Critiquing Student Centered Learning

The growth of technology that allows people to easily access information and share it online has rekindled interest in an education model that is student centered.  While such a model often appeals to students’ interests and leads to higher engagement, it does not always lead to deeper learning. Reflexive (student-centered) and didactic (lecture based) approaches are appropriate in different circumstances.

There are numerous circumstances in which reflexive or student-centered pedagogy is effective:

  • Activating and sharing prior knowledge: Before learning about the historical circumstances surrounding the dropping of the atomic bomb it would be helpful to assess students prior knowledge on the topic and activate their schema.
  • Sharing possible interpretations: Students would benefit from hearing their peers’ opinions on a piece of artwork to demonstrate how artists can elicit a range of feelings from their paintings.
  • Discussing and analyzing our personal experiences to test theories: When learning about concepts that have direct personal connections, students will be able to understand, analyze and remember these concepts more effectively when they can see how it connects to their own lives.
  • Compiling resources for a paricular topic: Crowdsourcing helps cultivate more sources with a broader range of reading levels and perspectives than a single teacher could do by his or herself.

However, there are other situations didactic or lecture based pedagogy is more effective:

  • Sharing background on a topic to ensure all students have common knowledge or experience: Prior to a discussion on capitalism, it would be helpful if students have read or seen a lecture on the topic so they understand basic concepts and its critiques. If they do not have a common background they will offer uninformed opinions which will likely lead to a lively but unproductive discussion.
  • Modeling an unfamiliar and advanced skill: Some skills cannot be learned independently or from peers, they require someone who has mastered it to demonstrate it. For example, students can offer their opinions about what a primary source means but only someone skilled in historiography could demonstrate how to analyze an author’s word choice to identify subtle biases.
  • Helping structure students’ inquiry into a highly unfamiliar topic: Students are often encouraged to pursue research projects that interest them but their inquiry stays at a superficial level. For instance, students without a background in sociology may find many impassioned opinions on racism today but are unlikely to explore structural inequities, class & privilege, or social justice movements unless guided by a teacher with a firm grasp of the subject matter.
  • Providing specific feedback on an advanced skill:  Students can reflect on their own progress and even get feedback from peers, but when a skill is particularly sophisticated specific, actionable feedback from someone who has mastered the skill is vital. For example, students might be able to check if their classmates used proper grammar or had the minimum number of sources in a paper but a teacher is necessary to model how to assess the quality of an argument and provide specific feedback on how to improve it.
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