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What Does "Student-Centered" Learning Really Mean?

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As a society, we talk about the importance of leaders in all walks of life, but when it comes to our classrooms, many of us seem to want to empower the followers while executing the sages when the former do poorly on standardized tests.

Nowadays, a teacher or professor is not supposed to be "a sage on the stage." He or she is expected to stimulate and captivate already over-stimulated students with collaborative classroom exercises, enthralling videos, and state-of-the-art computers and Internet-ready "SMART" boards (much more expensive than chalk- or white-boards, and requiring expensive maintenance and periodic software and hardware updates). A busy and stimulated student is a learning student and a happy customer to boot, and so are his or her parents, who can marvel at all the computer screens and interactive chattering (both of mouths and of keyboards).

Yet how much real learning is going on in this "student-centered" digital environment?

I grew up without computers in the classroom, when teachers and professors embraced the role of being the sage on the stage, and I can't say my education suffered as a result. A recent study that appeared in today's New York Times suggests that computers and "digital" classrooms have nearly negligible impact on student test results, which is not to condemn computers but rather to suggest they are merely one (over-hyped) tool for acquiring and displaying information. PowerPoint slides are often not much better than old-fashioned overheads or slide projectors; DVDs and streaming videos are often not much better than old-fashioned film projectors.

The key ingredient to learning (besides motivated students and involved parents) is of course a well-informed, caring, creative, and dedicated teacher or professor. Such a teacher or professor puts her students first not by assigning busywork in the classroom or by embracing fancy and expensive gizmos but by the power of her personality and her commitment to stimulating critical, creative, and ethical thinking.

In its essentials, great education hasn't changed much since the days of Socrates. It's ultimately about shaping and informing the character of students. It's not only about teaching them the how of things, but the why. And once they know the why, they can make decisions based on ethics, based on some knowledge of what's right and wrong, within educational and social settings that put integrity and fairness first.

Good educators recognize that teaching is more art than science; more of a calling than a profession. And that true "collaboration" is achieved not among students working together or with computers, but among students and teachers (and parents) working together, with teachers serving as mentors and role models, guided by a vision of education as a stimulus to individual and social betterment.

So what does student-centered learning really mean? It's about avoiding the idea of students as "customers," with the concomitant notion that the customer is always right. It's about avoiding the notion that a magic bullet exists (such as digital classrooms) to educational success. It's really about putting the most talented leaders in front of our students, and empowering them to stimulate the intellectual and especially the moral growth of students.

If you wanted your son or daughter truly to learn, would you put your trust in faster computers in networked classrooms, more "student-centered" classroom activities with his or her peers, or a Socrates to prod him or her to ask fundamental questions about a life worth living?

Sadly, we seem today to prefer computers and customer-centered learning as measured by test score results. And what of our modern-day Socrates? After parental complaints about "unsettling" questioning of students and subpar standardized test scores, our elected leaders once again made him drink hemlock.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.