Sunday, April 24, 2011

Subject-Based Learning

I don't believe in "student-centered learning." Eduardo, a commentor at OwlSparks, agrees and, more importantly, has a far better alternative:

As opposed to student-center, I believe that a subject-center approach tends to be more effective. This is when teacher & student collaborate to improve each others expertise. It focuses on what needs to be learned, it recognizes that both have something to add (because both do), it's flexible, nurtures problems solving skills, cooperation, communication, curiosity & awareness, etc.

If you are learning something, it is the subject that is important, not the teacher, and not the student. That may seem odd to say, unless you understand what "student-centered learning" really is, which is adjusting what you are teaching to what the student considers relevant, rather than helping the student understand that the topic is relevant. Student-centered learning caters to the ignorance and prejudices of the student rather than expanding their horizons; it directs education to the narrow foci of the students rather than to giving them a larger, more complex world from which to choose. It has come about because it is easier to adjust to the student than to try to get the student to understand the relevance of the subject. At the college level, it caters to those students who are there not because they love to learn, but because they want a certificate.

If I understand Eduardo's meaning of the subject-centered approach, the focus becomes on learning about the subject and its full usefulness (vs. the narrow usefulness of student-centered learning). Learning occurs in the interplay between the student and the teacher. It is Socratic in the best sense of the term. It also requires the students to investigate the subject outside of the confines of the classroom and the textbook, in order to bring something to contribute. Naturally, the relationship among teacher, student, and subject is that the teacher knows far, far more than the students (or else the teacher wouldn't be the teacher, nor the student the student -- a seemingly obvious statement that seems lost on far too many people). We cannot forget this. The teacher is there because the teacher knows things, and the student is there because the student is ignorant relative to the teacher. The teacher is there to help facilitate learning, and to correct errors. If the student is treated like some delicate flower that cannot bear the least little criticism, the students will never be corrected, and will continue on in life in error. Without correction, there is no education.

The teacher, though, should be open to learning as well. The important thing is learning the truth, not in avoiding correction. Teachers can be wrong about facts as well, and should be open to correction, in service of the truth. Ego has no place in education, from either side of the desk. As suggested above, though, it is important not to take this too far.

While I think having students present information to their fellow students is an important part of their education, since those who teach learn the subject better, one must again not take things too far. If the student(s) making the presentation present false information, it is important that the teacher correct the students then and there, to prevent false information from spreading. This is particularly vital since it has been demonstrated that people deeply believe whatever they are told for the first time, often in spite of the evidence. Errors have a long life, and it is unethical to allow error to persist or be presented as fact without correction.
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