Jerome G. Delaney
At first blush, the above title may evoke a reader reaction to
the effect that such a question is so basic to what education is all about
that it hardly deserves a second thought. Hold that thought for a moment.
We as educators would like to think that all schools are and should be
learner-centered, but upon further reflection we may come to realize that
schools do have some distance to go before they become truly learner-centered.
This article will examine the theory and practice of the "learner-centered
school" and hopefully shed some light on a movement that appears to be
gaining considerable momentum in the current thrust to restructure and
According to Schrenko (1994), the concept of the learner-centered
school is not new. She further explains that:
...in John Dewey's Democracy and Education (1916), a lab school is described as a plan for education with no discrete grades and much emphasis on "co-operative social organization". The Dewey lab school focused on the students' needs rather than on covering a well-defined scope and sequence of curriculum. Much of Dewey's philosophy is evident in the learner-centered classroom. Students become a part of the learning team, empowered to make choices and to move at their own pace. This learner-centered type of education prevailed throughout the early schools, until the onset of the industrial revolution changed America's vision of education (p. viii).
This model was indeed useful at the time. Today, however, most of the dull, routine, assembly-line work previously delegated to factory workers is now performed by computers and robots. Today's students must be able to think, make decisions, transfer knowledge, acquire new skills, and work together in teams (Schrenko, 1994).
For the past two decades the American educational system (which heavily influences our educational system in Canada) has been undergoing educational reform and restructuring. The so-called "second wave" of reform presently underway has seen a call for "second-order" (Fullan, 1991) or systemic change. Fullan suggests that this second-order change consists of "changes that affect the culture and structure of schools, restructuring roles and reorganising responsibilities, including those of students and parents" (p. 29).
By the 1990s, the call for this "second-order" or systemic change led people to question the basic principles and practices of the traditional "factory" model of education (Schrenko, 1994). There now seemed to be a renewed interest in the learner-centered concept but, according to Alexander and Murphy (1993), it was not until the American Psychological Association (APA) produced a concise, research-based summary of the basic principles of learner-centered schooling that a concise framework for defining the nature of the learner-centered school emerged.
In 1990, the APA appointed a special Presidential Task Force on
Psychology in Education whose task was twofold: (1) to determine
ways in which the psychological knowledge base related to learning, motivation,
and individual differences could contribute directly to improvements in
the quality of student achievement and (2) to provide guidance for the
design of educational systems that would best support individual student
learning and achievement (McCombs & Whisler, 1997). "Taken as
a whole [these principles] provide an integrated perspective on factors
influencing learning for all learners. Together, they are intended
to be understood as an organised knowledge base that supports a learner-centered
model (McCombs & Whisler, 1997, p. 3)."
The following is a list of those principles as developed by the
APA (cited in McCombs & Whisler, 1997, p. 5-6):
Metacognitive and Cognitive Factors
When one examines the learner-centered principles, it is clear that the concept suggests more than that. The principles apply to all of us, cradle to grave, from students in the classroom to teachers, administrators, parents, and others influenced by the process of schooling. Other people equate learner-centered with the affective side of education quality interpersonal relationships, climates of caring, and focus on fostering students' competence and sense of well-being. Again, we think that's only part of the picture. When one looks across the domains covered in the principles the metacognitive and cognitive, affective, personal and social, developmental, and other individual differences factors it is clear that there is an emphasis on both the learner and learning. The central understanding that emerges from an integrated and holistic look at the principles, however, is that for educational systems to serve the needs of every learner, it is essential that every instructional decision focus on the individual learner with an understanding of the learning process (p. 9).
The perspective that couples a focus on individual learners (their heredity, experiences, perspectives, backgrounds, talents, interests, capacities, and needs) with a focus on learning (the best available knowledge about learning and how it occurs and about teaching practices that are most effective in promoting the highest levels of motivation, learning, and achievement for all learners). This dual focus then informs and drives educational decision making. The learner-centered perspective is a reflection of the twelve learner-centered psychological principles in the programs, practices, policies, and people that support learning for all (McCombs & Whisler, 1997, p. 9).
Transferring the theory of learner-centered schools into actual practice is the challenge faced by classroom teachers and educational administrators. Such transfer begins with practitioners having a clear understanding of the various underpinnings of the concept the principles that form the prerequisite foundation.
From those principles we are able, according to Schrenko (1994),
"[to] build an underlying belief system about how schools and teachers
can best stimulate learning" (p. 4). She puts forth the following
premises for our consideration:
1. All children come to school willing and able to learn.
The change requires a shifting of perspective, the adoption of a new set of assumptions about schooling. People hold beliefs and assumptions about schooling that shape their expectations and drive their judgments. These expectations often run counter to what a learner-centered school delivers; thus, harsh public judgments prevent attempts to establish alternative schooling from the start or demoralize those that have begun. Society's survival instinct seeks to maintain the status quo, supporting schools that force children into existing molds and sabotaging those that encourage individuality. Most restructuring efforts such as site-based management teams disregard the learner and learning and focus only on improving existing governance structures and organizational procedures (p. 228).
The culture of a learner-centered school is one of a learning organization (Senge, 1990); thus everyone is a learner, adults included. The active learning of the teachers in a learner-centered school is supported and honored as well. They learn to know their children; they learn in order to develop their teaching; and they learn as a result of their interaction with students. They model the inquiry process for their students and for each other In sum, all inhabitants of the school are students [learners]. Consequently, they becomes we, and everything contributes to the prevailing culture of inquiry (p. 228).
1. Unlike the "factory" model of schooling, the learner-centered school centers on thoughtful expectations and high standards. School is defined in terms of the performance desired by the local community and the results obtained by the students.
2. The learner-centered school or classroom focuses on the success of all students. In the traditional classroom, children at six years of age are expected to know and do the same things. In a learner-centered classroom, developmentally appropriate activities are designed to help students use the thinking and learning strategies they will need to succeed both in school and in life. In a learner-centered system, standards are established, and each child is expected to achieve those standards. The time required to master skills may vary, but the standards do not.
3. Learner-centered classrooms focus on meaningful experiences. earner-centered teachers know that a "being there" experience is the best type of teaching so they provide as many real life experiences as possible.
1. choose their own projects;
1. utilizing time in variable and flexible ways to match student needs;
Assessment and evaluation are topics that cause contentious debate
among teachers and administrators. How should students be graded?
What criteria should be used in grading? Does one reward knowledge,
effort, good behavior, or some combination thereof? These are but
a few of the multitude of questions educators are continually asking themselves.
Levin and Young (1998) summarize some of the inherent difficulties in evaluating
School grades have important consequences for a student's future. They may determine whether a student enters an enrichment program or qualifies for a particular university or college program. Yet grades in school are not particularly predictive of success in adult life. [Research done by Walberg, 1987 suggests that] grades in university programs, for example, correlate very poorly with measures of adult and occupational success. The problems with grades have been recognized for many years. In principle it ought to be possible to provide a thoughtful and thorough analysis of students' skills and weaknesses without using any comparative measure, whether it be letters or numbers. And [according to Maeroff, 1991] important changes have been made, particularly in elementary schools, in terms of assessing students' progress using other forms of evaluation (p. 269).
These concerns are also related to the increasing demands for a kind of education that encourages students to do more than memorize information and use algorithms to solve tidy problems an education that prepares students to frame problems, find information, evaluate alternatives, create ideas and products, and invent new answers to messy dilemmas (p. 5).
According to Darling-Hammond et al., (1995), "a major goal of authentic assessment is to help students develop the capacity to evaluate their own work against public standards, to revise, modify, and redirect their energies, taking initiative to assess their own progress" (p. 12). The real world of work requires individuals to continually evaluate their performances on the job and authentic assessment provides students with the opportunities to develop those self-assessment skills.
Lambert and McCombs (1998) suggest that learner-centered assessments
should have 3 characteristics:
1. They should begin with a commitment to helping the learner function successfully in society by representing the content, skills, and dispositions that society values and is likely to value over the coming decade. For example, they might include the ability to solve loosely structured problems, work together in groups, and present information orally.
Varying degrees of "learner-centeredness" exist in schools today. To suggest that our schools are totally lacking in "learner-centeredness" would be inaccurate and irresponsible; there are teachers and administrators, who, on a daily basis, make valiant efforts to teach from a learner-centered perspective. The message one would like to leave with the reader is that the concept warrants further investigation and study by classroom teachers, building and district administrators.
This article has given an overview of what learner-centered schools are all about how they are defined, their underlying principles and premises, as well as various other elements of the concept. It is neither the "silver bullet" nor the panacea for the shortcomings and deficiencies in education today. Although it would be naïve and unrealistic to advocate a dramatic and wholesale change from the "factory" model of schooling to learner-centered schools, the concept and its potential to impact on the school reform movement in a positive manner merits further examination. Education in North America and indeed worldwide is at present attempting to respond to a public call for reform; learner-centered schools appear to represent one viable alternative worthy of consideration.
Alexander, P.A., & Murphy, P.K. (1993). The research base for APA's learner-centered psychological principals. In B.L. McCombs (Chair), Taking Research on Learning Seriously: Implications for Teacher Education. Invited symposium at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, New Orleans, April 1994.
Darling-Hammond, L. (1997). The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools That Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., & Falk, B. (1995). Authentic Assessment in Action: Studies of Schools and Students at Work. New York: Teachers College.
Fullan, M.G. (1991). The New Meaning of Educational Change. New York: Teachers College.
Lambert, N.M., & McCombs, B.L. (Eds.) (1998). How Students Learn: Reforming Schools through Learner-Centered Instruction. Washington: American Psychological Association.
Maeroff, G. (1991). Assessing alternative assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 71(4), 273-181.
McCombs, B.L. & Whisler, J.S. (1997). The Learner-Centered Classroom and School. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Rallis, S. (1995). Creating learner-centered schools: Dreams and practices. Theory into Practice, 34(4), 224-229.
Schrenko, L. (1994). Structuring a Learner-Centered School. Arlington Heights, Ill: IRI Skylight.
Senge, P.M. (1990). The Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.
Walberg, H. (1987). Learning and life-course accomplishments. In C. Schooler & K.W. Schaie (Eds.), Cognitive Functioning and Social Structure over the Life Course. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. 203-229.
Wiggins, G. (1989). Teaching to the (authentic) test.
Leadership, 46(7), 141-147.
Jerome G. Delaney, currently an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland, is on leave from the principalship of St. Michael's High School, Bell Island. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org