The teacher in this classroom in Uttar Pradesh, India, was doing her very best to do all the “right” things. She had her students arranged in groups, she gave the groups learning materials to manipulate, and she called students up to the board to lead the reading.
What the picture cannot show is that a critical component to the lesson was missing: there was no learning objective around which a lesson could be designed.
Without this structure and intent, the lesson in Hindi language likely produced limited learning. Students were grouped together but had no task to work on, and one group received plastic letters of the English alphabet instead of the Hindi alphabet.
I was left thinking: this is training on learner-centered pedagogy (LCP) gone awry. Where have we, as education development actors, failed this teacher?
A more sobering thought: might she and her students have been better off without us? Would more learning have taken place in a learning-by-rote lesson than in this attempt at a learner-centered lesson that had learning objectives and lesson planning fall by the wayside?
Exporting learner-centered pedagogy globally
LCP views learners as active participants in their own learning, with their education shaped by their interests, prior knowledge and active investigation.
Over the last couple of decades, LCP has spread globally and has been widely endorsed as a “best practice” in education by international development actors and national governments.
In spite of its prominence in education policies, implementation has been challenging, and changes to classroom practice limited. Researchers have reported “tissue rejection” (Harley et al., 2000 in Schweisfurth, 2013) as teachers and learners struggle to make the shift to LCP, just like the recipient of a donor organ may reject it after a transplant.
This is not surprising when we remind ourselves that LCP has been developed in a particular local context. It embodies culturally specific values and takes for granted material abundance and access to information and communication technologies (Vavrus and Bartlett, 2012).
Exported around the world, “LCP has become a globalized localism, obscuring much of its cultural, historical, and material specificity” (Vavrus and Bartlett, 2012, p.640).
Approaches to support LCP
A major constraint to implementing LCP is that it is poorly understood by teacher educators and teachers. Teachers often receive professional development that is inadequate and superficial leaving them with a rudimentary, at best, or incorrect understanding of LCP.
They may be instructed to include group work in their lessons without ensuring a depth of understanding and skillset around managing group work productively, including: why to do it, when it is appropriate, and how to manage groups of children so that it is meaningful for their learning.
If we want to support teachers in adopting LCP in their classrooms, we need to:
- Recognize the tall order in expecting teachers to understand and implement a pedagogy they and their educators have never experienced, and invest in professional development for teachers that allows for deeper engagement, theoretical grounding, debate, reflection, and supported classroom practice relating to LCP.
- Localize the “globalized localism”: Instead of a futile attempt to sweep away existing pedagogical practices and replace them with LCP, we need to listen to teachers, understand and respect their local realities, adapt the principles of a learner-centered approach to fit the local context, and build on existing teaching methods. As Schweisfurth (2013) suggests, LCP can be seen “as a series of continua, rather than seeing it as a single absolute that has only one international configuration” (p 5).
- Be the change we would like to see in classrooms. Trainings for teachers that use a transmission approach are abundant! We need to train the way we hope teachers will teach so that we inspire change, model instructional practices, and give teachers control as active participants in their own learning. Powerpoint presentations are rarely inspiring, and using materials teachers do not have for their own classrooms is not helpful. At the very least, we will be reminded of how difficult teaching is and cautioned against obscuring the complexity of instructional strategies through quick tips like “use group work”.
- Value and strengthen the fundamentals: Lesson planning is fundamental to teaching: breaking down a curriculum into a logical sequence of lessons, generating a specific learning objective for students for each lesson, designing meaningful activities and assessments for each lesson that support the learning objective, and planning the next lesson accordingly. Any professional development we provide teachers needs to strengthen and value core skills so that these are not forgotten in the pursuit of learner-centered and “active learning”.
Finally, if we hope to move teachers along a continuum towards more learner-centered approaches, advocacy for systemic changes that support such a pedagogical shift is critical.
LCP with its active investigation and deeper analysis is not practical if, ultimately, students’ education and career futures depend on high-stakes national exams that test their knowledge of vast amounts of factual information.
Schweisfurth, M. (2013). Learner-Centered Education in International Perspective. Journal of International and Comparative Education, 2 (1), 1-7.
Vavrus, F. and L. Bartlett (2012). Comparative Pedagogies and Epistemological Diversity: Social and Materials Contexts of Teaching in Tanzania. Comparative Education Review, 56 (4), 634-655