William Astore
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Monday 5 September 2011
If you wanted your son or daughter truly to learn, would you put your trust in faster computers in networked classrooms, more “student-centered” classroom activities with his or her peers, or a Socrates to prod him or her to ask fundamental questions about a life worth living?

What Does “Student-Centered” Learning Really Mean?

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As a society, we talk about the importance of leaders in all walks of life, but when it comes to our classrooms, many of us seem to want to empower the followers while executing the sages when the former do poorly on standardized tests.

Nowadays, a teacher or professor is not supposed to be "a sage on the stage." He or she is expected to stimulate and captivate already over-stimulated students with collaborative classroom exercises, enthralling videos, and state-of-the-art computers and Internet-ready "SMART" boards (much more expensive than chalk- or white-boards, and requiring expensive maintenance and periodic software and hardware updates). A busy and stimulated student is a learning student and a happy customer to boot, and so are his or her parents, who can marvel at all the computer screens and interactive chattering (both of mouths and of keyboards).

Yet how much real learning is going on in this "student-centered" digital environment?

I grew up without computers in the classroom, when teachers and professors embraced the role of being the sage on the stage, and I can't say my education suffered as a result. A recent study that appeared in today's New York Times suggests that computers and "digital" classrooms have nearly negligible impact on student test results, which is not to condemn computers but rather to suggest they are merely one (over-hyped) tool for acquiring and displaying information. PowerPoint slides are often not much better than old-fashioned overheads or slide projectors; DVDs and streaming videos are often not much better than old-fashioned film projectors.

The key ingredient to learning (besides motivated students and involved parents) is of course a well-informed, caring, creative, and dedicated teacher or professor. Such a teacher or professor puts her students first not by assigning busywork in the classroom or by embracing fancy and expensive gizmos but by the power of her personality and her commitment to stimulating critical, creative, and ethical thinking.

In its essentials, great education hasn't changed much since the days of Socrates. It's ultimately about shaping and informing the character of students. It's not only about teaching them the how of things, but the why. And once they know the why, they can make decisions based on ethics, based on some knowledge of what's right and wrong, within educational and social settings that put integrity and fairness first.

Good educators recognize that teaching is more art than science; more of a calling than a profession. And that true "collaboration" is achieved not among students working together or with computers, but among students and teachers (and parents) working together, with teachers serving as mentors and role models, guided by a vision of education as a stimulus to individual and social betterment.

So what does student-centered learning really mean? It's about avoiding the idea of students as "customers," with the concomitant notion that the customer is always right. It's about avoiding the notion that a magic bullet exists (such as digital classrooms) to educational success. It's really about putting the most talented leaders in front of our students, and empowering them to stimulate the intellectual and especially the moral growth of students.

If you wanted your son or daughter truly to learn, would you put your trust in faster computers in networked classrooms, more "student-centered" classroom activities with his or her peers, or a Socrates to prod him or her to ask fundamental questions about a life worth living?

Sadly, we seem today to prefer computers and customer-centered learning as measured by test score results. And what of our modern-day Socrates? After parental complaints about "unsettling" questioning of students and subpar standardized test scores, our elected leaders once again made him drink hemlock.



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I don't see why teaching

I don't see why teaching can't be both an art and a science. Research on teaching has made my teaching artful teaching much better.

Advanced technology used with

Advanced technology used with wise forethought can be a boon to the classroom; used only for the bells and whistles and watch the minds wander.

This article states "A recent

This article states "A recent study that appeared in today's New York Times suggests that computers and "digital" classrooms have nearly negligible impact on student test results, " but looking at that link in this article I see an ARTICLE that contains many opinions against the use of technology but not a STUDY and very little in the way of actual study or proof one way or another. To base your opinion on the opinion of someone else without valid study does not make your opinion valid.

This article is curiously at

This article is curiously at odds with more than one transformative mission, while deceptively presenting itself as a champion of reform. Problem #1: fear-mongering technological determinism. We choose how to use technologies, and fail to embrace that choice when we merely demonize them. Problem #2: Radical pedagogy from Freire to bell hooks has championed student-centered learning in order to empower the marginalized to speak truth to power. This enhances, rather than threatens, an effective teacher's power to guide and mentor.
About the author: "William Astore teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 2005, having taught at the Air Force Academy as well as the Naval Postgraduate School. He writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and History News Network."

We cannot teach tomorrow's

We cannot teach tomorrow's students with yesterday's technology. The world is changing very fast and those who do not get with the program will be left behind.

There's no reason to believe

There's no reason to believe that "tomorrow's students" won't be able to read, write, and think as much as "today's students." That's still what's required of students and is likely to be so for a long time. Teaching has little to do with technology (i.e., a tool), but everything to do with talent, skill, enthusiasm, and knowledge.

One example of a program

One example of a program which is student-centred but not necessarily high tech, and which does use quite a lot of Socratic dialogue, or at least an active relationship between the teachers and the students, is an apprenticeship language program called "Talking to the Whole Wide World". It equips children to become bilingual in order to communicate with peers in any of dozens of countries worldwide. Part of the student-centred bit is that class-members can choose friends in different countries : China, Brazil, Germany, Vietnam...

It's not the tools we use,

It's not the tools we use, it's the SUBJECTS. It's the KNOWLEDGE. It's freedom from our conditioned way of thinking. The world has changed dramatically, but we are still teaching the same things we've been educated and conditioned to believe as if the world was as we continue to believe it is. It's not. Most of what we believe to be true, what we've spend our lives learning, is wrong. It doesn't matter how we teach it, whether through computers or "sages", it is still wrong. Can't we see this? Just look at our environment, our society, our media, our politics, our economy, our educational institutions, our hospitals. They are all failing terribly. Isn't it obvious? Have you noticed that the societal infrastructures are crumbling? Hello. Anybody home?
The thinking and belief systems and education that created these structures and problems are not going to be able to fix them. It's not like we're not trying here. But it isn't working. Pay attention to that. How poorly it's working. That's a key.
Is this what we really want our children to continue learning?
What we need is a real sage, someone who has woken up and can see the big picture beyond all the centuries of conditioned education. But there are not many of them on our planet. And none of them professors as far as I've encountered.
Short of having a real sage as a teacher, maybe the best education a student can have today is simply to spend time alone in nature, quietly paying attention to everything around them and in them, without the distractions of teachers, journalists, parents, or politicians trapped in old ways of thinking. This has always been the way sages have emerged. Short of finding one, we need to become one. That's the real hope for education and for our species.

I just wasted over an hour

I just wasted over an hour composing a lengthy reply to this article. When I clicked on POST button, it took me to a login/create account page. I created an account. When I then returned to this page, my lengthy message was lost. You need to fix this stupidity in the "post new comment" form.

As long as we teach children

As long as we teach children myth and folklore instead of Truth, we will continue to decline as a nation. Separtists did not seek religious freedom, they sought a refuge for their perversion. We didn't slaughter 100 million "Indians" because they were "bad." It was ethnic cleansing to make the land "clean" enough for the new self-proclaimed land barons and aristocrats. The same mentality spreads to the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Libya. Since the end of WWII, the United States has killed more innocent people in wars for economic control than Gengis Kahn, Atilla the Hun, Hitler or Stalin. The gravest problem in the world is 18,000 children die of starvation every day, caused by a greedy and mis-managed planet. Terrorism is the result, not the cause. If we want to develop a useful and peaceful nation with the courage, intelligence, honesty and decency to properly lead the world, we must start with Truth, whether with quill and parchment or keyboards and monitors.

The idea that the new

The idea that the new technology cannot be of great use in insuring that every student can learn to the maximum of his or her ability has more to do with how the technology is being applied than what it is capable of.
We must start with the premise that not all students learn at the same rate, that they learn different subjects at different rates, that not every way of presenting a lesson will not be able to be absorbed and that different methods of presentation are often required for each student to be able to understand and learn the lesson. No matter how good the teacher, or how involved the parents, who often don't understand the lesson either, get, every student will not learn when there are 30 to 40 students in a class.
However, if each student has a computer, think more in terms of an iPad 2, or better, and the textbook material is presented on the touch screen, with augmented explanations selected for the particular student, who may not be able to correctly answer questions, requiring written answers on the computer, presented by the computer, as the student progresses through the lesson, then you can begin to imagine how the new technology can be used.
Each student can then progress through the lessons at his or her own pace, thus keeping the good students engaged and allowing poor students to move to the next lesson only when they have learned the previous one.
Supplement this with a display for the teacher that shows where each student stands and can actually follow what the students that may be falling behind are seeing for the lesson, what question the student is being asked and what answers are being given. The teacher can then give that student help, knowing where the problem seems to be.
While all this is going on, statistics are being gathered that allows for the assessment of each student, the class, the school, and so on up the chain. Just as important, the lessons and the way in which they are presented, can be assessed as well. If most of the students are having problems with the lesson, the lessons can be changed or improved. You can't readily do that with a printed text book.
As a result of requiring only one computer per student for K-12 and beyond, the costs will be less than the current costs of using printed text books.
There is much more to this system than I have been able to describe here. For example, the system would also include an in-context dictionary, in both English and in a second language of the student had English as a second language, and much more.
There is nothing I have described that cannot be done by existing hardware and software that has been already developed, but must just be tailored to the current need. I am basing my statement on my experience of 40 years designing computers and computer systems, and 14 years of one-on-one tutoring at the middle school level, that I have been doing since I retired.
If we use technology correctly, we can accomplish the goal of giving every student the opportunity to learn to the maximum of his or her ability.
Leon Bloom

I agree that computers are

I agree that computers are not the answer to everything, but the rest of the article is certainly not progressive. It is as silly to say that nothing in education has changed since Socrates, as it would be to say that nothing in Physics has changed since Socrates. Imagine Socrates trying to teach a class of 50, 150, or 300 students. Good luck with that Socratic Dialog! In fact, new models of teaching that the author dismisses are trying to provide that "Socratic" experience by moving away from large lectures to smaller discussion groups. One such model that has achieve real (published) results is Peer-led Team Learning, where experienced students take the "Socratic" role of guide and mentor to small groups of students in two hour sessions each week. This is described and references provided at http://www.pltl.org. Schools are neglecting a tremendous "underutilized" resource - the students themselves!

An excellent perspective but

An excellent perspective but you are swimming against a very strong tide

Is this a diatribe against

Is this a diatribe against student-centered classrooms, or against technology in classrooms? You seem to conflate the two, but they are really very different. As you point out, technology can be an aid or hindrance to learning depending on how it is used. While there are very bad uses of technology, much of the work on intelligent tutors has had amazing results across groups with different demographics and socio-economic status. Student-centered learning simply means the teacher accounts for the learning needs of each student rather than use a "one-size-fits-all" teaching approach that focuses more on content than on the student. There is a significant amount of research that supports the positive effects of student-centered learning- cf. How People Learn (http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368). This is not new; as you point out good teachers have always done this. But it is also not as simple as putting a leader in front of the class.

Much of what you espouse is needed, particularly the negative effects of looking for a single magic bullet and the need to define educational goals that are not centered on test results. However student-centered learning is a way towards your vision, not a dead-end along the road.

Excellent! High-Tech

Excellent! High-Tech learning and Student-Centred learning are independent approaches which can be used together or apart.

New age technologies are

New age technologies are replacing humans in every aspect of society... GET READY FOR THE ROBO SOCIETY!!

I ask myself as a teacher, in

I ask myself as a teacher, in what way is technology serving me (and my students), and in what way am I serving technology (rather than my students).LoBoulgari

The attribute least valued in

The attribute least valued in teachers is content area knowledge. It begs the question of whether it's worth learning in the first place!

There is a nearly straight

There is a nearly straight line relationship between student scores on standardized exam and parent's income. Therefore the simplest way to increase student scores is to increase parent's income. Unfortunately the opposite is occurring.

Brilliant!

Brilliant!

I couldn't agree more. We

I couldn't agree more. We have wasted so much money and time in education pursuing technology and student centered solutions when what really makes the difference is a good teacher implementing a quality curriculum that is based on high standards. It's not the tools of education but the content and what is developed every day, day after day, in the classroom that makes the difference.

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