A matter of opinions

Is student-centred learning a sound practice based on mutually respectful shared scholarship or a managerialist fad that fails to stretch the brightest? John Gill weighs the arguments

December 11, 2008

Opinions matter to advocates of student-centred learning. Allowing students to air their opinions underpins the whole approach, offering a measure of their level of sophistication and a means to draw them into a dialogue with their tutor.

Teachers' opinions are important, too - not as keepers of knowledge but as "co-learners", and because student-centred learning is "not a technique but an attitude", say its supporters.

It is perhaps appropriate, then, that opinion is split among academics and teaching experts over whether this popular concept in higher education is a managerialist fad that short-changes students or the zenith of centuries of teaching and learning practice.

Cordelia Bryan, an independent higher education consultant and educational developer at the University of the Arts London, falls closer to the latter camp.

Far from being trendy or new, she says, student-centred learning has been around for decades, springing from the pioneering work of American psychologist Carl Rogers, who first developed client-centred counselling and then expanded the approach into education.

"He stepped out of cognitive theories and started looking at humanist theories," Bryan explains. "It's a different view of the process of learning, and if one changes one's perception of how human beings learn, then that should inform how we teach.

"We place a student at the centre of his or her learning, and our role as teachers is to tease out learning from those multiple individuals. That is as opposed to us having knowledge and transmitting it to them as a one-way process."

Another proponent of the virtues of student-centred learning is Roberto Di Napoli, senior lecturer at the Centre for Educational Development at Imperial College London.

Asked to define the approach, he repeatedly returns to the idea that it is not a technique or a method but "an attitude that implies dialogue with students".

"That may sound like a platitude, but when you go to lecture rooms, often you do see lecturers talking at, rather than with, students. Student-centred learning requires you to listen to students, take into account what they know, and then push the problem back to them to increase their level of understanding."

Student-centred learning has its advocates, then, but inevitably it has critics, too.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, believes some accept it merely "because it sounds good and sounds progressive".

"I think that quite often it is adopted as a managerial convenience, something that makes it easier to motivate certain students, for example, rather than something that has a (strictly speaking) intellectual or educational rationale. It confuses the question of how you motivate students, and what their experience is, with what should be the primary question - what is it we want to teach them?

"There is also a gulf between the rhetoric and the practice, and even where it is promoted and acclaimed it is often little more than rehashing what is already on offer."

For Furedi, there is a wooliness about student-centred learning. "It's used in a rhetorical sense by some universities to indicate that 'we are very responsive and student friendly', and in other places as a managerial strategy to stabilise student retention rates," he says.

Clearly defined or not, he attributes some grave developments to its ascendancy.

"It is very serious to me that in many places handing out lecture notes is now the default position," he says. "Courses are designed so that students don't have to go to a library any more; the reading is either online or available to them on handouts.

"When I was an undergraduate, I had some of my most intensely important experiences because I had to go to the library. You would go into the basement to search for books, and as you rooted through you would find other books next to the ones you were looking for; before long you would start to get a sense of the discipline that you were a part of.

"But now the library is a place students go for coffee. (Libraries) have been redesigned as drop-in centres for networking, and that symbolises, especially in the social sciences and the arts, the problem we are facing."

Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, is also sceptical about the concept, if only because, as he puts it, "If teaching isn't student-centred, what is it?

"Who are you supposed to teach if not the bloody students?" he asks. "What you have is a triadic relationship: one end is anchored by the student and one end by the teacher, and the third bit, which people are often rather slow to think carefully about, is anchored by the discipline. That is to say, there is something that constitutes an academic subject or a skill to be mastered. The notion that it can be purely about a teacher's skills makes no sense, nor does the idea that it can be solely about the student."

As Ryan acknowledges, the University of Oxford is something of a special case because of its position in the sector. "I have always worked in places with small groups, tutorial systems and so on, and we've always had that contact with students that allows one to tailor what you are trying to do to the student in front of you."

Picking up this theme, Bryan says the move to a system of mass higher education, with the Government aiming to achieve 50 per cent participation among young people in the near future, is absolutely key to the growing relevance of student-centred learning.

"Teacher-centric models did work perfectly well until not so long ago. Giving a lecture to a hundred people in a hall and then having a tutorial afterwards worked while we had an elite group participating in higher education, but with the massive increase in participation came plenty of evidence that it was no longer working," she says.

Tara Brabazon, professor of media studies at the University of Brighton, makes a similar point. "A single mum will require different modes of learning from a young woman straight from school. An international student holds a different background and expectations from a scholar who has passed through A levels. The standard that I require of them in assignments and in producing degree-level work is the same, but the strategies I use to get them to those standards are quite different," she says.

Although Bryan is adamant that student-centred learning is in no way linked to the "dumbing down" that is presently the focus of debate in higher education, Furedi is less sure of the virtues of the approach.

He argues that it can short-change brighter students who, he says, do not want to be mollycoddled. "The more reflective students can be very cynical - they tell you this is not what they signed up for. It is only the weaker students who see any kind of virtue in this.

"Every year you speak to the better students and they are wary of these innovations. They would like to be challenged, they would like to be stretched and held to account, and that requires the academic to take the initiative, to initiate that process, and sometimes they feel they're not getting enough of that.

"One of the defining features of higher education - the intellectual relationship between academics and students - is being recycled as a secondary school teacher-pupil relationship, where teachers have to acquiesce to pupils more. That doesn't benefit the pupils at all; it involves them without challenging or stimulating them."

Bryan rejects this view, suggesting that doubters may be driven by a reluctance to move out of their "comfort zone".

"I suspect that, to be kind, the old teacher-centric models some lecturers are clinging to are more comfortable," she says. "I think there is a power element to this as well; the idea was that the lecturer has the knowledge and stands up and transmits that knowledge, which the students then engage with in tutorials and write an essay on. Student-centred learning takes a lot more effort on the teacher's part."

Brabazon, who uses student-centred methods, puts in 30 hours of preparation for a single hour of teaching and demands similar commitment from those taking her classes. "At the start of each semester, I say to every group of students: 'I respect you, I respect your time and I will not waste it - you are valuable.' My students expect me to do my preparation, and I expect them to do theirs.

"I teach at 9am on Monday mornings throughout the year and not only is my attendance magnificent, but I have seen extraordinary improvements in student marks, moving from the low 30s through to the high 60s during a semester.

"I have not created this improvement, my extraordinary students have. My curriculum has provided a framework, but my classroom is based on mutual respect. They respect my knowledge, and I respect theirs. A good curriculum is what links our knowledges."

There are other questions that crop up within the student-centred learning debate, including the part that it may play in changing student's attitudes to lecturers.

When John H. Summers wrote in Times Higher Education earlier this year about the gross sense of "entitlement" among some of the students he encountered while teaching at Harvard University, his piece struck a nerve, drawing comment from across the world.

Furedi fears that a mantra that everything revolves around the student could feed into this problem, which is growing in the UK.

"It's not unusual for a student to send you an email on a Saturday and then, if you don't respond straight away, castigate you for not doing your bit.

"That's very prevalent in this country now. It isn't as aggressive as in America, where there is a real 'fuck you' attitude to academics, but we could get that - of course we could. I was in Boston (at Harvard) recently, and the attitudes of the academics I spoke to were very calculating. As a result, they always had one eye on what would give them the least grief in their dealings with students."

For Bryan, the notion that student-centred learning could contribute to this problem, which she accepts exists, is unfounded.

"I think there has been a power shift, and taking a student-centred approach also shifts the power because, put crudely, it moves from a position where the lecturer holds all the cards and has all the knowledge to a co-research model with student and lecturer on a parallel journey of discovery.

"But while I think it is true that what was once a relationship of trust has now become, to an extent, one of 'watch your back' ... it is nothing to do with student-centred learning."

It would be a disservice to those participating in the debate to suggest that they see the issues in black and white.

Di Napoli, who acknowledges great value in the student-centred approach, is clear that the model he advocates is not always the model pursued by institutions. "I would agree with colleagues who worry that this has become a fad in some places, that there is an element of managerialism, an element of people jumping on the wagon," he says.

Pursued in the wrong way, he warns that managers risk "making a mockery" of student-centred learning and irritating lecturers in the process. But if there is a faddish element to it, it is at least, he says, "a fad that is making a lot of people think".

One problem he has identified is that "the way in which people talk about student-centred learning is one thing, and the way it actually operates in the classroom is another", something that he accepts may demotivate students who "do not see the point" of it.

Furedi, meanwhile, accepts that over the years he has received a lot of brilliant ideas from his students.

But, he says: "I got them on the basis of an intense intellectual engagement, I got them when I gave a lecture that was subject-centred rather than student-centred and they asked me difficult questions, or when they said, 'Frank, I don't understand a word you are saying, you've got to explain yourself.'

"The nice thing about the job we do is that you do work for students all the time, but you do it in an intensely academic environment, rather than just flattering them."

Di Napoli asserts that it would be foolish to ignore student opinions because no one enters university as a blank slate. "People come with expectations, feelings and thoughts and, however imperfect these may be, they are worth listening to. It is only by working with what students already think they know, and making them understand if they are right or wrong, that you can achieve better results."

In his book Save the World in Your Own Time, Stanley Fish, dean emeritus at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Illinois, has an alternative view.

He writes: "I told my students I hadn't the slightest interest in whatever opinions they might have and didn't want to hear any. I told them that while they may have been taught that the purpose of writing is to express oneself, the selves they had were not worth expressing, and it would be good if they actually learnt something.

"I told them that on the basis of their performance so far they should sue their previous teachers for malpractice. I told them that anyone who says 'I know it, but I can't explain it' would flunk the course."

Ryan takes a less extreme line, but is similarly disposed to reject the inappropriate promotion of opinions in the learning process.

"Opinions can be all right, but students aren't here to learn opinions, they are here to learn how things are," he says. "In the past I have looked at a student's work and said, 'All you have done is copied this out', and they've replied, 'Oh, did you want my opinion?'

"Well, the answer to that is, 'No, I don't want your opinion; what I want to know is if these are proper arguments, whether Plato was right about this - I couldn't give a bugger about your opinion; who could care less?'

"All this stuff about opinions - bloody hell, who wants opinions in physics, for example? The real thing is how you assess whether people know anything, and if they aren't obliged to write coherent prose and so on, then what evidence is there that they do? The answer, I am afraid, is not much."

For Bryan, however, to linger too long on the question of student opinion is to misunderstand what student-centred learning is about. "Student-centred learning is about taking the trouble to find out the level of sophistication of a group of learners and taking things from there. It has little to do with student opinions.

"That (approach) is as opposed to just going in with the intention of transmitting knowledge regardless of whether the students are 'getting it' or not," she says.

The last word, though, goes to Ryan: "Decent teachers on the whole do pretty much tend to pay fairly careful attention to the people in front of them, and in doing that you are trying to work out which of their skills you can build on and which of their skills need tuning up. You can spend all of your time focusing on what they are up to, but that is not the same thing as giving in to their views on Plato."

'WRITING CURRICULUM IS NOT SEXY BUT IT IS REWARDING': the need to align form and content

Student-centred learning suggests that all opinions have equal value. The meta-argument of my teaching is that opinions verified by research and reading are more valuable than views offered without research.

Experience is important, but experience when tempered by expertise is even more important. I believe - and many people disagree with me - that all academics should hold a PhD and a teaching qualification. We respect our students by arriving into the classroom qualified and assessed by international peers.

I am not talking about a postgraduate certificate in teaching. I believe that all of us should hold at least a bachelor of education, because a semester-long certificate only has the time to teach "reflection", "student-centred learning" and maybe some work on tools or technologies for learning.

That is why these approaches and ideas have currency: they are the only ideas and paradigms that can be taught in a semester-long education qualification.

Much more attention is required on how to write curriculum, how to develop literacies through the semester, and how to ensure that form and content are aligned throughout the semester.

Writing curriculum is incredibly difficult, but profoundly rewarding. For me, writing curriculum is a combination of the hardest sudoku, the toughest blackjack and running a marathon.

But the form of our teaching and learning does matter. It is not simply the content of a textbook. Similarly, student-centred learning pretends that content does not matter; it is all about form, dialogue and processes.

What the close study of curriculum teaches the future teachers is that the careful alignment of form and content, framed by the transformations of international scholarship, is the foundation of education.

To create the correct matrix of form and content is one of the hardest, but most rewarding, of intellectual tasks. Student-centred learning has existed for a long time. When I completed my first units in an education diploma in 1993, one of the first classes involved us sitting around the room talking about what we could be talking about for the next two hours. Needless to say, we didn't talk about much. Our lecturer was enthused at this student-centred learning. She was lovely. She was enthusiastic. But we were bored and wondered why she hadn't prepared.

Writing curriculum is not sexy. It is not exciting or flashy in a loud and exciting way. But it is rewarding. So instead of using phrases such as "student-centred learning", "competency-based outcomes" and "benchmarking statements", maybe academics should learn a bit more than a semester-long certificate can convey.

I have had the gift of being taught by some of the most remarkable education academics in the world. They taught me so much - and I would not trade a day of reading, writing and thinking about curriculum and literacy. I am a better teacher because I have been taught the importance of planning to teaching and learning.

- Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies at the University of Brighton. She writes in a personal capacity.

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT? PERVERSE INTERPRETATIONS ABOUND

As a student in the Sixties, I had some bizarre experiences where our lecturer gave classes on arcane areas he was currently researching rather than teaching what appeared on the syllabus.

This led to some fascinating lectures but terrifying assessment experiences, since what we were taught bore no relation to what we encountered on the exam paper. This was, I would suggest, tutor-centred learning.

By contrast, "student-centred learning" for me means foregrounding the student experience, so that instead of starting from the point of view of the lecturer considering what subject content students should be taught, we instead think of what students can or should learn around key topics.

University teachers can thereby move away from curriculum descriptors centred on syllabuses or book lists and instead concentrate on developing learning outcomes - that is, descriptors of what students can be reasonably expected to know or be able to do by the end of each element of the programme of study.

But "student-centred learning" is a term bandied about in universities to mean all kinds of things: I have encountered uses of the term to mean the exact opposite of this kind of approach.

I was recently told of a dean who wanted to reduce teaching costs and thought that moving towards more student-centred learning would achieve this.

He believed that if students were doing more work on their own, less face-to-face teaching would be needed, meaning academics would have more time to spend on research.

This perverse interpretation of the term fails to take account of the extensive preparation and advanced planning that needs to go into the development of good learning resources to support successful independent study.

As university teachers focus increasingly on coaching approaches and supporting student engagement, the amount of time staff spend working with students doesn't necessarily have to increase but it needs to change in nature and scope.

Student-centred learning for me implies increasing the amount of formative feedback, giving greater choice of topics for study, blending live and virtual approaches, increasing student-tutor and student-to-student communication and greater clarity on all sides about goals and outcomes.

- Sally Brown is provost and director of assessment, learning and teaching at Leeds Metropolitan University.

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