Learning-Centered Teaching

This morning, I’m off to a faculty seminar organized by our Office of Instructional Development. The seminar will discuss the new edition of M. Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching (2013). The book is well-known to folks interested in finding new ways to reach students in the classroom and questioning the traditional commitment to lecture style classes. Her book provides a useful summary the last two decades of work to shift the teaching environment into one that moves the learner and learning to the fore. Most of the techniques she espouses involve giving up some authority to the students in the class as a way to get them to buy into the learning process. The book has obvious parallels with my efforts in the Scale-Up classroom this semester.

Despite the acclaim and the good intentions, these kinds of books (and this one in particular) leave me a bit cold. Here’s why:

1. The Problem. Like many books of this kind, the author assumes that the existing system of higher education has a problem that learning centered teaching can fix. The problem is ill-defined, but revolves around student engagement, the absence of deep learning, and sense of frustration that many faculty members (myself included!) feel when entering a tradition classroom. While there certainly is a feeling of crisis in higher education these days, the cause for these problems are hard to pinpoint. Maybe it’s students have changed, perhaps its the technology, maybe it’s the expansion of “audit culture”, or perhaps we as faculty have changed in some way that has put us out of touch with our students. One thing is clear: the “problem” remains far more poorly defined than the myriad solutions. This book is no exception. The point of departure is that we, as faculty, can do better than soldier on with traditional methods of teaching, and most of the scholarship that she marshals assumes that the current system is some how broken.

2.  Who is the learner? Like one would expect, she locates the solutions to the current problem (however defined) in the classroom and the shift from a “teacher centered” approach to a “learning centered” approach to eduction. As a college-level educator, I agree with her call to change how we teach, but I remain skeptical that changing what we do in the classroom alone will somehow transform student expectations and practices. The entire culture of student learning in the U.S. revolves around teacher centered activities, and, while this might be changing, the response of students to our “learning centered” environment remain deeply conditioned by the consistency of traditional teaching practice. In other words, I am skeptical that the success of learning centered teaching comes from it being “better” as much as from it being different. Its difference depends upon the relatively stable landscape teacher centered learning in secondary and post-secondary eduction today.

3. Do we really share authority? For Weimer, sharing authority in course design is a key step in shifting from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered classroom. Students may be reluctant at first, but they enthusiastically respond to opportunities to become involved in course design, deciding on activities and even point values within a class. I am hesitant to see this as sharing authority as, in my experience, student decision making is pretty predictable and in most cases we are not ready to allow students to access inner sanctum of learning or content goals for the class. In other words, the most important things that faculty “author” remain set apart from student input. Weimer’s suggestion then, reads more like a stratagem or teaching trick than actual ceding of authority to students.

That being said, my experience is that students generally want to remain in their comfort zones and for classes to be more traditional (i.e. teacher-centered) than learning-centered. While we can certainly load the deck so that students have to share experience of the class within a learning-centered paradigm (and Weimer advocates as much), there remains a vast grey area between the edges of our authority as experts and student expectations for a class. I’ve allowed students to push into the area of course and content goals in the past and found it fairly disconcerting. How and where to set the limit for shared authority remains unclear.

——— 

My skepticism toward book runs the risk of overshadowing some of the really positive things that I learned from it. 

1. The Learning-Centered Classroom. I shifted to more of learning-centered teaching method because I began to have anxiety attacks when attempting to lecture to a large auditorium style classroom. I have no idea why these attacks started, but they were paralyzing and deeply unpleasant with side-effects lasting for days. As a result, I changed my teaching style and started using classroom time as laboratory time where students worked to solve historical problems, interrogate primary sources, and produce historical analysis.

While I no long dread going to teach, I often find myself at loose ends during class time. In the Scale-Up room, in particular, well designed assignments leave very little for me to do in the classroom other than watch the students work. Weimer addresses this feeling and, in essence, told me it was to be expected. That little reassurance, as superficial as it is, makes a big difference in how I engage the classroom.

2. Student Failure. I am still uncomfortable with assignments that students struggle to complete successfully, but my tolerance for failure in the classroom is increasing. I think it is a produce of the learning-centered classroom, in fact. Students have to be given space to approach problems on their own, make a mess, and then regroup and attack the problem in another way. Failure in the classroom or on an assignment is a productive prelude to innovation and, if approached in the right way, authorizes students to find their own path, to individualize methods, and to own content.

3. Coverage and Uncoverage. I still get obsessed with coverage in my history classes, but recently I’ve become more and more interested in how LITTLE I can cover before the course become so generic and so method driven that it loses disciplinary integrity or meaning. Interestingly, students push back in part because they love the stories that history offers and they love the vast panorama of the past more than the hard work of analysis, interpretation, and research. Balancing coverage and content with method and practice comes up again and again in Weimer’s book giving me confidence to know that I’m not the only one struggling with the limits of content in a learning-centered environment.

———

Finally, when I put the book down on Saturday afternoon, I did think a good bit about the large implication of learning-centered teaching. I wondered how this approach speaks to larger changes in how universities work and what we’re expecting from education. On the one hand, we can argue that focusing on learners and learning prepares them for a rapidly changing world where their greatest skill might be their ability to learn.

On the other hand, I always worry that we’re teaching students to exchange traditional forms of authority (of the teacher, for example) with a less centered and more ubiquitous form of authority that is both everywhere and nowhere.   

I’ll update this post after the seminar this morning.

UPDATE: Instead of updating my post, I’m going to post a link to an editorial written by Dexter Perkins in our local paper. It’s relevant because he talks about some of the same kinds of learning centered approaches that we discussed in seminar yesterday.

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