Once More, With Feeling: “Student-Centered” Doesn’t Mean Anything

Détail de "Blah, blah, blah" du studio Louise Campbell (Maison dOne of my favorite things I’ve ever written was my post at the end of 2012 about “meaningless education phrases”. A strong contender for the top spot on that list was “student-centered”, and this video captures the reasons perfectly:

Ostensibly, the point of the video is to answer the question “What is student-centered learning?”, but the definition seems to include almost anything.  Here’s a transcript of the relevant portions:

We think that student-centered approaches to learning that are more tailored, more customized, more real-world, more authentic, we’re engaging technology well, where students are moving at their own pace, we’re really focused on whether they achieve skills and knowledge and then we move them on to the next experience. These complicated projects where students are working together on really learning and applying their knowledge in complex important ways…

If we had an education system that was aligned with what we know about how people learn, what we know about how youth develop, what we know about how to remediate and accelerate learning for learners who are too far behind, those are student-centered approaches, and we want to maximize them more. More direct, focused attention when it’s needed. More independent learning when it’s viable. Small group learning focused on shared needs. But not large-group instruction that involves a wide range of learners, none of whom are going to benefit. So we just need to move off of batch processing to more customized approaches, and we think that’s a way to address the gaps…Differentiated educational opportunities to meet differentiated need.

Forget which of these suggestions you find agreeable and ask yourself: according to this description, what exactly is “student-centered learning”? Is it differentiated? Mastery-based? Project-based? High tech? Students are “moving at their own pace”, but we’re also tracking them and providing them with remediation when they’re going too slowly (i.e., “when it’s needed”)?

Fortunately, the speaker eventually decides that rather than list all the practices that are student-centered, it’ll be easier to just list the things that aren’t: “large-group instruction” and “batch processing”.

So once more, with feeling:  almost all educational practices are student-centered because almost all educational practices are intended to help students learn something.

This means that trying to distinguish educational practices based on their “student-centeredness” will only confuse us as we discover that almost all of them can be described that way.  And in the confusion we will likely lose sight of what really matters: effectiveness.

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  1. Posted September 12, 2013 at 12:46 AM | Permalink

    Seems a funny thing for a teacher to be saying. As a teacher, presumably you know that reinforcement of knowledge is important. I completely agree that “student-centred” learning doesn’t have a lot of meaning that is different to what good teachers do anyway. But that doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. It can function as a reminder that as a teacher you have to be constantly engaged with your students, despite all the other stuff you’re dealing with (testing, curriculum requirements, your own performance, etc.)

    Teachers need constant education and reinforcement, too. This just happens to be the language used for reinforcement at the moment.

    • Posted September 12, 2013 at 5:52 AM | Permalink

      I certainly agree that reinforcing knowledge is important. This particular phrase – “student-centered” – however, doesn’t really reinforce anybody’s knowledge because it means whatever people want it to mean at the moment.

      As a teacher, I’d like for teachers to move away from platitudes like “student-centered” to talk more concretely about the work that we do.

  2. bt0558
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 7:19 AM | Permalink

    I like to regurgitate Dunkin and Biddle’s learning transaction in these situations. I have seen too many lessons that were either teacher centred or content centred to dismiss student centredness out of hand.

    Interpreting the term student centred in a way that doesn’t represent the notion does not in my view detract from the value of the concept. The design and delivery of teaching around the learner and their needs seems to me to be simple and essential. I do it every day that I teach

  3. EB
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 8:11 AM | Permalink

    My college Renaissance History professor would never have been considered “student-centered” by the standards of current K-12 education. He lectured for 40 minutes, then accepted questions for 10 minutes. But at the level of whether students were engaged or not, he was a rock star. This was not because he tried for interaction, or was always trying to connect his content to modern current events, or had any idea of what students wanted/responded to as individuals. He did none of that. But he knew how to recount the unfolding of ideas and events in those centuries in an engaging way, and to pose interesting questions that had not yet been answered. He had a good sense of what students could have been expected to know already from their HS world history classes. And he treated every question with respect.

    • Posted September 13, 2013 at 4:36 PM | Permalink

      Right. Unfortunately, people talking about “student-centeredness” are almost invariably focusing on superficial aspects of instruction – e.g., who is talking rather than cognitive processes or learning outcomes – or making dubious assumptions about the psychology of learning – e.g., that a student who is listening to someone learn can’t also be “actively constructing knowledge”.

      • bt0558
        Posted September 14, 2013 at 3:00 AM | Permalink


        I think it is a big mistake to confuse student centred teaching with the poor excuses many people make for student centred teaching. What you describe as not meaning anything I see as an issue of vagueness of terms.

        Just because people abuse the term, does not in my view mean that the concept should be thrown away and both baby and bathwater lost.

        “Unfortunately, people talking about “student-centeredness” are almost invariably focusing on superficial aspects of instruction”

        This is a sweeping generalisation for which there appears to be little evidence in my experience. However I believe you teach in the United States and having recently taught in a school teaching a US K-12 curriculum I can see why you might make such a generalisation.

        I believe “student centredness” is a is key to effective teaching but I sometimes despair at the way that the term is abused (esecilally it seems in the US).

      • bt0558
        Posted September 14, 2013 at 3:11 AM | Permalink


        “Is it differentiated? Mastery-based? Project-based?”

        These seem to me to be approaches to teaching rather than learning.

        “almost all educational practices are student-centered because almost all educational practices are intended to help students learn something.”

        As you seem to define student centredness this way it is clear why you have the opinion you do about the term. Unfortunately not all processes intended to help students learn are student centred.

        • Posted September 14, 2013 at 7:37 AM | Permalink

          “Unfortunately not all processes intended to help students learn are student centred.”

          But, of course, everybody *thinks* their process is student-centered. If what you mean is that student-centered practices are more effective, and that we should care about effectiveness, I agree. The label “student-centered” is just a distraction from that, however, so we should cut it out and just get to the effectiveness question more directly.

        • EB
          Posted September 15, 2013 at 6:56 AM | Permalink

          bto558, if the process does help the student learn, why would it be “unfortunate” if it doesn’t meet someone’s definition of “student-centered?”

  4. Tunya Audain
    Posted September 16, 2013 at 1:00 PM | Permalink

    Why Was The School Effectiveness Movement Hijacked?

    I agree with Paul Bruno’s bottom line in this essay — that it’s effectiveness that counts in education programs.

    Remember the great excitement when Ron Edmonds made the declarative statement in 1978 ?

    “We can whenever, and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need, in order to do this. Whether we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

    Eight cardinal principles were pronounced and a “movement” was born. http://www.parentsteachingparents.net/2013/08/effective-schools-checklist/

    The big question is why was it sabotaged? Partly, I find it was because a different crowd attached itself to the movement — the turnaround gurus and the “school improvement” people — and pulled toward improvement. Anyone in that group will tell you improvement takes up to 10 or more years, which is why these SI advocates are for it — it delays accountability and buys time and openings for them to make a living from it.

    As a parent and grandparent I closely associate with those who feel a great urgency in gaining a good education for children in their lifetime. I’ve always felt and still do that the “Effective Schools Principles” if adopted today, would start seeing a different spirit in a school tomorrow.

    And let me close with another quote, which I’ve lived with all most of my adult life. It’s from St. Augustine, over 1500 years ago:

    “Since the same medicine is not to be given to all, although to all the same love is due, so love labors hard with some people, becomes weak with others, is at pains to edify some, dreads being a cause of offense to others, stoops before some, lifts itself erect before others, is gentle to some, severe to others, an enemy to none, a mother to all.”

    Prudent parenting and proper teaching should know what personalizing calls for regarding young people.

  5. Gerry
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:15 PM | Permalink

    “almost all educational practices are student-centered because almost all educational practices are intended to help students learn something.”

    You’re correct in your admission that you don’t understand what student-centered learning means. Of course all educational practices intend to help students learn something. Beating students for not memorizing pi to 15 digits would be intended to help students learn something. The questions are, who chooses what that something is, and who chooses how they will learn it? If it’s you, then instruction is teacher-centered.

    I suppose you have issues with Wikipedia, too, but here are some things they say about it.

    “In a student-centred classroom, students choose what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will assess their own learning. Teacher-centred learning has the teacher at its centre in an active role and students in a passive, receptive role. In a teacher-centred classroom, teachers choose what the students will learn, how the students will learn, and how the students will be assessed on their learning. Student-centred learning requires students to be active, responsible participants in their own learning.”

    • Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:19 PM | Permalink

      My point is 1) that people use “student-centered” to mean all kinds of things because what counts as, say, “passive” is evaluated mostly on the basis of superficial features of the learning environment 2) calling something “student-centered” is mostly just a way of begging the question about whether something is effective.

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