In contemporary educational circles, we hear a lot about learner-centered learning and teaching.
This lesson will introduce you to this concept in depth and give you some ideas about strategies and methods that promote learner-centered teaching.
What Is Learner-Centered Teaching?
Donald is frustrated. He has been teaching fourth grade for three years now, and even though he has had some great successes, he somehow feels unsatisfied. Though he has strong relationships with his students, he does not feel that he is doing a good enough job following their interests and meeting their individual needs. This year, Donald is determined to do more learner-centered teaching. Learner-centered teaching is teaching that:
- Takes students interests into account
- Follows students’ passions and capitalizes on their strengths
- Helps students form a strong learning community
- Gets away from the idea of the teacher as the primary expert of the class, and
- Works toward meeting individual students’ needs as they grow.
Selecting Units of Study
Donald realizes that one of the most important aspects of learner-centered teaching has to do with selecting units of study, or concepts or themes that focus his curriculum, that answer to students’ interests or passions. Rather than plan the whole year’s curriculum in advance, he will spend the first six weeks of school getting to know his students, their interests, and their curiosities. He will do this by watching their free play and project time, talking to them individually and in small groups, and focusing on the themes when they write. Donald will then gather resources in order to develop units of study that center around themes his students find interesting and provocative.
Capitalizing on Students’ Strengths
Donald also knows that he must make the most of his students’ strengths. This means that students who excel at art can devote time during the school day to making art for their classroom or diagrams that help promote learning in their units of study. Strong readers can become even stronger by mentoring weaker readers in the class or by building the classroom library.
Students whose strengths lie in athletics and movement can lead the classes in daily exercises or plan research that teaches about the importance of physical activities. Donald knows that understanding and making the most of students’ strengths both gives them a sense of control and helps them have agency and confidence in their own learning.
Letting Students Help Each Other
In order to help students form a strong learner-centered community, Donald knows that sometimes he will have to step back and let his students help each other. At the beginning of the year, he will help his class make a large chart with each student’s name and some of the things they feel they might be qualified to help with. Donald will work with his students on the idea of asking classmates for support before they come to him. He must coax students away from the sense of him, the teacher, as a central expert who knows everything, and toward the sense that they are a community of learners working to support each other, even when things get hard.
One of the hardest things for Donald about keeping his teaching learner-centered is simply keeping quiet! As a teacher, Donald is trained and temperamentally oriented to speak up, answer questions, correct errors, and give the occasional lecture. He knows, however, that the most powerful learner-centered teaching happens when the teacher keeps quiet. Donald will practice counting to twenty in his mind when there is quiet in his classroom, to give students a chance to jump in with thoughts and questions before he takes center stage. He will also ask his students to help hold him accountable for giving them appropriate wait time. Donald knows that if he works to keep quiet, his students will take on more responsibility for their own learning.
The Importance of Flexibility
Finally, Donald knows that he will have to be extremely flexible in order to have a learner-centered community. Sometimes, activities or even whole units will not go as planned.
This is because learning can be a truly messy, non-linear process. Donald decides to work with the motto: even failures are learning opportunities. He also knows that children can change their mind a lot, and they grow, develop, and change tremendously over the course of the school year. Remaining flexible throughout these changes can be challenging, but learner-centered teachers find it worthwhile to live up to the challenge.
Learner-centered teaching focuses on students’ passions and strengths, and it helps students help each other with weaknesses.
Some challenges to teachers are remaining flexible and keeping quiet. Learner-centered teaching is incredibly productive and empowering for students of all ages and can be joyous for teachers as well.