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Teacher-Centered vs. Student-Centered Classrooms

Over at Edutopia, Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn take a look at how technology could be the catalyst for an educational shift from our current teacher-centered structure to one that is student-centered.

The writers begin by noting the factory model that historically propelled American business also worked its way into the educational system. Beginning in the 1800s, the writers assert that education began shifting from a personalized environment, one that was prevalent in one-room schoolhouses, to one that featured standardization.

That standardization led to a uniform curricula and an emphasis on a K-12 grade structure. In addition, as Christensen and Horn note, standardization was the impetus for the teacher-centered classroom, a place where “a teacher rules the classroom roost, using a prescribed approach to teach a generic curriculum to everyone in the classroom at the same time.”

A hundred plus years later we see a call for a new classroom, one that is student-focused, yet we seldom see any concrete signs of such a classroom.

Personalized, Student-Centric Education
Using a single concrete example, the two writers explain what a student centric classroom might look like and the role technology would play in that classroom.

In a classroom of the future, students are learning Mandarin Chinese grammar. The students wear noise-canceling headphones and work with laptop computers.

One student is directing the work of a brick mason on his computer screen by having him assemble a sentence in the same way that he would construct a wall — block by block. There are stacks of blocks with words on them in the background of the screen; each is colored for its potential role in the sentence.

The student directs the mason to pick blocks out of the appropriate stacks and put them in the correct order of a Mandarin sentence. When all the required blocks have been assembled in the proper sequence, the Mandarin word replaces the English on each block, and the student joins the brick mason in reading the sentence (which is written phonetically in the Roman alphabet).

When the student doesn’t get the pronunciation right, the brick mason looks pained. The mason says the correct pronunciation, and when the student gets it right, the brick mason gives a high five. Mandarin is a tonal language, so the blocks then tilt to help the student see and feel the tones.

The description offers all the elements that have been used to describe the classroom of the future. It features a multi-sensory approach, one that allows for individualized pacing that is student controlled.

Though the view excites many educators, many more see a fundamental flaw in the approach. It is the view that unless teachers drive students to learn they will not do so. It is a belief that left to their own accord, students will simply not engage themselves.

Boing Boing

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing recently spent time looking at John Holt’s famous work, “How Children Fail.” It is there that Holt notes the common mindset of adults regarding children and learning.

So many people have said to me, “If we didn’t make children do things, they wouldn’t do anything.” Even worse, they say, “If I weren’t made to do things, I wouldn’t do anything.”

Those trained with a teacher-centric mindset cannot fathom a productive student-centered classroom and therefore naturally resist a move towards such a learning environment. More importantly, students who have given in to the teacher-centric approach will also likely struggle if not openly resist such a change as well.

The Classroom of the Future
The descriptors that Christensen and Horn use to describe a student-centric classroom are not new. But the writers insist that such a classroom is not possible given the current school structure.

The descriptors feature a new role for the teacher, a complete shift away from the “sage on the stage” role to one that features a “guide on the side” mentality. In the student centered classroom, the teacher is a coach and mentor, a support person who troubleshoots and problem solves when students need such help.

The teacher floats amidst a classroom that is entirely individualized. Not only is each student exposed to a unique curriculum, the pacing of that curriculum is also unique.

Clearly, under such a structure, the concept of grades (K-12) and subjects (math, English, etc.) give way to a classroom that more closely mirrors the generalized learning format that matched the one room schoolhouse approach of yesteryear.

While this utopic-viewpoint has already been ventured, it is here that Christensen and Horn break new ground. They are not surprised that schools have failed to incorporate breakthrough technologies despite the ability of such technology to transform the current classroom structure.

The writers note, “Schools have done what virtually every organization does when implementing an innovation. An organization’s natural instinct is to cram the innovation into its existing operating model to sustain what it already does. This is perfectly predictable, perfectly logical — and perfectly wrong.”

Introducing an Innovation Disruptively
Christensen and Horn posit it is time to think about how technology is being implemented. Most importantly, they insist that technology must not be introduced “by using it to compete against the existing paradigm and serve existing customers, but to target those who are not being served. It is those students who are not being served by today’s structure who will most benefit from the new concepts.”

And to bring forth the new structures, Christensen and Horn insist that schools must find a way “to introduce the innovation disruptively.” The writers describe disruptive innovation thus:

A disruptive innovation is not a breakthrough improvement. Instead of sustaining the leading companies’ place in the original market, it disrupts that trajectory by offering a product or service that actually is not as good as that which companies are already selling. Because it is not as good as the existing product or service, the customers in the original market cannot use it. Instead, the disruptive innovation extends its benefits to people who, for one reason or another, are unable to consume the original product — so-called nonconsumers.

But the beauty of such disruptive innovations is what happens to those practices over time:
Disruptive innovations tend to be simpler and more affordable than existing products. This feature allows them to take root in simple, undemanding applications within a new market or arena of competition. Little by little, disruptions predictably improve. At some point, disruptive innovations become good enough to handle more complicated problems — and then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

According to Christensen and Horn, to disruptively innovate, schools must find ways to focus on areas of nonconsumption. That means schools need to deploy “computer-based learning where it will be unencumbered by existing education processes.”

McGraw HillTherefore, the writers see the best applications of technology in areas such as with “advanced courses that many schools are unable to offer, in small, rural, and urban schools.” In addition, technology has great potential in offering a breadth of remedial courses for those students who cannot graduate because of course failures. And perhaps to the chagrin of homseschooling opponents, it offers great opportunities for both homeschooled students and those who simply cannot cope or keep up with a regular school schedule.

An Enormously Meaningful Revelation
Christensen and Horn are dead on: placing computers in the back of a classroom and in the hands of teachers who have been schooled in the teacher-centric classroom is not the way to drive restructuring efforts. Moreover, because the teacher-centered classroom does work for many students, in spite of the environment, the practice will continue in schools all across America.

It is only within an environment that assails the “If we didn’t make children do things, they wouldn’t do anything” philosophy that a student-centric classroom be created. Therefore, it would appear that the current group of educational nonconsumers would indeed be a great place to unleash technology as a teaching tool.


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