What Student-Centred Learning Really Means

Paul Romani

Student-centred learning is a common term – and not just in schools either. It’s one of the mostly commonly thought of concepts for what is modern education.
However the term ‘student-centred learning’ different interpretations to different people. Wikipedia describes Student-Centred Learning as being “focused on the student’s needs, abilities, interests, and learning styles with the teacher as a facilitator of learning.” In principle it seems easy, but in reality it’s extremely challenging. In a class of 30 or more kids, this presents an exponential range of problems for the teacher. How do you cater to all of those different needs, learning styles, etc.  I’ve seen parents that struggle to cope with their own child, let alone 29 other kids. So, firstly, we should sympathise with teachers and this challenge.
Just as there are different interpretations of Student Centred Learning, there are also different solutions to how to go about implementing such a methodology. At Pear Tree Education, we try not to get too hung up on these kinds of terms, because it just results in us developing tunnel vision. Instead, we consider learning as a co-constructed process. It’s neither teacher centred nor student centred, because both students and teachers should play an active role in a classroom (both in learning and in teaching). Student-centred (being the opposite of teacher centred) implies that the teacher plays a passive role, which shouldn’t be the case. Rather, the teacher should play a different role.
A student-centred curriculum should be one that has a point. That’s the key aspect of Pear Tree’s curricula. We constantly ask ourselves, “What’s the point of learning this?”, because it forces us to put ourselves in our students’ shoes; it forces us to ask the questions that our students have. We don’t assume that because something seems cool to us that our students are going to love studying it. If we can’t answer that question, we are 99.9% likely to eliminate such content from our courses. Again, this seems such an easy thing to do, but it’s incredibly challenging to any educator. Teachers are passionate about their subject matter, so it’s almost an insult to question why the thing they love so much is worth studying! But the reason for studying something needs to be more universal. The teacher and all of the students need to have an equal passion for why they are studying something.
Asking this question also makes us think about our class content more. If we ask “What’s the point of studying trigonometry?”, it is possible to come up with some justifiable reasons. The most convincing one for me is that it is used in engineering. Engineering is one of the most sought-after careers at the moment – it’s the I.T. job of the millennium. If engineering requires trigonometry, why not study it around an engineering project? It seems the most practical and interesting way to learn this mathematical skill. And, as it is being learned in context, it is more likely to make sense, be understood, and be remembered. Furthermore, by putting such a skill into a practical situation, it automatically opens up a whole range of learning styles. Many people are against vocational training, but that seems illogical to me. The most enjoyable way of learning is learning in context, and context means real life. Work is real life. It’s naive to think otherwise.
The added benefit is that teachers don’t need to worry about learning styles so much, because by focusing on the question “What’s the point?” it forces them to make connections between education and real-life; it forces teachers to put education into a real-life context, and by doing so, it makes it necessary to incorporate different learning styles. An engineering project requires drawing, technology, research, presentation, teamwork, etc. It’s far more stimulating than doing repetitive, abstract trigonometry exercises!
Needless to say, student-centred learning is more complex than this short blog article was designed to address, but the details described here are a key part of Pear Tree’s approach to this element of education.