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The Perils of Terminology: Teacher-Centered and Student-Centered Pedagogy

Posted by on Friday, July 23, 2010 in News.

ProfHacker contributor Billie Hara wrote a post titled “Learning-Centered Pedagogy” last week that surfaces some of the dangers of educational jargon, particularly the terms teacher-centered pedagogy and student-centered pedagogy. Those in higher education who advocate student-centered pedagogy are often perceived as bashing teacher-centered pedagogy, which causes problems when the term teacher-center pedagogy isn’t well-defined. Here’s Billie Hara’s definition:

“Generally, teacher-centered pedagogy is, simply put, a system in which most of the meaningful course information comes from the instructor. This approach places a significant amount of responsibility on the instructor to provide the ‘right’ information, in the ‘right’ way, regardless of learning/teaching styles.”

Billie shares another definition, one from O’Neill and McMahon. They describe teacher-centered pedagogies as ones that feature low levels of student choice, passive students, and power residing primarily with the teacher. In one of the comments on Billie’s post, teacher-centered pedagogy is associated with the “sage on the stage” idea:

“The basic premise of the ‘sage’ is that she/he loves the material and knows a lot about it, and some students find that passion compelling and contagious.”

Does teacher-centered pedagogy imply a one-size-fits-all approach like Billie argues? Or one that emphasizes low levels of student empowerment? Or one that revolves around experts lecturing on topics they know well? These are three different ways to define the term teacher-centered, and the definition one uses will color how one perceives any attempts to deprecate teacher-centered instruction.

One’s definition of teacher-centered also affects how one defines the term student-centered. Does student-centered teaching imply a responsiveness to the different backgrounds and perspectives students bring to the classroom? Does it imply a classroom where the students are in control? Does it mean the use of teaching methods other than lectures?

At the Center for Teaching, we frequently cite the book How People Learn, edited by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking. HPL is a summary of decades of research in cognitive science, and, as a “classic” of the literature, its use of terminology is worth noting. HPL uses the term learner-centered instead of student-centered:

“We use the term ‘learner centered’ to refer to environments that pay careful attention to the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that learners bring to the educational setting… Teachers who are learner centered recognize the importance of building on the conceptual and cultural knowledge that students bring with them to the classroom.”

A pedagogy that Billie Hara would describe as teacher-centered–one that employs a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t respect differences in students and their learning–would not be described as learner-centered by the HPL authors. Learner-centered teaching does not necessarily cede control of the learning process to students (although some “power sharing” is often involved), nor does it necessarily avoid the use of lectures (although their use is often reduced or repurposed).

Educational terminology is sometimes looked upon as mere buzz words, but in order to have meaningful and productive conversations about teaching, it’s important that we have a common language with which to describe our ideas and experiences. What about you? How do you use terms like teacher-centered, student-centered, and learner-centered?

Image: “Intersection of Faith and Jargon” by Flickr user subsetsum / Creative Commons licensed

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