Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What is student-centered?

If you've read this blog in the past year, it's probably evident that engagement has been a recurring theme. One of the things I've learned from this writing is that engagement is a fluid concept. It's ill-defined. It's ambiguous. Left to interpretation, engagement can mean different things to different people. It needs a framework for understanding, a way to think about it and use it to inform pedagogy.

In offering readers a framework for engagement in his book Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work, Phil Schlechty provides a language for how educators can design work that is meaningful to students and, thereby, engaging. Being student-centered in this framework means knowing your students, understanding the world as they see it, and considering the motives and values they bring to school when designing work for them that is intended to guide them to learn what they need to learn. 

But is this definition of student-centered enough to be useful?

Just like engagement, student-centeredness is a "complicated and messy idea that has encompassed a wide range of sometimes fundamentally different meanings," according to University of Texas Pan-American Professor Jacob Neumann in a recent article published in The Educational Forum. He notes that the research base on student-centered teaching and learning, as a whole, doesn't offer guidance for educators trying to create student-centered contexts in their schools and classrooms. Yet being student-centered is a common goal and, presumably, a prerequisite for engaging students. 

One of the reasons engagement is so hard to define is that it depends on many variables. Content. Context. People. Work. Especially, work. Schlechty notes that students are not typically motivated by what they learn but what they do. It's in the work. Design the work to account for those things that motivate people, and they participate. Neumann suggests the concept of student-centeredness also needs a well-defined conceptual framework that reveals the "nature and implications" of the various relationships among content, context, people, and work. 

Especially people. 

Neumann's framework moves the concept of student-centeredness away from the organization of content toward a greater understanding of the types of relationships that can exist between a teacher and a student in the work environment. Neumann's framework is valueable because it provides a way for teachers to think about students' roles in the learning environment and, by doing so, their own roles as well. 

Neumann asserts that three types of relationships can exist. One that puts the student at the forefront. One that puts the teacher at the forefront. And one in which the student and teacher become partners.
  • In the first arrangement, learning centered in students, students make all decisions about what and how they learn. The teacher merely responds to student inquiry. 
  • The second relationship reverses that role. In learning environments that are centered on students, the teacher essentially makes all the decisions about what and how students learn, albeit teachers don't generally have control over the "what" in today's standards-based environment. 
  • Finally, learning centered with students puts the teacher and student in partnership with each other. Teachers "enlist students in a more reciprocal learning relationship" in which teachers and students collaborate in creating and studying meaningful problems. Students have some stake in both what and how they learn. 
Neumann recognizes that these are not discrete categories. His point in writing about student-centeredness in this way was not about identifying the right relationship but about revealing the implications of the various relationships between teachers and students. In a standards-based environment, the first option is perhaps not practical. The second option is perhaps too practical. In fact, Neumann notes learning centered on students is the norm in today's schools. The third part of the framework (learning centered with students) is interesting because it opens the door for students to become more involved in their own learning, even to the point of becoming co-creators of curriculum in Neumann's view. He also points out that this arrangement requires teachers to give up a certain amount of control of the educational process, event asserting that centered-with contexts call into question the value and purpose of mandated curriculum, externally imposed standards, and systems of accountability.

Whoa! That's like at least three different blog posts. Let's stay close to today's world. 

I think this is where Schlechty's engagement framework shows us that centered-with contexts can work in a standards-based environment. To Neumann's point about giving up control, Schlechty notes that how a teacher relates to students is one of only two things he or she has any control over anyway (design of work is the other). Giving up some control to allow students the space to attach personal meaning to what they are learning is an exercise of power, an expression of control. So how much control are they really giving up? Also, the research on motivation and learning has revealed the limits of tightly control learning environments; good for short-term recall, not so much for long-term learning. Finally, the question of value in content and what students ought to learn is an important one. But I also think it's a question for broad, democratic debate. And while each individual learner ought to be able to contribute to that debate, I don't see it as an issue that necessarily has to be resolved for this part of the framework to be relevant. Schlechty's engagement framework is principally about designing experiences (work) for students. But it has to be student-centered for it to be effective. It has to be about people first. 

So again, what is student-centered?

Neumann's framework perhaps doesn't provide a complete answer. And maybe there isn't one. But I think his framework tells us something. It's about space in the learning environment. The more space the teacher occupies, the less the student can. Perhaps part of the teacher's job is to make judgments about how to relate to students in the learning environment. And to make sure the relationship changes depending on the nature of the content, context, people, and work. To make judgments about when to step up and when to step back. When to center in students, when to center on students, and when to center with students. 
  • Neumann, J. (2013). Developing a new framework for conceptualizing student-centered learning. The Educational Forum, 77(2), 161-175.
  • Schlechty, P. (2011). Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work, Wiley, John & Sons, Inc.

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