevant or fun in an environment where pupils can learn for themselves. Child-centred advocates typically have an aversion to practices ‘imposed’ upon the pupils by the teacher, such as discrete subject divisions, homework, examinations, note-taking or rote-learning, preferring to organise lessons around topics, group work, activities and extended projects. The analogy of a child with a growing plant is popularly used, suggesting that no external input is needed to nurture a child’s education, but simply the provision of the right environment in which they can flower.

Peal, 2014, pg. 5

Under this fifth meaning of “student-centered”, any practice or belief that is antithetical to the principles of progressivism should be called traditional or “teacher-centered.” This includes holding students accountable to learning a body of knowledge, teaching things that may not be of interest to students, telling students that they’re wrong, believing that the teacher is the expert, exercising authority, disciplining students, giving decontextualized practice tasks, drilling students until mastery, and so on. The problem is that people often call “teacher-centered” practices and beliefs “student-centered” whenever the practices or beliefs seem to benefit students. Perhaps this is because the word “student-centered”, despite its historical ties to progressive education, has come to mean “good” regardless of whether the teaching is pedagogically traditional or progressive.

Substitute: She is a progressive educator.

Summary

To be or to act “student-centered” or to use “student-centered” instruction has come to mean a lot of different things. As we’ve seen, some of these meanings overlap (aversion to lecturing and progressive education) and others have little to do with each other (one doesn’t have to be a progressive educator to care about students). Because the term is so nebulous and slippery in everyday conversation, I’ve proposed a set of substitutes that I think are more useful. Instead of demanding that something be “student-centered”, or dismissing something as being “not student-centered”, maybe we’d be better off specifying what we mean.

– Zach Groshell

Reference

Peal, R. (2014). Progressively worse: The burden of bad ideas in British schools. Civitas.

Rosenshine, B. (2008). Five meanings of direct instruction. Center on Innovation & Improvement, 1–10.

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