Student Centered vs. Teacher Centered Learning

All of us go through years of teacher training even without noticing it. I began teaching as most young teachers do, unconsciously modeling my teaching style on that of the teachers I’d had. I stood in front of the classroom and told people things.

In the mid 80s I was teaching ESL at an international school attached to a large public university (where I would teach years later). In those days a “new” idea was gaining ascendancy. It was a thing called the “student centered classroom.” Essentially, that is a classroom dynamic in which the students participate actively while the teacher might take a (seemingly) more passive role. It boils down to group work, one-on-one tutoring in the classroom between student and teacher, student presentations. I had a hard time learning it but once I did, I recognized the essential difference between teaching a skill and teaching content. You can tell people content; people must practice skills.

To learn a skill, students must be directly involved. No teacher can stand there and tell the students how to do something and expect the students to leave the classroom able to do it. I later explained this to my writing students saying, “You guys have had writing classes before. You know all about this. But it’s still hard for you, right?” Nods. “It’s a skill, you know, like skateboarding. You need to practice.”

Student centered teaching feels risky. The student centered classroom requires that the teacher be able to wait for the students to produce. I’ve observed many teachers who would ask good questions, wait, get nervous over the silence, and then answer the question her/himself. Sometimes that’s a matter of “getting through the material,” sometimes it’s the fear of failure.

Many times students don’t get what’s going on. They have an idea of their role and the teacher’s role, and they want that safety and security, the diminished risk of passivity. I’ve had, in student evaluations, “She never taught us anything. We did all the work.” To me, that’s a description of success. I knew when that student needed the skills he/she’d practiced, he or she would have them, but…

I learned to prepare my writing students for what they were about to experience by talking to them and having them read about student centered learning. Here’s an article I used to give Freshman Composition students to read and then write about. It’s on the topic of peer instruction, another term for student centered learning.

For the class to work, the students have to come to class prepared, homework done, reading completed — or the teacher has to have many tricks up his/her sleeve in case the students have not done their work. When that happened in my classes, I often sent the unprepared students to the library to do their homework while I worked with the students who were prepared. I felt the onus of poor preparation should be on the students, not on me. Being in my classroom was a privilege earned by being ready to be there. It was always effective. No one wants to be publicly shunned or miss out on what others are doing.

When I made the move from teaching international students to teaching writing at the college level, I soon realized how truly frightened many of my community college students were of failure. I began to make my writing classes into writing labs where the students could do their work with my help. My method was to introduce the material and the writing project, explain or share everything involved in it, demonstrate how it worked, and then let them get started. It was easy in this way to convince them that writing is a process.

Like this. One of the elements of an essay that drives students most crazy is the thesis statement. Most students really hate it and they believe once they’re out of school they will never confront it again. Wrong. This method of teaching writing made the thesis statement more fun. My students would sit in the classroom, the prompts in front of them. They had to choose one from which they had to write a tentative thesis statement. Then, they brought it to me to be OK’d. I’d read it and say, “Nope. Try again.” They’d go back to their seats and try again. Everyone did this, and it began to feel like a game.

When a student appeared with a useful thesis statement, I’d say, “Yay! You have a thesis statement! Yay!” and act (and be!) truly excited about that. Students thought this was both hilarious (because they think English teachers live for thesis statements) and encouraging. Then I’d hear, spoken to the successful student, “Can you help me with mine?” Magic words in the student centered classroom. The students learned they could turn to each other as well as to me. It was often less scary for them to have their thesis OK’d by a successful student before bringing it up to me.

Over the years I came to understand that the main virtue of the student centered classroom is that it removes mastery from the sole province of the teacher and allows students to be masters, too. It means I needed to — sometimes — leave them alone so they could learn. I understood that teachers can actually impede students’ learning.

When my (unconventional) classes were observed by deans or bosses who did not teach skill classes, I sometimes found myself in an uncomfortable position. “That is the strangest class I’ve ever observed,” said one dean to me when we met in her office to discuss her observation. The class in question was a pre-college level writing class that met for four hours twice a week, from 8 am to noon. I liked this kind of teaching situation best, especially in a lower level class where students might not have developed effective study skills. The dean taught dental hygiene, but not the hands-on classes, the lecture classes. I am sure (because I asked her) that she’d never taught a lab. Often labs are left to teaching assistants or adjuncts, not senior teachers such as she. “What was going on in there? It seemed like total chaos.”

I thought of Nietzsche, who’d written in Zarathustra “Unless you have chaos within you, how can you give birth to a dancing star?” but I didn’t mention it. As a rule of thumb, it’s better not to quote Nietzsche to strangers. ;-)

“We were starting a new essay and the most difficult part for them is reading a prompt and deriving a thesis statement from it. That’s where we were today. I let them work and then when they’re ready, I help them.”

“Haven’t you lectured on it? I mean, don’t they know?”

“I have lectured and the book has a great discussion which they’ve read and we’ve discussed. We wrote a whole essay together yesterday, going through the process step-by-step. It’s posted on Blackboard so they could review it later on at home. Plus, they’ve heard it before. They KNOW intellectually all about it, but writing one is always a different thing completely. I’ve found if I let them work and then help them one-on-one, they usually get it and it transfers over to the next project. Sometimes they even help each other.”

“Some of them were listening to music.”

“I know. That’s OK with me. It keeps some of them from being distracted by what’s going on in the classroom.”

“Shouldn’t you be keeping better order in there? Some of them were getting up and leaving the room.”

“It’s a four-hour class. I can’t make them just sit there.”

“That’s what breaks are for.”

“Yeah, but when they’re in the middle of working out an idea, I don’t want to say, ‘OK, everyone, take a break’. That can destroy their line of thought. I just trust them to take breaks when they need to. After all, it’s their lives, their grades, their futures. Each of them has to make his own way. You saw them,” I said. “They’re all over the place.”

I remember very well how that dean looked at me at that moment. The whole thing suddenly made sense to her. It was a pre-college level class. Each student was a class unto him/herself. Some were non-native speakers to whom I had occasionally had to give ancillary instructions in Spanish. One was an older woman who’d already earned an advanced degree from a university in Mexico. Two were high school kids. One girl was in the Navy. One man was a Navy vet just back from the line of fire with PTSD and an obsession with the safety of the dog who’d been with him in Afghanistan. One kid was on probation and college was a condition of his not going back to jail. Another kid had watched his family shot by members of a drug cartel. One was a mom who had to go pick up her daughter at 10 am every morning from the sister (who had to go to work) and bring her to the preschool that was in our college.

“You’re right,” she said. “I’ve never taught a class like that or an introductory basic skill requirement.”

At that moment I thought, “This is a person I want to work for,” and I told her. Unfortunately, I never again got the chance, though she let the division dean know that she wanted me back. It was an extension campus and they had a very limited course offering.

I also remember hearing many arguments among colleagues about methodology, usually in meetings. I seldom participated. I was never that sure of myself, but after a while I realized that there’s no absolute right way to teach anything. Effective teaching is always going to be a dynamic between the members of a unique group and the teacher. It’s a kind of dance. A teacher must get to know the students and see how close or far they are from reaching the level of ability they need to succeed in the next class (or in life). Until then, there’s no way to know what method will reach them best.

As a new teacher I didn’t know how much good teaching depended on my ability to respond, but ultimately, that was everything. It is really about the teacher asking, “Who are you, what can you do and how can I help you go successfully on this leg of your journey?”

Here are some articles about this teaching method (I don’t know why the magic number here is “5” but the lists are different).

Originally published at on January 14, 2015.