"Education is not to reform students or amuse them or to make them expert technicians. It is to unsettle their minds, widen their horizons, inflame their intellects, teach them to think straight, if possible. ....Robert M. Hutchins.

Commentary of the Day - February 4, 2012: Dear Millie, About that "Student-Centered" Thing.

[Ed. Note: Mildred Garcia, current president of California State University, Dominguez Hills, recently was appointed president at Krispy Kreme U aka Cal State Fullerton where the IP worked for 37 years before retiring.]

Dear Millie,

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend your recent talk to the Academic Senate at Cal State Fullerton, but I did watch it on YouTube®.  I was impressed with your energy and with the enthusiasm that characterized your address to the Senate.  Your address was a really refreshing change from the dreary monologues of your predecessor.  The emphasis that you placed on research, and especially the importance of involving undergraduate students in research also was refreshing.  Perhaps we can chat more about that idea in the future.  I also was extremely impressed that you actually want to hear from faculty.  Again, a really refreshing change.  So here goes.

Today what I would like to chat with you about is the reference in your talk to Cal State Fullerton being or becoming a "student-centered" campus.  "Student-centered" seems to be a favorite buzzword in the education establishment these days.  As with many other buzzwords in the education business, I was having a hard time understanding the real meaning of the term.  So, I did a little research.

At the K-12 level, for example, I found that noted education scholar Diane Ravitch defines the "learner-centered" classroom (more or less synonymous with the "child-centered" classroom) in the following way:

A class-room in which students are expected to choose their own learning goals and activities.  The approach assumes that children naturally want to learn and will learn more enthusiastically when they are working on projects of their own selection.  Their teachers, at the same time, are expected to be able to gauge and tailor activities to students' different learning styles.

This definition seems clear enough.  Though, what is not clear to me is exactly how well and how much students really learn in such an environment.  I guess the jury is still out on that one, though one might guess that students educated that way might have some serious gaps in their preparation for college-level work.

A few years before I entered the faculty early retirement program, as a favor to a colleague who was going on sabbatical I agreed to teach his "liberal studies in science" course in our liberal studies program - a major taken by many prospective elementary school teachers.  I was dismayed to find that about a third of the students in the class seemed to be unable to write complete sentences in the English language.  The notion that simple declarative sentences included subjects, verbs, and objects seemed to have escaped them completely.  Perhaps mastering grammar and composition were not among the learning goals that these particular students chose for themselves as they were coming up through the K-12 system.

While Ravitch's definition seems clear enough when applied to the K-12 realm, at the college level there seems to be less agreement as to what the notion of "student-centered" learning or a "student-centered" classroom really means.  (See, for example, the delightful colloquy about this issue in a recent "Professor Hacker" column in the The Chronicle of of Higher Education.)

I do have a bit of experience of my own to relate regarding "student-centered" learning in my own discipline (physics).  About 25 years ago a colleague of mine in the physics department became quite enamored with the then nascant philosophy of constructivism in learning.  He set about to redesign the laboratory that accompanied the second semester of our three-semester, calculus-based introductory physics course that is required of most students majoring in the physical sciences and engineering.

The second semester course in the sequence, which I frequently taught, covers the subject of electromagnetism.  It was one of my favorite classes to teach in the entire curriculum because it began to introduce students to some of the more abstract notions of classical physics.  The ideas of classical electromagnetic theory are very far from the every day experience of most students.  This is the course where students who previously had been doing well hit the wall.  The course is one abstraction after another.  Some of the ideas, such as Faraday's law of induction arose from experiment, while others were deductions from Maxwell's famous set of equations.  But, the one characteristic they all have in common is that they aren't easy to model mechanistically.  As a result, even the brightest students can have difficulty wrapping their heads around these ideas.

My colleague felt that he could help students to come to grips with these ideas by designing a series of guided-discovery exercises for the laboratory part of this course that would lead students to the same conclusions that Faraday and others had arrived at in the 19th century.

I taught the lab part of the course several times over the course of my career.  Typically in a given semester we offered several sections of the lab, and individual lab instructors had no control over the experiments and activities that were used because of the need to keep all the sections coordinated during the semester.  We all were required to use the constructivist experiments and activities designed by my colleague, who by that time had retired.  Because of time constraints, many of the experimental activities had to be carried out before the same ideas could be discussed in the lecture part of the course.  This was true for the activities related to Faraday's Law of Induction.

Of the several hundred students who passed through my lab sections, not more than one or two actually arrived at Faraday's Law when we did those experiments.  That was hardly surprising to me, since it took Faraday, probably the greatest experimental physicist of the 19th century several months to complete the experiments that led to the physical law that bears his name.  And, that work was based on more than a decade of previous work on electrical phenomena.

That experience was more than enough to convince me that there are many ideas that students are unlikely to stumble upon through their own independent efforts.  Exposure to these ideas through the efforts of an experienced instructor is needed to help the vast majority of students to begin to understand these ideas.

Unfortunately, this sort of direct instruction often is derided as being too "teacher-centered"  by the educational theorists.

Millie, I hope that exclusive reliance on the sort of "student-centered" instruction that assumes that students can discover all that they need to know just by being guided to the "right" activities is not what you had in mind when you were talking about a "student-centered" campus.

Certainly, the needs of students are important, and the university should strive to meet those needs.  Simply striving to meet the needs of students might allow us to call ourselves "student-centered."  But I think that we also need to be careful to remember that learning really requires a partnership between student and instructor.  The instructor has certain obligations and responsibilities, and the student has certain obligations and responsibilities.  Failure in the learning process can result if either party fails to meet the requisite obligations and responsibilities.  But, success is most likely to occur when both meet their obligations and responsibilities.  Perhaps "learning-centered" is a better term.

Thanks for listening Millie.  I'd like to hear what you have to say about all of this. Vamos a almorzar uno de estos días.

Irascible Professor invites your  .

© 2012 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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