Is Student Centred Learning Possible Education Essay

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In a parallel debate regarding lifelong learning. Candy (1994) suggested lifelong learners have, among other things, an ability to inter-relate aspects of knowledge, and a capacity to manage learning. Knowles (1984) outlined elements of learning needed for working with adults, which also identified a role for the teacher that focussed on placing students at the centre of learning. Students were to be actively involved and take a high level of personal responsibility in learning. He saw self-direction as the keystone to adult learning and argued that the needs and experiences of the learner should take precedence over the expertise of the instructor. Adults, he suggested, are self-directed learners who are unique due to their personal experiences.

While the rhetoric of theory and research is influential, personal experience is also a powerful motivator. Mathematics teacher education lecturers were actively engaging student teachers in the debate about the possibilities of student centred learning in schools. They reflected, with some irony, that the university course as it was modelled, was more focussed on teacher responsibility, control and effort than on student learning. Hogan (1996) voiced this realisation:

I was struck by the irony that I did an enormous amount of reading and thinking about education in order to prepare my lectures, plan effective workshops and select readings and texts for my students, while the students did relatively little. I was the most active learner in my class - because I had total responsibility for what was learned and how it was presented for consumption (p. 79).

She noted that she was doing the majority of the work in her classes, when she felt it should have been the students who were thinking. Her teacher directed style of working was not meeting her own expectations for student learning and further, it failed to demonstrate practically the theoretical advantages of one of the approaches the course itself challenged students to adopt in their teaching in schools.

There were also dilemmas to wrestle. Many students, in particular surface learners, tend to want to be told what to do and what to think. There is often a feeling among students that the lecturer has been paid to teach and should set about teaching. The tradition of telling as teaching is strong. How far is one prepared to move from this tradition toward more student centred approaches and risk poor appraisals by students?

Further questions occur as one moves to a student centred approach to teaching and learning. If diversity of student knowledge and needs are acknowledged, then how does one teach classes where each person has a different set of strengths and weaknesses and prior learning? Where is the balance between what 'is good for them to learn' and what they want to learn? If students already know and understand much of the material to be considered should they have to learn it again, or learn something else or be given credit for it? How does one support student centred learning? Does one establish individual goals and pathways in negotiation with the student or allow 'open slather', with the student deciding what to learn, when to learn it and how it might be assessed?

Developing from teacher centred to student centred learning

In the face of so many questions, dilemmas and potential problems it is easy to understand why many university teachers choose to ignore both the theory and research, and stick with traditional teacher centred models. However, the group was determined to change their approach. Given the number of potential problems, it was decided to introduce specific student centred activities gradually, rather than radically restructure complete units. This had several advantages as a change strategy. It:

An early attempt (Jones & Sparrow, 1994) to move the focus of learning replaced the usual teacher directed workshops, with an independent study module. Students were given some choice (two out of four themes) in subject matter. The lecturers structured the activities and supplied most of the support material needed (for example, Sparrow, Kershaw & Jones, 1995) in the undertaking. Students were encouraged to work in teams, select their place and time of working on the activity and consult the lecturer as needed. They were given four weeks to complete the modules. Swan (1996) elaborated on the study modules by developing a set of learning kits, which incorporated a variety of resources (videos, journal articles, mathematical equipment) relevant to undertaking learning tasks.

Poster presentations

Poster presentations were used as part of a move to offer students flexibility in the place and content of learning. Students, in groups of three, were asked to construct a poster to be displayed and shared with their peers. The theme of the poster could be selected from a list of five themes given by the lecturer, which were related to the subject matter of the unit. A basic, non-negotiable structure for the poster was established, within this the students could enhance the content and style as they pleased.

School based, action research projects (project partnerships)

Project partnerships (Down, Hogan & Swan, 1997) required students to form small groups centred on common interests, and select from a range of tenders, for a school-based project that matched their interests. They then negotiated with the school to undertake the project within the time limits established. The level of responsibility required of the students in this situation was significant. They negotiated and organised learning, and acted in a fully professional manner.

Self initiated assignments

Flexibility related to content was more difficult to incorporate into a teaching programme, than choices of study place and time. Initial work by Swan, (1997) and Sparrow, (1999) used the idea of a negotiated assignment as an attempt to develop student choice in content. Within a minimal structure (the assignment must have a focus in mathematics and be supported by research findings), students were able to devise a personal content area to explore. Some students attempted known areas of weakness, for example the teaching of fractions, others selected an area of interest, for example teaching mathematics to autistic children, while some chose to explore a topic already covered on the course, but in greater depth.

What was learnt

The commitment to student centred approaches is continuous, but the engagement with activities described above have already enriched the group's professional understanding and development. Reflections on learning highlighted many insights. For example, the group members have:

developed greater empathy for student teachers' struggle with the complexity of teaching within a student centred framework,

discovered that exposing the complexity, and role modelling the approach for students, is leading to rich shared educational dialogues between student teachers and academic staff,

learnt to rethink their own roles as teacher, replacing tight control of learning with thoughtful facilitation of learning,

gained confidence in the "guide on the side" role,

learnt that the teachers' subject expertise is critical. Students don't know what they don't know and they need expert guidance in selecting significant content,

developed an appreciation of a developmental model of change, the slow steady adoption of negotiated change,

the establishment of resources and materials necessary to support student centred learning requires a significant initial investment of time but it is well rewarded in the long term,

a collaborative approach to change is effective for academic staff. It helps generate ideas, shares the workloads and provides support through risk taking experiences,

an advantage of student centred activity is that it can release teaching time for critical work (e.g. preparation of learning resources and environments, availability to support students),

many activities undertaken in university courses do not need the immediate intervention of the lecturer, students really can learn on their own, given the right support,

students vary in their responses to student centred activities. Flexibility in time and place is particularly attractive for many students with out of university commitments such as caring for children or other family members, and part time employment. However, some students find the responsibility for learning difficult, especially where it involves group work.

Where to now

If one is to follow a student centred approach to learning then careful thought must be given to the use of teaching techniques such as web-based learning. Generally this could offer flexibility in place and time but may not be useful in content choice. Reviewing of assessment towards portfolio development or the use of competency measures may have to be addressed. The issue of accrediting learning and prior experience need consideration. At another level there may be an emphasis on exposing our teaching methods for students to reflect on whole learning experience. More support has to be given to students in analysing their needs so that they can be used as part of the learning process. From a content stance their needs to be a clearer identification of core learning (what is non-negotiable) that must be achieved by students.


The title of this paper asks if student centred learning is possible. The answer appears to be yes, but with limitations. It is feasible to allow student choice of time and place but harder to provide student choice in content and to acknowledge and use student strengths and weaknesses. It is, however, a worthwhile direction to explore.