Twenty-first century classrooms challenge traditional, teacher-centered curriculum to meet the increasingly diverse needs of students and make the required increases in achievement gains. School violence, diverse student needs and populations, educational renewal, and technological advances place demands on teachers in areas for which they were formally held accountable. With teacher educators, problems occur when teaching styles conflict with students' learning styles, often resulting in limited learning or no learning. Altan and Trombly (2001) offer learner-centeredness as a model for countering classroom challenges because of its viability for meeting diverse needs. Learner-centered classrooms place students at the center of classroom organization and respect their learning needs, strategies, and styles. In learner-centered classrooms, students can be observed working individually or in pairs and small groups on distinct tasks and projects. The transition from teaching the entire group to meeting individual learner needs involves extensive planning and task-specific classroom management.
The premise--one teaching and learning approach fits all--is not working for a growing number of student populations and has prompted this researcher to examine what is required to move from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered approach. McCombs & Whisler (1997) identified two essential factors for a learner-centered approach to education: (a) characteristics of the learner and (b) teaching practices. By contrasting the use of reflective inquiry, thinking-centered learning, and assessment of program quality to satisfy McCombs & Whisler's essential factors, this article examines whether moving from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered approach requires a transition or a paradigm shift.
An essential factor for a learner-centered approach is placing the learning characteristics of all learners under the microscope with specific emphasis on low-performing learners. McCombs (1997) explained that the focus in a learner-centered approach is on individual learners' heredity, experiences, perspectives, backgrounds, talents, interests, capacities, and needs. She defined learner-centered, from a research-based perspective, as a foundation for clarifying what is needed to create positive learning contexts to increase the likelihood that more students will experience success (Defining "Learner-Centered", [paragraph] 2). Cultural factors impact the connection teachers must make to scaffold students' learning (Singham, 1998; McCombs & Whisler, 1997). The focus is on metacognition, how individual students learn. Milambiling (2001) extended the learner-centered definition by characterizing learner-centered education as context-sensitive. She said that the culture of the learning context is as important to learning as the content and the methods used. Milambiling recommended curricula which address the culture of the learner within specific learning contexts.
The teacher-centered approach is associated chiefly with the transmission of knowledge. McDonald (2002) clarified the definition by saying that the work of teachers depends upon the abilities, skills and efforts of their students. Student achievement is at the forefront of teacher centered curriculum, but teachers are driven to meet accountability standards and often sacrifice the needs of the students to ensure exposure to the standards. Berliner (as cited in Scherer, 2001) distinguished between the expert and the novice teacher. He explained that expert teachers have case knowledge, knowledge of information stored in their memory banks, that allows them to compare situations and respond accordingly. They have amassed a store of impromptu responses for capturing teachable moments. The issue, however, is whether those impromptu responses are a clear match for the learner who is having difficulty. Berliner emphasized that when teachers study one another's lessons, visit each others' classes, and present case studies about hard-to-teach students, the quality of professional growth will improve.
Teachers in a teacher-centered environment focus on making relationships with students that are anchored in intellectual explorations of selected materials. They focus more on content than on student processing. McDonald (2002) explains that it is difficult to believe in children's capacity if one lacks a sense of how to work with it. A utilitarian approach to teaching that seeks assimilation into society for minorities and supports the acquisition of behaviors is required by the prevailing economic system and bureaucracies; this approach perpetuates inequities (Blackwell, Futrell, and Imig, 2003).
Both approaches recognize the student as a key factor in improving student achievement. The teacher-centered approach places control for learning in the hands of the teacher. The teacher uses her expertise in content knowledge to help learners make connections. The effort to get to know the learner and how he processes information is secondary. The learner-centered approach, however, places more of the responsibility for knowing individual learner capabilities and creating an environment where learners can make learning connections. Similarly the onus for achieving is shifted to the student. Teachers provide a variety of instructional methods and techniques for helping learners construct their learning and develop a system for applying knowledge and theory.
Assessing Teaching Practices
The second essential factor, teaching practices, generates data for measuring the appropriateness of teacher behavior for positive student learning (McCombs & Whisler, 1997). A system should be implemented to measure the effectiveness of methods and strategies. That system should detail approaches for giving teachers information about how they provide instruction and orchestrate student learning; teachers need supportive feedback. Deciding how to use what is learned from the telling of teacher narratives, determining how teachers know students are learning, choosing what to do when students are not learning, and discussing what prompts them to try different approaches is a more appropriate measure of the quality of programs.
Direct instruction is the predominant instructional practice used in the teacher-centered approach. Instructional schedules and urgency to comply with legislation do not allocate time for teachers to pose open-ended questions or to work on problem-based projects. Boyer (as cited in Perkins, 1993) reported that one percent of instructional time is devoted to questions that invite thoughtful responses. Tomlinson (2000) describes the regiment of the factory model as a paint-by-number template that does not fit student needs. However, the expertise that teachers bring to the learning context cannot be underestimated. They see the big picture and have a command of the content. Traditionally, teachers decided what students would learn and how. Orchestration in traditional classrooms is limited because student interaction is basically responding to teacher-directed questions. Rarely do students construct their own learning; achievement is measured on objective tests. What is needed are approaches that operate in a manner to transform the school culture from one that focuses on processing to one that focuses on invention in the interest of accountability (McDonald, 2003).
The teacher-centered approach is modeled after factories, and factories were built to last. Factories have traditionally been designed with an eye toward optimizing efficiency through regimented processes (Thompson, 2003). Winograd (2002) reports on work done by Tom Carroll and Judy Powers to effect real change in how teachers teach in the classroom. They believe that the old hierarchical roles of university professor, classroom teacher, and pre-service teacher must be broken down to allow teachers to get together and do what they do best: explore, experiment, create, implement and assess what is required to achieve student success. Reflective inquiry is a component worthy of investigation in the teacher-centered approach.
In the learner-centered environment, classroom teachers share narratives about students' interaction with content and methodology. They participate in professional development to learn how to differentiate instruction. Tomlinson (2000) defines differentiation as a way of thinking about teaching and learning that is based on a set of beliefs that students who are the same age differ in their readiness to learn, their interests, their styles of learning, their experiences, and their life circumstances. She adds that the differences in students are significant enough to make a major impact on what students need to learn, the pace at which they need to learn it, and the support they need from teachers and others to learn it.
Differentiated instruction meets the needs of diverse student populations by coupling student needs with a focus on content, process, and learning profiles. With the learner-centered approach, teachers bring command of content knowledge but design flexibility for learners to construct their learning. Learner needs and characteristics take precedence over knowledge of facts and skills; the emphasis is on engaging learners in learning for understanding and thinking, to help them build their own interpretations. Teacher narratives and the emphasis on learner characteristics make the learner-centered approach a viable alternative for matching teaching practices with learner needs.
One approach to making learner characteristics become both a priority and a collective goal is engaging educators in reflective inquiry. Henderson and Hawthorne (2002) explained that reflective inquiry is the process of engaging teachers and leaders in thoughtful instruction, research, narrative, and empowerment (p. 38). Reflective inquiry allows an individual to analyze and identify assumptions and feelings associated with practice, to theorize how assumptions and feelings are associated with practice, to theorize whether assumptions and feelings are functionally or dysfunctionally associated with practice, and to act on the basis of the resulting theory of practice (p. 40). Individual inquiry must occur and then be shared with the larger group to effect contextual change.
In teacher-centered environments, reflection is manifested as limited discussion of content knowledge with a mentor or a small number of teachers. Thinking is basically the responsibility of the teacher; students memorize and recite information given by the teacher. McDonald (2002) explains that teachers make a crucial decision: they decide what they want their student to understand. Students' performances show lingering misunderstandings and a need for further coaxing. Assessment points out deficiencies but does not offer processes for application in other situations. Many assessments are commercially produced without regard for the cultural differences of the classroom population or for the individual needs of the learners.
Teacher knowledge of students' characteristics helps in selecting instructional practices that foster critical thinking and problem solving. The goal of a learner centered approach is to get students focused on thinking about the content they are learning (Perkins, 1994). Orchestration in the learner-centered classroom reflects a variety of ways for learners to acquire content. Students construct their learning by working collaboratively in study groups to solve authentic problems and to critique, defend, or explore alternative points of view. Students are encouraged to make meaning by producing projects that become the basis for teaching others what they have learned. Although students are active learners, the teacher's expertise is still a powerful part of the learning equation.
Controlling how instruction is provided distinguishes teacher-centered from the learner-centered approach. Content and methods are handed down to teachers in the teacher-centered approach. Teachers do not participate in the crafting or implementation of curriculum. Usually, they are given directions by people who are not involved in instructing children and who often never knew or have lost sight of the dynamics that diverse populations place on classroom practice. Educators' levels of knowledge and approaches for instruction reflect how they learned and what they feel comfortable teaching. Tomlinson (2000) explained that approaches that lose sight of the soul of teaching and learning make it difficult to attend to individual differences.
In both approaches, teachers provide background data and content, and pose questions that students can use to create meaning. However, the diversity of teaching methodology, assessing the quality of the programs and learning that is an integral part of the learner-centered approach are ignored in the teacher-centered approach. Similarly, students' characteristics become the data that teachers use to match learning. Conversely, in the learner-centered approach the curriculum, although often commercially developed, is endorsed by the faculty; they make decisions about what is appropriate for their learners and select strategies that will work for their learners. Developers of learner-centered curricula are committed to seeing that teachers help students achieve and that teachers are provided experiences to help them grow professionally.
Assessment of Program Quality
Marzano (2003) explained that when schools look at what works and examine factors that determine student achievement, three considerations must be explored. First, to what extent do we engage in this behavior or address this issue? Next, bow much will a change in our practices on this item increase the academic achievement of students? Finally, how much effort will it take to significantly change our practices regarding this issue? Whether learner-centered or teacher-centered, assessment is essential for measuring the quality of programs. Teacher narratives, through reflective inquiry, provide the content for assessing the appropriateness of practices. The frequency of professionals telling stories and collectively testing theories for diverse populations will create learning environments where learners experience success.
Transition or Paradigm shift?
A comparison of learner-centered and teacher-centered approaches reveals that in both approaches teachers demonstrate expertise in content knowledge. In both approaches, teachers acknowledge that students have different needs. Differences emerge in whether educators engage in reflective inquiry. Inquiry that focuses on culture and learners is at the crux of how to help learners make meaning of instruction. Thinking that helps learners to make connections to their past experience or prior knowledge is routine. Assessment is the balance that weighs how appropriately the teacher orchestrates learner characteristics and teaching practices.
In the teacher-centered environment, teachers try to make sense of constraints imposed by curriculum standards and legislation alone or in fragmented groups. Commitment from the top down and the bottom up is not routine. Covering material takes precedence over teaching deeply so that students can use learning in different situations. Teachers tend to follow the waves rather than charter courses. They feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the students' problems (Haycock, 2003).
Incorporating reflective inquiry, thinking-centered learning, and assessment of program quality requires a paradigm shift. To support a learner-centered approach, stakeholders must support the ideology. Issues of societal change, alternative pathways to teaching, and the historical context of educational practices cannot be automatic. There must be a commitment to reflection, creating thinking-centered learning, and constantly assessing the quality of instructional programs.
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KATHY LABOARD BROWN