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As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Student Centered or Abdication?

Currently on the education forums there are some proponents of extreme student centered instruction. They insist all our education problems stem from the fact the we adults have the temerity to think we have the right, responsibility and authority to decide for kids what they need to learn. They insist if we adopt an extreme “student-centered” approach, the result will be a well-educated, critically-thinking populace. However, the extreme approach can degenerate the otherwise excellent idea of student-centered instruction into a rationale for transferring adult responsibility onto children.

At its core, student centered instruction focuses on the learning needs of students.

Student-centered teaching methods shift the focus of activity from the teacher to the learners. These methods include active learning, in which students solve problems, answer questions, formulate questions of their own, discuss, explain, debate, or brainstorm during class; cooperative learning, in which students work in teams on problems and projects under conditions that assure both positive interdependence and individual accountability; and inductive teaching and learning, in which students are first presented with challenges (questions or problems) and learn the course material in the context of addressing the challenges. Inductive methods include inquiry-based learning, case-based instruction, problem-based learning, project-based learning, discovery learning, and just-in-time teaching. Student-centered methods have repeatedly been shown to be superior to the traditional teacher-centered approach to instruction, a conclusion that applies whether the assessed outcome is short-term mastery, long-term retention, or depth of understanding of course material, acquisition of critical thinking or creative problem-solving skills, formation of positive attitudes toward the subject being taught, or level of confidence in knowledge or skills.

Student-centered means teachers listen carefully during instruction and throughout the day. They listen to find out what students are interested in, and they have the flexibility to modify lesson plans to take advantage of those teachable moments. Teachers listen in order to offer interesting and meaningful choices to students. At no point should student-centered instruction put kids completely in charge of their learning. Children simply are not qualified to decide what they need to learn. They do not have the requisite wisdom. Even college kids, who although since the Vietnam War are legally adults, do not have the wisdom. If they did, college math students would never complain, “We don't want to know why the math works. Just tell us how to get the answer.”

One proponent of extreme student centeredness maintains that because every child is unique, “the concept of a singular list of "what kids need to know" is an absurdity.” The conclusion does not follow from the premise. Maybe every child is unique, but the tasks they must be able to accomplish to get along in the world as adults are not unique. Would anyone seriously argue that kids do not need to know how to read, communicate effectively, add, subtract, multiply, divide, work with fractions, understand current events in light of past history, and make a living?

Where do we draw the line between what kids need to know and what is optional? And if we do not give kids a shot at all fields of knowledge (because we adults have abdicated responsibility), how will they ever discover their passion? The gospel of extreme student-centeredness is not feasible in the long term.

If given their head, too many kids would choose mediocrity. And what would the proponents of extreme student centeredness do about the poor choices of students? Do we write them off with a flippant platitude, “they made their bed; let them lie in it”? History tells us if students make bad choices, it is society (and taxpayers) who will bear the consequences. That is simply an unconscionable burden to put on a naive child.