Student-Centered Classrooms: An Excuse to Not Teach

A “student-centered” class is dubious and has resulted in unintended consequences

There is a debate in education between those who advocate for a “student-centered” classroom and those who see this approach as mere marketing, a phrase that distracts from the simplicity and effectiveness of direct instruction.  A student-centered classroom implies that the teacher is not in the front of the room “lecturing” (a dirty word) but facilitating the students in their learning, which is self-directed, independent, and empowering. 

But in a sense, there isn’t really a debate at all.  There is instead merely a distinct minority of educators and writers who are informed enough to know that the prevailing dogma around a “student-centered” class is dubious and has resulted in unintended consequences in terms of actual student learning.   

While an interesting debate, in real classrooms, there is a more relevant dichotomy than student-centered teaching versus direct instruction. The dichotomy is really between teaching and not teaching. 

Many who purport to embrace student-centered methods and generally hold progressive views in education do not really accomplish what could be characterized as “student-centered” teaching.  Instead, they have checked themselves out of the learning process in a way that even progressive education theorists would find concerning. 

What is most concerning is the lack of teacher voice in the classroom.  This is to use “voice” in its most literal sense–the teacher is not speaking!  Besides directing students to their work and maybe explaining the assignment briefly, there is not much else in terms of interaction.  The assignment itself is likely computer-based, group work, or “self-directed.” Students will work on a Powerpoint, for example, in Google Classroom or fiddle about on some other edu-app.  The teacher will get around to grading it eventually.  But it is never quite “attacked” in something that looks like actual learning in the classroom.  Instead, the classroom atmosphere is subdued; the students are under control, but neither the teacher nor the students are doing anything that could be observed as education in progress. 

It could be that the mandates of progressive education are so impractical that teachers are left adrift trying to implement something nebulous and hard to define. A teacher with less lofty ideas will find instruction more straightforward. 

For example, in reading Shakespeare with a class, a teacher could opt for whole-class reading and assign characters to students to read out loud.  The teacher could help students to pronounce the words of Early Modern English, paraphrase on the spot to help students to understand the plot of Macbeth, and assign other clear, concrete tasks.  A student-centered, ideologically compliant teacher, on the other hand, would have students read in groups; Without any intellectual leadership, they would stumble through a text well above their heads.  

In another scenario, students are not even reading the same book.  They’re reading whatever book suits their fancy.  In this case, the teacher has even less to say, because he or she is probably not even familiar with the students’ books — as likely to be anime as real literature.  

Some teachers lack the confidence, ability, or desire to have a vigorous back and forth with students, to ask questions and then more questions, to cold call, to interrogate students’ beliefs (to the extent that they have developed beliefs).  Perhaps such teachers are hesitant to be the leader in the classroom. Cold-calling students would be rude.  Who are we to question our students when we have already ceded our authority?

One suspects that modern teachers, particularly in the humanities, are less clear on what they’re supposed to be checking for in terms of student understanding.  In the field of English, if a teacher wants a student to understand how to use a comma, it is easy to see who understands the concept.  But if the goal is to make students empowered self-advocates, one doesn’t quite know where to begin.  If the teacher were to say a student is wrong, then he has just contradicted his stated goal of empowering students.  And so no one is wrong and no one is right and, incidentally, no one has learned anything.   

Anyway, 21st-century skills are not defined in terms of objective, correct answers.  Instead, it’s about collaboration and cooperation.  The only time the teacher might consider stepping in then is if our students aren’t playing nicely with each other or if they have committed some other sin of intolerance.  Ironically, this incessant need to agree and collaborate is what brought us to this juncture in which the most outlandish philosophies of education are unquestioned by its credulous practitioners.

Teachers have lost their sense of mission. The only instinct that is left is that of conformity; the urge to conform to a bizarre and unworkable teaching philosophy has left teachers inert, uninspiring, and rudderless.  

Michael Machera
Michael Machera is a writer and teacher living in Dallas, TX.  He blogs at 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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