Image of student-centered learning

Step Down from the Podium

Why student-centred education is the system of the future

In the tumultuous times of COVID-19, many teachers, parents and students are asking themselves, ‘How is education going to change?’ The rise to prominence of online platforms for learning, albeit for a relatively limited number of people, has created questions about whether online learning will continue as a preferred method of instruction in the future.

Billboards advertising fully online schools have appeared, while discussions between colleagues ride the fine line between curiosity and apprehension. What, after all, would be the place for traditional elite schools if online learning proves to be a more viable option for parents facing economic strain?

Confidence has been bolstered by the reflection that most students thrive more in a face-to-face environment. However, the questions raised by COVID-19 should go well beyond the medium of instruction. Although the pandemic has shaken our world, it has also given educators an opportunity to reflect on what aspects of their methodology are most valuable. We need to be asking ourselves: what is the education of the future? What elements have we been doing well, and what elements do we need to improve?

Student-centred education

One of the most crucial elements of effective education, and one on which few schools seem to be reflecting directly, is student-centred education. From the most under-resourced to the most elite schools, there is still a great emphasis on the teacher-centred model. The teacher, the ‘expert,’ delivers his or her lecture, the students diligently take notes, an exercise is assigned, feedback is given, and then comes the assessment.

This method, while perhaps effective in certain circumstances and for certain people, is really quite dated. It assumes that the students are recipients of knowledge, rather than active seekers of it. It creates the impression that the teacher’s job is to cram as much information into each learner’s brain as possible. Given the psychological studies that suggest the average student has an attention span of 10- 20 minutes, lectures of an hour or more do not appear to be very productive.

Instead, more educators should be thinking about how they can make the students feel like they are in charge of their own educational journey. The teacher, of course, plays an invaluable role, but, by seeing herself more as a facilitator than an expert, she can create space for the students to take greater initiative.

Phillips Exeter Academy

The Harkness method

Having attended school at Phillips Exeter Academy in the United States, I experienced first-hand the benefits of the Harkness method, an educational technique pioneered by that school. The concept changes the classroom dynamic by creating a conference-style setup, in which not more than 12 students sit around an oval table with the teacher.

While the teacher, of course, provides invaluable guidance, he or she does not come to ‘instruct’ the students, but to facilitate a discussion. In many cases, a student would open the class by sharing something that interested them in the assigned reading, and the class would progress from there.

This technique worked particularly well in the humanities and social sciences, as it allowed the interests of the students to guide the trajectory of the lesson. But even in mathematics lessons, during which students wrote their work on the board and ‘taught’ each other how they approached various problems, the high level of student activity led to a richer learning environment.

Instead of coming to class and wondering, dully, ‘What is the teacher going to tell us today? I would enter the classroom thinking, ‘What can I share about what I have learned and what will I learn from those around me?’ The excitement generated by the Harkness approach helps kindle a passion for learning which lasts well beyond the secondary level.

Of course, many readers may be thinking that systems like Harkness require the privilege of a low student-teacher ratio, something notably missing from most South African schools. While this may be true, there are lessons that educators can learn from this method of student-centred education that can be applied in various contexts.

For example, a class of 70 students might not be able to have a productive discussion, but smaller breakout groups could be created, and ideas generated, which are then shared with the entire class. The key is to invite student involvement and to minimise direct instruction.

Invite student involvement

Let the students lead

The Baha’i Faith offers insight into education, stating: ‘Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom’.

Imagine a world where teachers see themselves as miners, keen to discover the hidden talents of every learner. Imagine classrooms in which educators not only impart knowledge but also engage with and learn from their students. Regardless of any advances in technology, changing circumstances or variations in instructional mediums, it is time for us as teachers to step down from the podium.

The student-centred classroom is the educational system of the future.