Tag Archives: Learner-centered

What Learner-Centered Education Really Means

16 May

Learner-centered and emotionally safe pedagogy is an attitude or disposition. It is not a handbook of tips and tricks. It is being physically and emotionally present when a student needs us. It is also about focusing on the learning process instead of the product (worksheet, assessment, test score, etc.). It means  engaging in a dialogue, offering help and support, and answering the question every student asks: What’s in it for me? 

Personalization is one of the modern approaches in learning and teaching. However, it is important to remember that designing great learning experiences doesn’t require any special apps, programs or gadgets! We want it to based on Learner-centered pedagogy because it has a long history and it has proven to be very effective. At the simplest form learner-centered means that we are are focusing everything around students needs. (Image below: my starburst mirror in the making)

When I was making my starburst mirror few years back, I was thinking that this is how student-centered learning really works: keeping students in the center and carefully building the individualized support around them. This means purposefully designing the instructional process (teaching methods, lesson planning and classroom management) to meet students’ needs, focusing on supporting students’ individual learning process (learning and development and SEL) and using assessment data to support students’ individual learning processes. Please see TPK for more info about pedagogical knwoledge.

Some students need more support than others. We are not clones and should not be treated like ones, so it is important to abandon the outdated factory model, where learning is seen to be a product (of instruction and testing). To me, one the cringiest examples of the product thinking is seeing 28 pieces of identical “artwork” on classroom walls. Yes, students had learned to follow directions and create a copy of something, but the scary truth is that we will never creat the same competency when following somone else’s thinking. For deep learning to happen we must engage in our own thinking – this is what I learned while working for Head Start. Children were amazingly creative and learned so much every day while playing.

A major problem is that we still talk about learning and teaching like they were just one process. But learning and teaching are two different things! They are two different processes that are often put into the same frame of reference (education) and sometimes even happen in the same physical space (classroom) – but it would be foolish for us to imagine that students only learn at school! The “real” learning often happens after studying has been done, and the newly gained knowledge is used in real-life situations and combined with all the existing knowledge and experiences student have. This is what “deep learning” means: reconstructed personal understanding of the topic.

When we perceive learning as an in-built force within our students, the teaching job became instantly easier! Being a facilitator for learning and guiding  students to build their own knowledge is a huge step towards supporting learner agency. And it is truly learner-centered! 

We want to strive towards the next step in education: schools evolving to places where knowledge is socially constructed and contextually reinvented. We can do this is ANY given classroom  by offering choices for students and making their learning more meaningful. But this also presents the need for mutual intentionality and accountability – students coming to school with the intention to learn, teachers with the intention to support students’ individual learning. Not just meeting the standard of the learning objective of the day. Please understand that I am NOT against standards! But meeting them cannot be the ONLY goal of education.

The one thing that sustains my professional practice after a decade in Higher Ed is that I get to talk and email with my students, one at the time, and ask the most important question:

How can I help and support your learning process today?

Praise and punishment – two sides of control

17 Nov

It is surprising how often people, who think punishments to be detrimental for learning, still approve praise as an effective tool in education.  How is this possible? Both are based on the concept of superiority and having control over other human beings. Often this power is just artificial authority. Please understand that I am not against classroom management, just the behaviorist regime of it! Using SEL (social-emotional learning) and ensuring student-centered management practices is important!

I know this may sound like semantics, but hear me out! Praise always carries a value judgment, an evaluation, and is based on our personal/professional opinion. Encouragement in the form of feedback is non-judgmental. It points out facts. And in education we want to point out all the things students have learned because we have names for them and also know the big picture of how competencies relate to each other. We know what students need to learn to be successful. Hence: no praise, just facts, please. Alfie Kohn has written much about this!

My current position as a mentor for graduate students pursuing their M.Ed. degrees is delightful: I spend my days supporting my students’ understanding and learning process, but I don’t have to be a gatekeeper (and I don’t have to do any grading, yay!). Mentoring requires a specific disposition: the belief that everyone can learn, and that learning cannot be enhanced by praise and punishment. Now, please don’t get me wrong. Performance can be increased (up to a point) by praising and punishing and pushing students to complete their products, but engaging in one’s own learning process and deeper learning requires self-regulation and self-reflection. We can lead students to that path but we cannot force them to walk it. External control cannot help students forward in the path to self-transformation.

I do remember the time when I still believed in praise and punishment.  I am sure my children remember that, too. And for that I want to apologize to them, wishing that I knew more about learning and development when they were young. Fortunately it is never too later for additional development.  Kegan and Drago-Severson have an excellent framework of adult development.

It hurts my ears when I hear someone talk about praise and growth mindset in the same sentence. The two could not possibly fit together. Praising someone means that they have met an invisible standard, for which we want to extend our approvals as superiors. Rewards and gold stars are just a tangible form of praise. Growth mindset carries the same notion of self-transformation as engaging in the personal learning process. As educators it is important to offer timely feedback for students about their learning. However, praise and feedback should not be mixed. Feedback focuses on the achievement and based on transparent criterion of expectations. Praise is based on hidden expectations or personal opinions. It is a value judgement about the behavior or qualities of another human being.

Every educational institution has their own hidden curriculum – the expectations that are not voiced or written. Often these appear in the form of practices and traditions. Hidden objectives are the hardest to meet. A common coping mechanism to meet hidden expectations is the attempt of pleasing the person at control – whether teacher, professor, boss, or anyone else in the position of power. The damage for the organization gets doubled: the person in control only hears the voice of pleasers and cheerleaders, and the structure becomes skewed with the lack of open and honest dialogue. This can easily lead to cliques in classroom (or workplace) and decreased collaboration.

Those who remember Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA) will probably recognize the roles of Parent and Child in the praise and punishment situations.  Engaging in dialogue on Adult-Adult level is the most important tool for every educator. Students often fall into the trap of playing the child role, especially if their learning process gets reduced to creating learning products that may have no real-life connections, and if they often face praise and punishments in their learning environment. This can happen to adult students too, especially when their learning motivation is externalized. On the positive side it is fascinating to observe young children to behave with maturity above their years when the human dignity is extended to them and they are offered opportunities to self-regulate.