From the Factory to Student-Centered Learning: A Look at Education Theory

From the Factory to Student-Centered Learning: A Look at Education Theory

A frequent criticism of public education in the United States is its supposed resemblance to a factory. A 2012 article in The Atlantic went so far as to offer ways to “break free of our 19th-century factory-model education system.” The article, written by education and innovation entrepreneur Joel Rose, explored why schools—currently and historically—are typically built around large groups of similar-aged students learning the same information and skills at the same time.

On one hand, Rose stated, this is based on ideals of democracy. He pointed to the story of early education reformer Horace Mann, who is famous for promoting universal public schools and advocating for classrooms devoid of the kind of separation he experienced in parochial schools as a child. In Mann's view, dissolving religious differences through public schools had the potential to “establish a more united and egalitarian society.”

Mann’s vision dovetailed with the emerging industrial age and its emphasis on efficiency and standardization. As the U.S. expanded and the concept of comprehensive public education took root, factory-style schools built around desks, big classrooms, and standardized material grew too. This historical perspective makes sense, of course, but is it entirely accurate? And if so, what are we to make of the emerging emphasis on “student-centered learning”?

Student-centered learning is not a new education theory. Early 20th-century researcher John Dewey is often credited with promoting progressive education perspectives that were anything but factory-like. Rather than emphasizing rote memorization or standardized instruction, Dewey thought education should be “grounded in real experience” and built around inquiry and exploration. The practical application of Dewey’s theories has waxed and waned over the years, due to political concerns, resource gaps, and ongoing debate about the purpose of education.

Today, however, the kind of student-centered learning Dewey favored is enjoying a resurgence. In a 2016 radio interview, Katrina Schwarz, editor of the education blog Mindshift, explored what student-centered learning is and why it is now gaining prominence. “Everybody is defining it in different ways,” Schwarz told interviewer Emily Richmond, but for most people, it is about emphasizing how different students learn and then tailoring instruction to fit this emphasis.

But how does it work? The nonprofit teacher-training organization Facing History and Ourselves offers a long list of classroom techniques for more student-centered, personalized learning. Some of these techniques focus on inclusive literacy-based exercises, such as the “cafe conversations” method that requires students to adopt a certain point of view and then present their perspective in a small group. The goal is to reinforce textual knowledge and expand students’ understanding of other people’s points of view.

The Facing History and Ourselves website includes other hands-on teaching ideas designed to position students at the center of their own learning. Many of these techniques will ring familiar to classroom teachers who often search for innovative ways to ensure students are learning necessary skills. “Chunking,” for example, is a way to break down complex texts into smaller pieces in order to boost student comprehension, while helping students complete “evidence logs” can be a way to build up to a research writing assignment.

One approach to student-centered learning that has gained popularity in recent years utilizes digital technology as part of a blended learning program. As reviewed by Horn and Staker (2011), blended learning combines teacher-led instruction with digital activities to offer students a personalized learning path. In blended learning, students have some degree of control over the content, pace, time, and location of their learning. Real-time data provided through digital technology supports student-centered learning by helping teachers differentiate instruction according to each student’s individual needs.

In her radio interview, Schwarz also addressed the question of whether student-centered learning can exist alongside the more conventional aspects of public education. The interviewer questioned: Hasn’t our goal always been to move as many students as possible through one grade level and on to the next? Schwarz quickly said no and made this point: “I think we are now trying to do it better … so that we’re not just passing kids through who don’t know the material.” The goal should be to produce knowledgeable and insightful students by utilizing the full array of personalized learning techniques available to teachers today.

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