Higher Education, Teaching Methods, The Science of Learning

Learner Centered Learning

For a number of years now there has been a ‘Learner-Centered Learning’ chant and efforts to make it happen. The problem is that the ideas come from teachers and are built from a teachers perspective. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject from the perspective of how people learn.

There needs to be direct instruction in any educational process. Everything can’t be from a learners perspective. Basic skills must be taught. Reading, writing, numeracy – all of these must be taught. If they were learned organically and naturally, we wouldn’t have illiteracy, innumerate, non-thinking people. They would just learn these skills on their own.

Teaching basic cognitive skills can be done more efficiently when based on the principles underlying how people learn – I’ve written extensively about this in the past. However, learning to use these skills to build a better world and help students realize their individual potential is different. These basic skills need to be applied to cognitive tasks that enable learners to learn to think. What we do in most of education is to teach people how to memorize. I know that there are those who are really trying to do something more, but most of this work is still being done from a teaching perspective.

So, how can we use learner-centered teaching to help our students learn to think?

One of our biggest problems comes from motivation. In our current system, almost all of the motivation in education is extrinsic – grades, stars, praise etc. Without intrinsic motivation, learning is always going to be shallow – satisfy some criteria and get a prize. We have to move the motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic because we know that if you want to learn something you will just do it. Almost nothing can stop you.

We know how academic motivation works. I have written a number of articles about it. The area has been thoroughly researched and the principles are well understood. Extrinsic motivators extinguish intrinsic motivation. By the third grade, we know that grades are becoming the primary reason for learning. They start out excited to learn, but the extrinsic motivators extinguish that love and the excitement comes from the grade. By the time students enter higher education, over 80% list grades and qualifications as the most important thing in their education at that point. Among the other 20%, grades and qualifications are almost always listed in the top three motivators for education. Where has the love of learning gone?

One of the things that we can do to move learning from teacher centric to learner-centric is empowerment. How often do we ever ask our students what they want to learn about? How often do we ask them what they are thinking? How often do we encourage them to find out what they want to find out and then give them a supported forum where they can feel safe to discuss, weigh evidence, change minds, and really learn to think? And I’m not talking about giving them a paper to discuss, I’m talking about them finding evidence in a broad area of study that they are interested in and really engage.

I know that there are professional programs that must follow specific outcomes, but most of us can decide what and how we teach, even if we don’t exercise that right.

I remember Stephen Heppell (he’s brilliant – if you ever get a chance to hear him, take it) telling a group of us about his experience with a young man in his Not-School (for uneducable children expelled from mainstream schools). The teacher talked to Stephen about not being able to get through to the young man (14 or 15 years old). Stephen sat down with the boy and started talking to him about what he was interested in. The boy was obsessed with an online game he played and the medieval weapons that were central to the game – with a particular penchant for spears. From that, Stephen worked with the teacher to set goals for the boy that focussed on these weapons.

Do you have any idea how much you can learn from an interest in spears? Well, Stephan told us (I’ve enlarged on this to make a point). The boy wanted to know everything. In order to know everything, you need to know about the anatomy of the arm and shoulder, along with all the supporting structures like the legs and torso. You also need to know how the brain perceives distances and controls the body, right down to the fingertips, in order to maximize the throw of a spear. In addition, you need to know the average and maximum size of muscles and how to build them – what you should eat and how different muscle building exercises will allow you to throw a spear further. In addition, knowing what goes on in the muscle cells and how food is metabolized and used is important to know when you are trying to figure out spear throwing.

That’s just the biology. The history of how spears developed and what refinements occurred and when they happened is an important aspect of medieval spears. Of course, there is the physics of throwing that has to be studied. Given that you now know just how much energy can be used in the throw you can figure out how much thrust is generated. You know the weight of the spear and the aerodynamic properties of the spear (compared to a rock). You also need to know about angles and flight paths. What is the perfect angle of release to maximize distance? What effect does gravity have on a spear throw and does that vary with geographical location? How do you measure arc?

The list goes on and on. And, how exciting is it for the other students to engage in and explore these elements along with him? Given that he has learned all this information about how spears work, what kind of input could he have in a discussion with the girl who wants to know about the designing of a new car or the intricacies of the social structure in medieval times?

The young man Stephen was telling us about went from being uneducable to topping the scores in advanced math in one year.

That’s learner-centered learning. Not only do they learn what they want to, but as the other students are learning all there is to know about what they are interested, they enter into discussions, share what they have learned, and cross boundaries of knowledge and interest.

I teach that way in university and the students regularly go well beyond what I ask of them. Not only that, but I find that I learn from them as well.

I love teaching, but more than that, I love learning. And, to me, teaching is nothing more than enabling learning.

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