“Student-Centered” Teaching Often Isn’t

Achievement Gaps between High and Low Frequent Use of LSP (listen to teacher lecture).

Achievement Gaps between High and Low Frequent Use of LSP (listen to teacher lecture).

I don’t like the phrase “student-centered” and I often prefer instructional approaches that could be described as “teacher-centered”, so this interests me on two levels:

In both [math and science], traditional modes of instruction (teacher-centered) were found to be positively and significantly associated with achievement in all countries, while more constructive modes of instruction (student-centered) showed a differential effect. The frequent implementation of more student-centered modes was found to be positively associated with learning outcomes in high- and medium-achieving countries, but negatively associated in low-achieving countries.

The findings confirm conclusions in other studies that replacing teacher-centered traditional practices with more student-centered practices will not necessarily result in more learning for all students. Constructivist practices will be more beneficial for students only in high-achieving countries.

That’s from the abstract of a new article by Ruth Zuzovsky in Large-Scale Assessments in Education. (A pdf is here.)

First, a meta-linguistic point: if a teaching practice doesn’t result in superior learning, we shouldn’t call it “student-centered”. Unfortunately, practices tend to be labeled as student- or teacher-centered on the basis of their surface features – e.g., Where are students sitting? Who are they talking to? – rather than on the basis of cognitive activities or learning outcomes. This means that in practice whoever is first to deploy the phrase “student-centered” gets a leg up in the argument by begging the question about whether what they’re advocating is actually better for kids.1

As for the study itself, it’s not definitive and isn’t going to settle any major debates; the author describes it as “exploratory”. It is, however, very interesting.

Achievement Gaps between High and Low Frequent Use of WSG (work in small groups).

Achievement Gaps between High and Low Frequent Use of WSG (work in small groups).

Zuzovsky first used TIMSS scores to categorize individual countries as high-, medium-, or low-achieving in math or science. She also had data from surveys administered to both teachers and students in each country indicating the frequency with which they engaged in different instructional activities. This allowed her to examine whether the apparent effectiveness of various instructional approaches varied based on overall levels of student ability in a country. (This is a reasonable question as previous research has indicated, for example, that less-proficient students benefit from more-guided instruction.)

Of course, when looking at lots of variables you have to be wary of spurious correlation, and correlation isn’t causation. That being said:

In mathematics, instruction targeted at developing computational skills (practicing four operations without calculators, memorizing formulas and procedures, and writing equations and functions) and traditional modes of instruction (listening to teacher lecturing, and requiring students to explain their answers), were found to be positively and significantly associated with mathematics achievements in all groups of countries, though with varying strength. Usually, this association is much stronger in low-achieving countries.

Some instructional activities in mathematics classes were found to be negatively and significantly associated with achievement in all groups of countries and often more so in low-achieving countries (frequent interpretation of data in tables or graphs, begin homework in class, frequent use of computers, frequent group work, and having tests or quizzes frequently);…

In science, too, certain instructional variables were found to be similarly associated with achievement in all groups of countries. As in mathematics, variables that represent traditional expository modes of teaching (listening to teacher lecturing, and memorizing facts and principles) were found to be positively and significantly associated with science achievements in all three groups of countries. Here too, some types of instruction were found to be negatively associated with achievements in all groups of countries (frequent use of computers, frequent testing, frequently beginning to do homework in class).

I don’t really think of “frequent use of computers” as a hallmark of “traditional” instruction, but her analysis of the frequent testing finding rings true to me. I feel much more compelled to give my weaker students quizzes and tests because I’m much less confident that they’ll “get” the material just on the basis of my instruction. Higher-achieving students will pick up new content more reliably, and the highest-achieving students may very well have known the material before they stepped into the classroom.

In any case, I appreciate any effort to examine what, specifically, “works” in education since so much of the discourse is grounded in little more than vague generalities, platitudes, and hand-waving.

  1. To be clear, Zuzovsky uses a better classification system, distinguishing between “traditional instruction” and “instruction inspired by constructivism”. This is both clearer and implicitly admits of the possibility that much traditional instruction is compatible with constructivist learning psychology. The problem arises when people insist on treating “traditional” and “teacher-centered” as synonymous. Arguably, classifying instructional strategies at all is a distraction. []
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