There’s this idea in modern education and it’s referred to as “student-centred learning”. Now, most reasonable people would think that education is, and always has been, a student-centred activity. I mean, what else could it be? Unfortunately, though, the world of education seems to be been taken over by academics, curriculum designers, consultants and thought leaders who have decided to rewrite the history of education, claiming that the education methods of the 20th century were fundamentally flawed – being teacher-centred I presume – and unfit for purpose in the brave new world of the 21st century. And they have decided to give old words new meanings.
Take this definition of student-centred learning (taken off a slide at a recent QQI conference) by Marese Bermingham who is Head of Student Engagement and Head of Teaching and Learning Unit at Cork Institute of Technology:
“Student-centred learning represents both a mindset and a culture within a given higher education institution which is broadly related to and supported by constructivist theories of learning. It is characterised by innovative methods of teaching which aim to promote learning in communication with teachers and other learners and which take students seriously as active participants in their own learning, fostering transferable skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and reflective thinking.”
So in the new world of education, student-centred learning does not carry a similar meaning to, say, patient-centred medicine where the needs of the patient are prioritised ahead of the systems and work practices employed in a hospital. No, student-centred learning is really about employing certain teaching methods, ones that are inspired by constructivism. Constructivism is a rather nebulous philosophy: its key idea is that learning is an active, constructive process. The learner takes in new information that, when combined with existing knowledge in their brain, enables them to construct their own personal mental representation of the world. Constructivism is not a particularly controversial idea. It fact it seems pretty trivial to me. However, it can lead one down the postmodern black hole of believing that there is no objective reality.
But in modern education, constructivism has become not so much a theory of how we represent the world in our brains but more a theory of how we should teach. And so, constructivists like to adopt teaching methods, such as inquiry based learning and problem-based learning, where the teacher is no longer the “sage on the stage” but, rather, the “guide on the side”, the guide who allows students to “construct” knowledge for themselves rather than being instructed in the traditional sense. In extreme cases constructivists see the teacher as a co-learner. Constructivists tend to believe that learning is, or should be, a social process and they believe strongly in collaborative learning. Many believe, as shown above, in the idea of generic or transferrable skills, skills like problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking that a person can deploy regardless of the context.
Given that 20th century education was largely teacher-led (not teacher-centred) it is unsurprising that constructivists would decide that education needs to be transformed. To get around the fact that the 20th century was the most extraordinary in the history of mankind, many modern educators have decided that the 21st century is fundamentally ‘different’, a century that requires students to be educated in new ways – their ways – in order to develop the “21st century skills” to thrive as active and productive citizens – or something.
The result is that the world of higher education has become something of a battleground in which one tribe is committed to teacher-led learning and the other, increasingly dominant tribe is committed to student-centred learning – as defined above. The former tend to be portrayed as old-fashioned and unwilling to change while the latter are generally seen as more caring and compassionate. In the background higher education has become a market where institutions compete for income in the form of students. This creates a constant pressure to make education more “engaging” (and constructivist would claim that their methods are more engaging) not only to attract new students but also to retain existing ones. Throw in the fact that academic promotion procedures often require that the candidate shows evidence of teaching innovation, plus the fact that teacher-led approaches are becoming increasingly demanding (because of phones and because so many students come to lectures knackered from their part-time jobs), it is starting to look very likely that constructivist approaches are set to dominate higher education in the not too distant future. Given that constructivists have already won the battle at Junior Cycle level and given that it is likely that the Leaving Cert will receive a constructivist makeover, the best that can be said is that the Irish education system of the future will be nothing if not joined-up. But I fear for it.
PS Just to point out, I rarely give traditional lectures – I’m unsure of their value anymore. Many of my lecture slots involve problem-solving. But I explain stuff first. I don’t let the student flounder around trying to discover concepts and methods that experts in the field have discovered. So I’m very much in the teacher-led tribe.