“Student-centeredness” is a word whose weight is much greater than its clarity. It carries very high value for signalling one’s dedication to teaching without saying almost anything about how one teaches. It is a high-value token in the currency of a country no one can name.
As such, it invites co-opting. Any teacher can describe his or her style as “student-centered” and reap the benefits using that word by appearing serious and dedicated, while simply describing the way he or she has always taught and would teach even if they had never heard that word. This seemingly selfish guiding of the definition of the word doesn’t have to be conscious; the term is defined flexibly enough that any teacher could hear it and think, “That’s what I do! I had no idea I was so forward-thinking”. As long as there is at least one student in the room (or the CMS), almost any teaching style could feasibly be called “student-centered”.
It shares that imbalance between rhetorical power and precise definition with “fake news”. Some people define “fake news” as news that reports objective lies, others as news that frames stories in ways that guide the audience toward an ideological objective, others as news that works against what they see as American interests. Depending on one’s definitions of the words “fake” and “news” (also “American interests”), any of these are plausible interpretations of the two of them put together.
Putting aside the flagrant attempt to tie this idea to today’s news, I have attempted to categorize four interpretations of “student-centeredness” that I’ve seen in my first month as an adjunct ESL instructor at a community college as well as in my career in Japan.
(Incidentally, ESL teachers are especially equipped to see through the top-shelf word choice of “adjunct” as opposed to “part-time” when referring to inessential staff: “adjunct” in grammar refers to a word or phrase after a verb that is not part of its argument structure, like “on the table” in “put the bowl down on the table”. I.e., it is a part that is usually expendable.)
Some instructors are very dedicated to giving the students what they want. In my classes, my students want me to pick the chapters from our reading textbook (the book itself being a concession in my mind) and read through them line by line, explaining the content in detail. I tell them every new unit that I’m not going to do that, but many instructors are happy to, and if asked would probably justify it with reference to “student-centeredness” in that they are giving the students what they very clearly ask for.
If you read this blog on and off, or just if you got your MA within the last 20 years, you’ll know that I don’t think that this serves the students’ real interests. It does, however, give the students the dignity of choosing their own way of studying and treats them as rational actors whose wishes and educational cultural norms need to be respected. That sounds student-centered to me.
On the other hand, some teachers show their respect for students by assuming that they have the resourcefulness and dedication to work through difficulties on their own. This often takes the form of the teacher enjoining the students to work hard and never give up, often in the place of offering the kind of explanation or class work that would obviate the need to work quite so much. Like the above definition of “student-centeredness”, it strives to treat the students as independent rational actors. Unlike the above, it places the burden of improvement much more on the student’s rather than the teacher’s contributions than in “traditional” education in most countries, and is likely to result in wildly different contributions from each student than passive reception of information. In that sense respects their independence as well.
I call this “outsourced student-centeredness” simply because it makes learning the student’s responsibility rather than the teacher’s. If that implies that the teacher is shirking his/her duties, I believe teachers who teach this way would say that giving students a sense of responsibility is their biggest duty of all.
Anecdotally, there is a strain of teaching traditional arts in Japan that places all of the onus for improvement on the student, while the teacher is mostly there to provide proof that success is possible, as well as discipline and structure. This fine article by Neil Cowie explains how this affects some language teachers’ class styles as well. It is conspicuously absent for the most part from the language classroom, for better or worse.
I once put the topic of student-centered teaching forward to a JHS English teacher who was coming to me for conversation classes. She described her classes as student-centered in that she always did her best to help her students succeed and stuck around to answer questions or just be there for them after class. From what I understand, this view of student-centeredness as doing everything to help students to succeed in a system with preset rules and goals, as well as helping them with life in general, is widely held in Japan. The view that language education should be highly personalized at the level of content was not.
This is a feasible motivating strategy as well; students (and their parents) greatly appreciate a teacher whose goals are aligned with their own and who they feel will help them contribute to an ongoing life project. In Japan, the goals (university) and means (attentive and diligent study) implied by this project are shared by almost all of the stateholders and gatekeepers in mainstream education, and teachers are expected to be selfless in their dedication to helping students succeed. Students see teachers’ dedication and reciprocate. At least, that is the ideal.
For many teachers this dedication extends to helping them cope with the strenuous demands that the testing regime places on them by being a confidant or playing counselor. These are still, after all, mostly scared teenagers. The teacher that I talked to saw friendly rapport before and after lessons as part and parcel of a humane, student-centered education in the context of a high-pressure academic environment.
If you pay attention to trends in education, this one will be familiar to you. The theory goes: attention is the currency of the classroom, and nothing elicits attention like talking about yourself. Talking about your peers is a close second, and talking about the teacher a distant third. Nobody cares about the made-up characters in a textbook. Student-centeredness to teachers under 35 or so (or who got their certificates/degrees later in life, like me) re-orders content so that abstract principles and mass-produced materials go from near synonymity with course goals to hindrances or signs that your course outline isn’t sufficiently modern.
I assume most of you already agree with changing content and class style to give students more chances to co-construct knowledge (I normally balk at using words like that, but here they honestly seem like the best description of what I want to say). I will just say though that none of that is obvious to teachers who only encounter these terms in passing and tries to find a home for them in the ELT world as he/she understands it. As with fake news and its ability to describe almost any news the speaker wishes to paint as bad, the phrase “student-centered” can be applied to things already within any teacher’s repertoire.