Saturday, 27 November 2010

Subject-centered not Student-centered?

A few years back, I was attending a workshop on incorporating creativity into teaching and I passed by a display of books recommended by the workshop leader. I was drawn to one title in particular: The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life by Parker J. Palmer. It made me wonder what 'courage' meant in the context of teaching. I paged through it and decided to buy it on the spot. To this day, I still ponder what this fully means, but in at least one area that Palmer discusses, I believe I have tested my courage to teach. One chapter was devoted to being a 'subject-centered' teacher. This I grabbed onto immediately, because I had just begun teaching ToK and realized that 'subject-centered' is how I wanted to be approaching this vast knowledge area. Simply put, in 'subject-centered' teaching, you put the subject in the center and everyone is involved in the learning process. Everyone interacts with everyone else and this continuous interaction, no matter the 'knower,' is what leads everyone to better comprehend the subject. Anything can go into the center—it could be a concept, or it could be a unit aim—but regardless, everyone gains from what others discover/ uncover. It's a dynamic process and inevitably leads to a deeper understanding of whatever is undertaken. The courage to teach then seems to involve the teacher's willingness to be a co-learner rather than the possessor of knowledge who imparts what s/he knows onto the learner. I suppose courage comes in when control of the learning process is out of the teacher's hands—the courage to let it go and see where it ends up. Doesn't this sound like where we need to be going with student learning in today's technology-rich classroom?

Now 'subject-centered' contrasts both 'teacher-centered' and 'student-centered' learning. I was reminded that the ideal tech-driven classrooms today needs to be 'student-centered,' when I watched: Edutopia, about a model school in Key Largo, Florida. Principal Ammette Martimson celebrated the student-centeredness of all their programs and validated this by their high achievement. Whether there's a cause-effect relationship operating is always the debatable question found in claims tied to education. But at least it's suggested that there's a strong correlation to be found between student-centeredness and student achievement. This is where Palmer and I would disagree with Principal Martimson. Take a look at the chart above from Palmer's book that I embellished a bit to fit my ToK class. This co-learning framework is where I think we need to be going with Web 2.0 systems in place in our classrooms, rather than needs-based 'student-centered.' But before I go further, I do need to research what educators means by 'student-centered.' Geraldine O'Neill and Tim McMahon in "Student-Centered Learning: What Does It Mean...?" claim that people have different interpretations of student-centered, one being that it contrasts 'teacher-centered/ content-oriented' with 'student-centered/ learning oriented.' So, maybe this argument does boil down to one of semantics rather than involving a basic conceptual difference. Appealing to language limitations, however, sounds like a way to avoid looking a the fundamental difference. In any regard, it still bothers me to think that what drives the lesson are the needs of the students rather than the subject to be learned.

Principal Martimson further believes in teaching to student learning styles, i.e., more student-centeredness. "Brain research says... 'tailor to learning styles.'" But let's be realistic. Can anyone ever really teach to each individual's learning style, one, and two there's research that contradicts the value of learning styles. 'Do learning styles exists' by Hugh Lafferty and Keith Burley questions the very existence of learning styles:

We will see that Learning Styles do not exist because

· The forecast is wrong.

· That is not how the brain works.

We will see that Learning Styles are a 'bad' idea, because

· Matching the teaching to the learning does not work

· Learning styles are not measurable

· Changing teaching styles is not 'doable'

· Knowing your learning style does not make you a better learner.


· Knowing a student's learni. ng style does make the teachers better.

I do think many of us have made the leap away from 'teacher-centered' and rallied to the 'student-centered' approach in recent years, but could moving from 'student' to 'subject' be one of those paradigm shifts on the horizon as we Web 2.0-rich environments dominate our classrooms?

To apply these understandings, I'll speak to my experiences working in 'subject' vs.' 'student-centered' contexts. I find the courage to engage in subject-centeredness when I walk into a ToK class, but somehow I still revert to 'student-centered' when working with EAL students. (Am I losing courage here?) Do special needs determine a more 'student-centered' approach? What goes into the center when walking into an EAL lesson? I've tried putting 'theme' in the middle, and have had some success with all of us interacting with the theme, but the real 'centeredness' doesn't seem to work until I add the Web 2.0 ingredient. Last semester I watched the students in my English Language Workshop (ELW) class come to understand 'teen depression' through a three-week networking project on the novel Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. I definitely felt as though I was learning about teen depression by interacting with subject with the students, yet at the same time, I had to hand-hold the less-proficient learners in order for them to make gains in language and thus with the understandings of the content. Was I being 'student-centered'? 'Teacher-centered'? Uncentered? It seems the subtle yet powerful distinction between 'subject' and 'student' goes back to the role of teacher—the student-centered has the teacher as the facilitator, and thus as an 'outsider,' whereas with the subject placed in the center, the teacher becomes part of the unfolding of knowledge. With this underlying assumption established, I'd have to return to my original argument—this is where Web 2.0 dominated classrooms must head.

Referring again to the constructivist approach in my previous blog, it seems that 'subject-centered' (or one definition of 'student-centered') is more in line with this approach. So, it's complex once again. When Palmer wrote The Courage to Teach, Web 2.0 wasn't yet a concept. Could it be that wherever we head with the revolutionary classrooms today and in the future, that the teacher as a knower, instead of a facilitator in the subject-centered approach will allow all of us to better learners? There's much to consider: the courage and teaching style of the teacher, the needs of the learner, the subject at hand and the type and amount of technology available and incorporated into the learning. Maybe the student, the teacher and the subject all get time in the center, depending... and we have to find the courage to determine when, and all discover the illusive secret that knows to which Robert Frost alludes.


@creativeedu said...

I highlighted your post in my Daily Digest of Education related blogs today as I thought other teachers would find it of interest. You can see it here:

Sunita Gandhi said...

Thanks for sharing that excellent article with us. I love all the info of your blog.
Child Centered Education, Alternative Education

Aaron J said...

the truth sits in the middle, but if I look closely, any of the circle is a center (since they all are connected). Every perspective would see its own center. What about the observer observing them all? Maybe the observer is the actual center.