Student Centeredness

I writing this to kill two birds with one stone (Germans hit two flies with one swat—zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen. This sounds a little less brutal to me. 😉 ). The result should be my first substantial blog entry, and I am preparing for a seminar on this topic at the Language Acquisition Resource Center (LARC) tomorrow.

Let’s start off with the word itself—as I often like to do. Student centeredness. A compound noun with two constituents that are both nouns. We will talk about student some other time and just accept any prior, also pre-theoretical notion of what a student is. Centeredness is, of course, derived from the past participle centered. Past participles in English are used to form the perfect tenses: past perfect (I had centered sthg. yesterday), perfect (I have centered sthg.), and future perfect (I will have centered sthg. by tomorrow). These verb forms all denote an action was (past perfect), is (perfect), or will be (future perfect) complete with a result relevant to the speaker/writer. The past participle is also used to form the passive voice (Sthg. is/was/has been/had been/will be centered). Why is it important to consider all these verb forms? Because—as all past participles—centered retains some important meaning facets from these forms, even if it is used like an adjective as in the construction student-centered. Thus, centered  denotes a process of centering that has been completed in the past and the result is part of the speaker’s/writer’s reality now. In other words, whatever has been centered was not in the center before and is in the center now. Centered also retains its passiveness. So, in student-centered, students are not the actors or carriers of the verb event (the grammatical subject), they are the (passive) direct objects; they suffer the event the verb describes.

The metaphor of student centeredness thus conjures up images of a process of her/him being moved by somebody else from somewhere that is not the center. They then arrive at the center and stay there while never actively participating in the process of moving. So does the student-centered approach in language teaching suggest that teachers should move students around like pawns on a chess board? Probably not; but the problem is the metaphor does suggest that. This, I believe, has led to some misunderstandings in classroom practice. Also, nobody would want to suggest, I hope, a student-centered approach consists of or can be achieved with a single move and the student is in the center for all time.  And there is another – linguistic – problem.

Center—now the noun, not the verb—is always the center of something. Yes, the student has ended up in the center, but in the center of what? The center of the classroom? The center of the universe? The center of attention? The center of a circle? The center of gravity? Okay, I am being facetious: it is neither the universe nor the circle nor gravity. Time to leave the realm of linguistics and move into didactics, the theory of teaching.

Does the student-centered approach to language teaching imply that the student should be—metaphorically speaking—in the center of the classroom? Yes, it does. As many have suggested, students should be given the most possible time to speak, to do, to practise, to act, to apply, … They need to have frequent opportunities to come to the front of the class to present, lead an activity with their fellow students, to perform, for example, a role play, … So, students being at the center of the classroom is necessary to achieve a student-centered approach, but it is most certainly not sufficient. To put it bluntly, a teacher asking students frequently to give a presentation in front of the class or even to lead a learning activity, does not make for student-centered teaching (alone).

Students also need to be at the center of attention of the teacher. When designing the curriculum, a unit, or a lesson, not the topics the teacher likes, the linguistic constructions the teacher believes to be interesting, and the facets of the language community’s culture the teacher has experienced or finds fascinating should be included, the topics, constructions, and cultural facets that the students need to grow in their development of language proficiency and cultural awareness at this stage in their learning and with their learning goals and objectives need to be included. Not the methods of instruction the teacher finds convenient and the activities they enjoy or are comfortable with should be introduced, the teaching methods that are proven to be most conducive to the students’ learning and the activities they most fruitfully engage in need to be used in the daily teaching.

Student-centered teaching is a repeated attempt grounded in reflective practice. Teachers constantly learn about the changing needs of their students, the instructional methods through which their students learn best, and the activities through which they engage best with the language and culture. To put it more holistically, everything in the process of teaching and learning (what Russians like Vygotsky call обучение and German teachers call Unterricht—the unity of teaching and learning) is appropriated, designed, or employed such that the students make optimal progress in their development of the second language and culture.

So it is both—surface and essence. With a student-centered approach, language teachers constantly strive to give center stage and prime time to students speaking, activity, practice, and performance; and more importantly, the students’ needs, their goals, and optimal achievements are first and foremost on the mind of the teacher in everything they do when learning and preparing for class, working in class, and reflecting on learning processes after class. And with this approach, students are never passive pawns and teachers can never rely solely on what they did in the past; the center and focus of all learning processes is a teacher-led collaboration with active students that never stops …