students in group discussion

Five Characteristics of Learner-Centered Teaching

In May I finished a second edition of my Learner-Centered Teaching book. Revising it gave me the chance to revisit my thinking about the topic and look at work done since publication of the first edition ten years ago. It is a subject

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In November I had the great privilege of interviewing Parker Palmer. If you don’t know his book, The Courage to Teach, it’s one not to miss. If you haven’t read it in a while, it merits a reread. After reading it again, I found new ideas I missed the first time, old ones I have yet to understand completely and others I hadn’t thought about for far too long. Parker writes that academics have a tendency to “think the world apart.” “We look at the world through analytical lenses. We see everything as this or that, plus or minus, on or off, black or white; and we fragment reality into an endless series of either-ors.” (p. 64) I see us doing this as teachers and I can’t think of a better example than how being teacher-centered is juxtaposed with being learner-centered. You are either a teacher who lectures (now considered bad) or you are a teacher who involves and engages students (now considered good). In short, this orientation pits teaching against learning. It is true that for many years the pedagogical focus was on teaching. We assumed (and not without justification) that if teaching improved, so would learning. When teachers demonstrate characteristics like organization, enthusiasm, clarity and fairness, research has shown that students learn more (as measured by higher grades). But the reality of so many students coming to college minus important learning skills stimulated an interest in learning and, along with it, the realization that perhaps we had emphasized teaching too much. Our preference for and focus on learning has now tipped the scale in the other direction. The thinking that teaching is either teacher-centered or learner-centered breaks an inseparable bond and does so to the detriment of our students and ourselves. Learner-centered teachers still need to lecture, as in tell students things. After all, faculty are the definitive content experts in the classroom and our knowledge and experiences can be immensely helpful to students as they work to master course material and eventually find their way to careers and lives that matter. Meanwhile, those who are teacher-centered should work to engage and involve students. They must recognize that students can learn from each other and that the deepest learning happens when students have the opportunity to practice and obtain feedback. The best teaching is not one or the other, but a combination of both. As my colleagues Ricky Cox and Dave Yearwood write in the January issue of The Teaching Professor, “It is time to re-assert the role of teacher as a multifaceted individual who contributes to learning inside and outside the classroom. Teachers positively impact students on many levels, including curriculum design, intellectual challenge, personal growth, career guidance and other less tangible ways. Our students not only know us as teachers who design their course, they also know us as people who listen to their aspirations and struggles. Indeed, students’ memories and experiences with teachers are often just as important to their success as the skills they develop and knowledge they acquire.” Parker Palmer explains why seemingly paradoxical things should be joined. “The poles of a paradox are like the poles of a battery; hold them together and they generate the energy of life; pull them apart, and the current stops flowing. When we separate any of the profound paired truths of our lives, both poles become lifeless specters of themselves...” (p. 67) It is time for us to start addressing the more complex and interesting task of joining together teacher-centered and learner-centered instruction. The question for those who aspire to be learner-centered is not how to abandon lectures, but to understand when “teaching by telling” effectively advances the learning agenda. Learner-centered teachers should not leave students to muddle through on their own, but must know when to intervene and what kind of interventions enable students to discover their own way to understanding. Teacher-centered instruction does not get bogged down in a morass of policies and prohibitions that establish the teacher’s authority, but explores how to set boundaries within which students can make choices and move toward autonomy in learning. Reference: Palmer, P. The Courage to Teach. 10th Anniversary Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.