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The power of student-centred learning

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

Ladies’ College, Colombo Vice Principal Deepika Dassenaike

Human beings are naturally curious; it is because of this attribute that mankind has advanced to what we are today. Traditional teacher-centred methods of imparting knowledge to the younger generation focused on the teacher. However, advancements in science and research have made it evident that a paradigm shift is essential and the focus should be on the student, allowing the natural explorer to discover and learn. Ladies’ College, Colombo Vice Principal Deepika Dassenaike shed some light on the importance of student-centred learning.

Student-centred learning

The student-centred method of teaching stems from American Psychologist Carl Roger’s client-centred counselling method. According to the publication Teaching in Higher Education by Sue Tangney, Rogers and Freiberg’s Freedom to learn (1994) suggests taking their client-centred approach to counselling into the education arena, and criticises the expert-driven, transmission model of teaching. Numerous other studies around the same time also supported this notion of providing the learner autonomy through discovery learning.

Dassenaike stated: “Learning must be fun and exciting for the children. They should be the centre of the learning process, where they would love to learn and have memorable experiences. Rather than pouring information into the child, involving the child and providing opportunities to inquire and question in classroom activities is essential. Teachers and students are equal because we access the same information. Students can browse the internet for information. It’s how they think individually about the information, feel about it, analyse it, and each child would be different. There is this concept we use; if I take this mobile as an example and ask the children: ‘What is this?’, there’s only one right  answer – that it’s a mobile phone. The child who gets it wrong will be very discouraged. Instead, you tell the child: ‘This is a mobile phone, what can you tell me about it?’ Each child would then get excited to share their thoughts and opinions according to their experience about the object.”

This approach of learning probes the learner to think independently, constructing concepts from their prior knowledge. According to Jean Piaget’s Schema Theory, human beings construct mental representations of what we perceive to understand and interpret the world around us. For example, a child who first encounters a dog would try to make connections from what he has experienced prior to making sense of what he sees. The information which is provided at this juncture aids in developing a schema for the “dog”. This process of acquiring knowledge is facilitated when the learner is provided the opportunity to construct knowledge independently. The teacher or the educator plays a major role in facilitating this process. Parents also play a critical role; it is imperative for parents to be knowledgeable and be aware of the power of student-centred learning.

Benefits of student-centred learning

The four pillars of 21st Century skills, which are critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity are fostered through student-centred activities. The most important pillar out of these is creativity. “I would add three more values to this: conviction – how one’s faith influences a person’s development; credibility or integrity; and consideration or empathy for others. If we as educators get our students involved and challenge them to think critically, these skills will be enhanced. For example, there are some syllabi in which a lesson on conservation of energy is taught through a practical approach by asking the students to bring their electricity bill at home and have discussions on what they could do to save energy within the next month and compare the two bills. Such curriculums exist in international education where we could draw to our national curriculum in a way it would enhance the learning. Thematic learning is another wonderful approach; for instance, the theme for the term could be the ‘World War I’ and it would be analysed through all the different subjects. Geography would look at the geographical implications, mathematics would evaluate the statistics, language can be used to develop a poem about a lonely soldier, and so on and so forth. Although it is a challenge to implement integrated learning as we follow the national curriculum and do not have the discretion, we could use these methods in project-based activities in school. You actually exploit the ethos and values within your school. For me, the greatest blessing at our school is the space and the lovely environment which surrounds us. Students’ natural curiosity is provoked; if a student is writing a poem under a tree about leaves falling, they can have that authentic experience. The critically acclaimed Sinhala movie ‘Ho Gaana Pokuna’ depicts how the teacher strives to provide children authentic experiences which change their lives. The state schools also have amazing teachers who struggle against all odds to support the children,” added Dassenaike.

Challenges

As the local school curriculum promotes a teacher-centred learning approach, implementing student-centred learning has been a challenge. In a student-centred learning environment, ample time is needed to allow the learner to explore and inquire. Most teachers who are used to having control of the lesson are sometimes reluctant to provide students the opportunity to navigate the lesson. 
Dassenaike noted: “Due to the constraints of the government curriculum being result oriented it has been a challenge to implement student-centred methods, as we are constantly thinking of preparing students for an examination. Teachers are under a lot of pressure to prepare students to face the exams. The daily timetable is not sufficient to implement activities as we are restricted to a syllabi. However, as much as possible, we strive to make learning more meaningful and activity based where students can enjoy lessons. For example, for the younger students we did a particular type of a dance from a poem by C.S. Lewis where the students could actually experience what the poem is about. For Ordinary Level (O/L) students, a lesson on the values of not consuming alcohol was introduced via a classroom debate. These types of activities keep the students constantly engaged.”

Teachers’ role

In a learner-centred approach, the focus is on the students. However, the teachers are the enablers or the facilitators. The teachers must know their subject matter thoroughly and also be open to students’ queries. An effective teacher in a student-centred classroom is a good listener, is adaptable, shows empathy, values authentic learning, is creative, and is a life-long learner.

“I think in our formal education, teachers feel very challenged and defensive if a student confronts the teacher. We must show the students that we are also learners. Teachers in such a situation could say that she/he is sorry to get it wrong or that they do not know and would read about it and get back to the students. However, teachers should know the subject matter well. It’s important for teachers to constantly update themselves and evolve as the learners are changing. Learners are tech savvy and we should make sure that we keep abreast. Technology alone wouldn’t make you a good teacher; it is the ability to care, feel for the children, and the ability to reason that makes you a better teacher.  The teacher is a value-based individual and acts as a role model; that sense of teacher centredness is important. If we look back at our own favourite teacher, it was someone who was amazingly kind or someone you look up to for their integrity. Teachers are under a microscope; sometimes we have to make sacrifices. However, It’s a privilege to be an example to the younger generation – we must walk the talk because we affect a community,” said Dassenaike.

It is evident that student-centred learning empowers our younger generation. It is the duty and responsibility of parents and educators to provide opportunities for our children to enhance their natural curiosity. This approach would undoubtedly support them to reach their full potential and become life-long learners.

(The writer is reading for her doctorate in education. She has over a decade of experience in the education sector as a lecturer, mentor, and facilitator specialised in educational psychology, currently serving as the Director of Academics at Prospects Academy, Colombo, Sri Lanka)