Back to the Future: Student-centred Learning in the 21st Century

I’ve formally worked as an educator for the best part of 30 years. During that time, I thought I’d done a pretty good job of adopting a student-centred approach to learning.

However, as I’ve delved deeper into the literature, I’ve realised I’ve still got some way to go before I can consider having fully adopted the student-centred approach and made the paradigm shift myself. I also realised I’m a great example of the adoption approach taking longer than anticipated. Even so, moving the educational ecosystem as a whole from a teacher-centred to a student-centred approach to learning is critical is it’s at the heart of the paradigm shift needed to boost productivity for knowledge workers in the 21st century.

What is student-centred learning?

So, how do we make the shift?  Let’s start with what exactly student-centred learning is. Student-centred learning is a pedagogical approach that shifts the focus of instruction from the teacher to the student. Its aim is to develop learner autonomy and independence by putting the responsibility for the learning path in the hands of students. By imparting students with the cognitive structures they need as well as the confidence and skills they require to learn a specific subject, learners not only achieve the requisite learning outcomes but crucially develop lifelong learning capabilities.

Besides focusing on building the skills and practices needed to enable lifelong learning capabilities, a student-centred approach develops independent problem-solving skills instead of school specific learning capabilities that depend on teachers. It utilises a constructivist paradigm for learning where individuals engineer their own understanding and knowledge of the world through the actual experience itself, as well as on their reflections about those experiences. Student-centred learning utilises a pro-active, agentic perspective of how individuals learn in contrast to a teacher-centred approach where individuals are reactive and viewed as passive receptors of knowledge.

Roots in the Socratic Method

The student-centred approach began to gain prominence in the latter part of the 20th Century although its origins extend back to Ancient Greece and the Socratic method. For example, in the Socratic method, the teacher doesn’t impart knowledge but instead endeavours to strengthen the student’s capabilities for logic and problem solving. In effect, the teacher acts as a facilitator to help learners’ think about problems and issues themselves. However, the Socratic method’s influence as a dominant pedagogical method was largely supplanted by the religious, nationalistic and industrial forces that developed in the latter part of the last millennium. By the time universal, compulsory education was introduced 150 years ago, developing student capabilities for logic and problem solving was replaced by the inculcation process of obedience and learning the rules.

Back to the Future

The shift from teacher centred learning to student-centred learning, therefore, is a bit like “Back to the Future” – or more aptly – “Forward to the Past” – returning to the educational process established 2500 years ago. While it made complete sense for teacher centred learning to have become the dominant paradigm in the lead up to and throughout the industrial age, that paradigm needs to shift back to a student centred one where they are responsible for their own learning and the teacher becomes a facilitator rather than deliverer of knowledge.

Summative to Formative Assessments

Adopting a student-centred approach extends beyond the classroom – it also requires a fundamental re-assessment of the assessment process itself. Instead of “summative” assessments in the form of tests, essays and exams that are the domain (and bane) of teachers working lives, student-centred learning utilises far more “formative” assessments. In effect, the assessment process is more developmental rather than evaluative. However, many teachers at all levels of the educational ecosystem and many professional bodies still view summative assessments as the gold standard for demonstrating the transfer of knowledge. Don’t get me wrong – we still need some form of summative assessment. But the teacher centred approach is more focused on learning efficiency than learning effectiveness.

Happily, there are signs this mindset is shifting in line with the broader paradigm shift required. Authentic assessment which focuses on students using and applying knowledge and skills in real-life settings is gaining traction. These assessments could include role plays, completion of real-world tasks and workplace assessments. For example, one Australian university reported that their steady progress with authentic assessments over the past 5 years had accelerated significantly with the current focus on and shift to online.

We need agentic learners

So, the student-centred approach reflects a fundamental difference in values and beliefs with respect to the purpose of education. The teacher-centred approach was arguably appropriate in the industrial age. However, continuing this pedagogical approach is detrimental to developing agentic, active, curious, independent and logical learners – the very characteristics we need in today’s information age.

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