Blog Post

How Student-Centered Learning Connects to Great Teaching (and Vice Versa)

Today, I received a wonderful email from one of the finest university leaders I know.  In addition to the kind of generous praise that we all love, she mentioned her own resistance, at times, to Deweyesque student-centered, active, engaged learning practice and, in particular, spoke of the great profs who inspired her own education. Many of the finest educators I know share this conviction so perhaps it's useful to write a blog about exactly this topic.


What is the relationship between student-centered learning and great teaching--and vice versa?

I could not agree more that great teaching scaffolds great learning--active or otherwise. 


All of the incredible profs I profile in The New Education have one thing in common: they care deeply not just about their own engagement with research and ideas but also about communicating what they know in a way that allows students to see how they too could become an expert and learn more in a given area.   In other words, the profs who are my models of #Neweducation are phenomenal teachers who care deeply about their students also being phenomenal learners and who have that inspired, special gift for connecting those.  

It doesn't always work, though.  And it doesn't work because (and this is the baseline message of The New Education) not all students are alike. 

The "people in our classes who are students" (as one inspiring colleague puts it) are tremendously varied, and they learn in many different ways. 

And some do not need engaged, active, participatory methods to love learning and to be inspired to greater learning.   Others don't know where to begin in the process.  Learning how to reach these different kinds of students is the great challenge for anyone who aspires to be a truly great teacher.


Three Kinds of Students for Whom Active, Engaged Methods Do Not Work

The success stories of active, engaged learning are legion (and well-documented in the research).  What is rarely addressed: those students, like my brilliant friend, who learn best by lectures or seminars and who are often exasperated, frustrated, or bored with active, engaged methods.

To be overly-schematic (but hopefully to offer some insight), I'll divide those into three kinds of students:

(1) The most academically-inclined students.  Often it is the most academically brilliant and high-achieving students who don't want to do collaborative work, who don't want to work in groups (a subject all its own and not a trivial one: everyone in the workplace knows collaboration is difficult and yet, as educators, we often throw students into groups as if it's easy, with the result that one person often does most of the work while others slough off). Through upbringing or proclivity (however one wants to define that), some academically-inclined students already "get" that the greatest lecture is one that you learn from not simply so that you do well on the final but so that you take something key away from it that you can apply in your own life (not in your job but in your life): that may be the way the prof has a flair for an analogy or a turn of phrase or humor or the way s/he moves from a basic fact or study to a larger extrapolation. 

I would say about 10% of my students have that ability and learn voraciously and spontaneously, without any explanatory help.  Give them the toughest research, in a way that is even a little engaging, and they'll run with it.

I'm convinced that about 80% of students can learn how to do this. It requires attention to "meta cognition," explaining what that process is, breaking it down, offering a pathway, really explaining how one does it, how one makes an inference, how one builds research into a conclusion, how one assembles evidence. Through such scaffoding, students can learn how to learn, mastering each step of the process, every step of the way, until it becomes a mental/intellectual habit.   It's life-changing for those students. 

Carol Dweck calls this "growth mindset" and, although she is sometimes criticized, I am very impressed by her ability to take students from a "fixed mindset" (where they believe "X is smart because s/he always has the right answer in class and I am dumb because I don't") to a "growth mindset" (where they believe they can learn how to learn, how to be "smarter"). 

In the Futures Initiative, at the Graduate Center (CUNY), pretty much everything I do now is teaching others how to teach. That means scaffolding content and method in such a way that profs can give their students who do not believe they are "smart" the opportunity to learn how to improve and be confident in their ability to improve. 

(2) The most harried or cynical or pragmatic students. The second group of students for whom active learning often doesn't work are those who, for one reason or another, really don't care about learning and just want the darn degree.  The antonym of "student-centered learning" is "credential-centered learning" and, for a subset of students, getting the credential is exactly the point and, for some, it's the only point.  Ok.

Sometimes that's a protective mechanism, and sometimes it's desperation (working full time, a family, etc)--there simply aren't enough hours in the day to also care about one's education so you get through as fast and expeditiously as possible to earn that degree that will allow you to take care of the rest of your life. 

Sometimes it's cynicism all the way down.  In those circumstances, sometimes I can break through and sometimes I have to admit the situation or disposition is too big and a break through won't happen.  That doesn't mean others won't but, in my experience, sometimes no matter what I try, it doesn't matter.  It happens.

(3) Those with cognitive differences.  Some subjects simply elude some students no matter how hard they or their profs try. This third group is most difficult--and it is the group that I empathize with deeply because, indeed, as a dyslexic, I often find myself in this category, even to this day. Some subjects simply elude me, no matter how hard I try and how important it is. (NB: I spent about three or four hours trying to put a credit freeze on my accounts after the recent Equifax data breach and over and over was sent to special pages, told I could not go on. Others managed this easily; I was sure there was something about my case that was alarming--and I was alarmed. Then I sat down with my partner and worked on this with him and, in fifteen minutes, we'd done what was needed. Clearly I had answered incorrectly the very clear, simple [to him!] questions this required. For perhaps the millionth time in my life, I was aware that "simple" isn't "simple" to everyone.

I recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post on why there should be challenging, significant math alternatives to algebra (the biggest gatekeeper in our high schools and community colleges). Some people will never, ever learn algebra no matter how hard they try and yet there are many other kinds of math (geometry, coding, statistics, for example) that are equally valuable and learnable for those who can't comprehend algebra. I happened to love algebra but realized long ago that it is not always a subject that can be learned.  In the op ed, I tell the story of being an algebra tutor in high school during the Vietnam War, to six guys who'd failed it and who would have been drafted if they didn't have a high school diploma. They felt their lives depended on it, literally, and so did I.  We tried everything. They all passed algebra but, without going into the sordid details, I'll just say it was not because they learned algebra. 

Since I'm dyslexic, there are certain things in my life that I simply cannot master--and have spent a lifetime trying, using everything that is known out there about pedagogy. 

One of the great tragedies of the modern system of education (K-professional school) is that we often exclude those who have many and considerable talents--but just not the ones that we have decided are "academic" and "necessary" to be awarded the credential certifying educational attainment.  We have become more and more narrow, and the regime of standardized testing makes that all the more so. With industrial era education, we shrunk significantly what it meant to be an expert, what it meant to achieve, what constituted learning, standardizing our idea of intelligence.  I'm sure this is why so many entrepreneurs were poor students.  A better education system would build on their entrepreneurship.

Being able not to have one standard of "what counts" as "education" means that many who are differently-abled can shine in some areas and succeed even though they might not shine in every area. 


So, what's the conclusion?: Everyone needs student-centered learning.  And that means that, for some students, the lecture or the traditional seminar is best.  The great teacher understands that, understands "audience," and understands that the people in the room who are students are a tremendously varied lot who learn in many different ways. 



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