For romantic progressives, it is heretical to suggest that schools need more teacher-centered classrooms. Judging by the number of school districts that identify themselves as student-centered in their mission statements, this philosophical approach has become dominant across North America. Even though the idea of student-centered classrooms may be seductive, that there are a number of very good reasons to believe that this type of learning is misguided.
Imagine observing a Grade 11 chemistry classroom with twenty-five students. It is the first day of school and the teacher walks into the room. Out of the twenty-six people in the room, who would you expect to have the best understanding of chemistry? If you said the teacher, welcome to the world of common sense. Obviously, the chemistry teacher, who has taken university courses in chemistry, has knowledge and understanding that the majority of students, if not all of them, currently lack. That’s why the children in school are called students while the teachers are paid for their knowledge and their ability to transmit that knowledge to the students.
In the case of the high school chemistry class, should the teacher be teacher-centered or student-centered? The simple answer is both. It is pedagogically responsible for teachers to attend to the students’ understanding, interests, and backgrounds, and then on the basis of their preparation and training, knowledge and experience, to teach them what the students need to know. But, since the teacher understands chemistry at a much higher level than the students, would we not expect the teacher to be in control and set the agenda for the course? In order for worthwhile learning to take place, teachers need to spend considerable time deciding how to present certain concepts, ideas, and calculations to the students and showing them how to solve chemistry problems.
Obviously, effective teachers use a variety of strategies and techniques to help students learn a subject; some of them will be teacher-centered and some will be student-centered. We think that parents would be concerned if high school chemistry teachers only used student-centered strategies and allowed the students to decide their own learning goals and construct their own understandings of chemistry. Some students could set their goal to learn as much chemistry as possible while others could set their goal to learn as little as possible. Is this choice sensible? Certainly not, and no self-respecting and competent teacher would allow it.
Essentially, this reasoning applies to every subject at every grade level. Most parents expect that teachers have a better understanding of the subject matter than students, and that they have the skills and ability to teach the students. If so, why should students, parents, and taxpayers, tolerate having the students determine the learning goals? Teachers are granted authority, and they are paid, because they have the knowledge and skills to teach the students. If teachers are not better versed in the subject than their students, and if they cannot promote greater understanding of the subject matter, then they should not be given authority in classrooms and they should not be paid as teachers.
How does teaching and learning take place outside public schools? Can you imagine a driver education academy that called itself student-centered and reduced the responsibilities of instructors to facilitators? What would parents think about a driving instructor saying, “I can’t really teach you to drive; you must learn by yourself.” Or worse, “you tell me how you want to drive, we will try it out, and then I’ll help you drive that way.”
In such an academy, the instructors could avoid being “experts.” Instead, they would be fellow students who were also learning how to drive. Most people probably recognize the absurdity of allowing student drivers to set their own goals and decide on their own methods of learning to drive. There are already too many traffic accidents without the foolishness of student-centered driving schools.
Obviously, we think that public school teachers are not mere learning facilitators or coaches. In our minds, teachers have the responsibility to ensure that students learn the essentials of reading, writing, poetry, art, music, and all the other subjects that make them educated citizens who will participate effectively in a democratic society. This principle is true for teachers in Grade 3 classrooms as well as for teachers in Grade 12 classrooms.
An unhealthy fixation with student-centered education leads to the conclusion that specialized advanced knowledge and training for teachers is unnecessary because teachers are learning alongside their students anyway. Contrary to this romantic view, we argue that teachers must use their specialized education, skills, and the understanding they have of their students to actually teach them and direct their learning in productive ways.
Excerpted from What’s Wrong with Our Schools: and How We Can Fix Them by Michael Zwaagstra, Rodney Clifton, and John Long. Zwaagstra and Clifton are research fellows with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and are, respectively, a high school social studies teacher and a University of Manitoba education professor.