The new century has faced many challenges related to classroom education in schools and universities. Teacher-centered approach is no longer effective to meet the diverse needs of students and to establish high-achieving learning environment, because the emerge of school violence, formation of more diverse populations, technological advances and educational renewal have placed higher demands on teachers and their approach to classroom education.
Poor results in learning have been identified to occur when teaching styles conflict with learning styles between educators and students. The new generation of learners is in need of the new guiding philosophy that would offer principled changes in the curriculum. Many scholars (Newman, Griffin, and Cole, 1989; Forman & Pufall, 1988; Piaget, 1973; Vygotsky, 1978; Resnick, 1989) have responded to this demand by offering a theory of cognitive growth and learning, otherwise called constructivism. One foundational premise of this theory rests on assertion that children are able to actively construct their knowledge. Instead of absorbing ideas revealed to them by teachers, or internalizing these ideas through repeated rote practice, the theory of constructivism posits that states that children actually invent their ideas. In this case the process of learning helps children grow their ideas in complexity and power and develop critical thinking skills, which are much less emphasized in the teacher-centered environment. The educational applications of constructivism are based on creation of such curricula that would match and challenge children’s understanding, while further developing their mind.
This paper aims to analyze the provided case study on implementation of learner-centered approach in the classroom and to examine the relevant theoretical and practical implications of constructivism theory. The purpose of this analysis is to identify the issues brought by the case study and to discuss their relevancy in light of theoretical principles.
One of the issues brought by the case-study is that although the learner-centered approach is quite challenging, energy- and time-consuming and not always applicable in practice, it is recognized by the young English teacher as the only effective approach to classroom education, since in contrast to teacher-centered perspective, which is solely associated with transmission of knowledge, the learner-centered approach allows students to become active participants in their own learning. While teacher-centered curriculum recognizes the importance of student achievement, student needs are often sacrificed in favor of accountability standards that appear to be of higher priority to teachers (Blackwell et al., 2003).
The relationships between teachers and students in a teacher-centered environment are focused on intellectual explorations of selected materials and content of the curriculum, rather that student interpretation and processing. McDonald (2002) explains that if a teacher doesn’t know how to work with children’s capacity, it is difficult to believe in it and enhance it. It is suggested that such approach to teaching supports the acquisition of behaviors and seeks assimilation into society for minorities, which further perpetuates inequities and is in high demand by prevailing economic system and bureaucracies (Blackwell et al., 2003).
Therefore, while both approaches recognize the key role of student in the process of improving educational achievements, the teacher-centered approach allows teachers to control learning process and to use their expertise in content knowledge to help learners make connections. This implies that communication with learners and their interpretation of information become of secondary importance. The learner-centered approach, however, encourages learners to take charge of acquiring new knowledge and creates an environment where learners can make learning connections (Tomlinson, 2000).
Altan and Trombly (2001) have suggested that learner-centered model is an effective approach to counter classroom challenges, since this model is capable of meeting the diverse needs. In learner-centered classrooms students are placed at the center of classroom organization, their styles, strategies and learning needs are given appropriate consideration and respect. The principle of learner-centered approach was used by Darren, when he organized his class in small groups to work on the assigned project. Meanwhile, another possible ways to organize work in the classroom is to make students work individually or in pairs.
There are two specific approaches to learner-centered teaching. The first one was derived from the research on child development and involves experimentation and play as valuable forms of learning and interaction. Play involves the novel combinations of ideas, and the hypothetical outcomes of imagined events and situations. It represents the form of mental exploration, where children learn to create, work out and reflect their understanding (Altan & Trombly, 2001).
Another approach, where teachers uses the actual experimentation, testing and manipulation of ideas in reality, allows children to have concrete, direct feedback on the precision their ideas as they proceed in working them out. Both exploration and play are self-motivated and self-structured processes of learning that encourage children to interact and reflect on their ideas in the process of learning and acquiring new knowledge (Altan & Trombly, 2001).
While play and experimentation are recognized as powerful means to develop individual thinking and creativity, the theory of constructivism has discovered another powerful way to enhance the learning process. This second approach was particularly used by Darren in his learner-centered scenario, where he used the principle of cooperative learning that is when children were grouped to work together on some specific assignment.
The numerous findings on collaborative or cooperative learning have demonstrated the benefits of children working together in collective learning efforts (Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson,Nelson, & Skon, 1981). When children work with each other, they are involved in the process of sharing and constructing their ideas, as opposed to simply working individually. The benefits of this collective effort are reflected in children’s ability to elaborate both their own ideas and those of their peers as well. This environment promotes children to view their peers not as competitors but as resources of information and brainstorming. The objective of the teacher implementing such approach is to achieve a sense of shared goals and shared progress, mutual tutoring and feeling of teamwork between the students involved in the process. Darren has emphasized the importance of “team” concept and positioned his approach as tool for enhancing problem-solving skills and abilities to cooperate, trust, learn to encourage, compromise and negotiate with team members.
While this process is thought to produce substantial advances in learning, constructivism approach itself focuses on a child as a self- governed creator of knowledge. Such educational perspective allows teachers to facilitate children’s learning by training their active cognitive abilities. To accomplish this objective, Darren has created a supportive environment, where children could create their own ideas collaboratively. His concern, however, was about too harsh monitoring of children’s activities, which was a very valuable observation of him to do. In fact, the process of independent and creative collaboration is often interfered with too obtrusive teacher’s supervision. While children are not being watched and monitored by teacher, which is an outsider in their group, they are likely to express their ideas more freely without fear of being aware that their ideas can be heard and evaluated by someone who is superior. Besides, they don’t get interrupted by teacher’s appearance, and therefore can solely concentrate on their task.
Thus, two key features of learner-centered approach are the changed relationship between teacher and student, and the establishment of activity-based and resource-rich curriculum for classroom education. While in traditional teacher-centered environment teachers are performing the role of knowledge giver, and students are objected to perform the role of passive knowledge recipients, the learner-centered approach is based on hierarchic structure and operates according to cooperative principles that imply students’ participation in using their ideas and interests to drive the learning process. Therefore, instead of being a source of knowledge, the teacher serves as a guide to students’ discoveries and explorations (McDonald, 2003).
While the numerous benefits of such approach justify its implementation, the performance itself requires more complex preparations, than the ones used for traditional classroom teaching. In order for teacher to engage children in the learner-centered activities, he/she needs to help them get organized, since initiative of self-directed explorations now lays on their shoulders, and they are no longer a subject to direct autocratic teaching. With this new role of guides and facilitators on the learner-centered environment, teachers need to be more flexible, persistent and open. While sometimes the old model of teaching can still be applied, if students require training and guidance in a particular content area or project, more often teachers will be moving around the classroom, as Darren did during his class, in order to assist individual children or the group as a whole.
The learner-centered environment in the classroom implies that teachers share narratives about students’ interaction with methodology and content. It is important that teachers learn the professional aspects of differentiating the instruction. In the provided case we learn the before assigning students to the groups of four, Darren has considered such factors as student ability, cultural and ethnic background and gender. Tomlinson (2000) explains that differentiation is a special approach used for teaching and learning, which is based on assertion that students of the same age differ in their interests, their readiness to learn, their styles of learning, their life circumstances and their experience. She suggests that consideration of differences in students is important factor in decision-making on what students need to learn, the special style of learning they require and the support they need from teachers and others involved.
Differentiated instruction is an important element of learner-centered approach. It meets the needs of diverse student populations by matching student needs with a focus on process, content and learning profiles. With the learner-centered approach teachers attempt to design flexibility, while bringing command of content knowledge for students to construct their learning. This approach considers learner characteristics and needs prior to knowledge of facts and skills. Consequently, the emphasis is placed on the importance of engaging students in the learning process so that they can learn to build their own interpretations and to develop necessary thinking and understanding skills. Thus, matching learner needs and teaching practices become an achievable objective in the learner-centered approach (Tomlinson, 2000).
Critical Perspective on Constructivism Theory
While some scholars are praising this new approach to teaching and learning, there is a considerable amount of criticism based on various grounds. Some critics claim that this approach is elitist and that is has been most successful with children from privileged backgrounds. They argue that progressive learning theories are only applicable to those, who have committed parents, outstanding teachers and rich home environments, while explicit instructions are more beneficial to disadvantaged children, who lack such resources. This, however, is not a valid assertion, since the quality of learning depends on many other important aspects.
Other scholars argue that social constructivism encourages group thinking, while putting less attention to individual abilities. Critics are particularly opposing the collaborative aspects of learner-centered classrooms and claim that they tend to produce a “tyranny of the majority”, where group conclusions are dominated by few voices and interpretations, while forcing the rest to conform to the emerging consensus (Thompson, 2003). I agree that this claim has sense and in order to eliminate such effect, the teachers should learn how to integrate group and individual activities, so that the learning process is not dominated by either approach.
Constructivism is often misconstrued as a learning theory that obliges students to “reinvent the wheel” (Newman et al., 1989). However, the reality is that constructivism triggers the student’s curiosity about the surrounding environment, the world outside and how things work. Instead of reinventing the wheel students learn to understand how it turns, how it functions. The objective of constructivism theory is to engage students to apply their existing knowledge and experience, to test and to hypothesize their theories, and to draw corresponding conclusions from their findings. Besides, in the learner-centered environment students are not forced to memorize the knowledge, but are encouraged to view the ever-changing world from their own perspective and learn how to stretch and explore that view.
The theory of constructivism is based scientific study and observation. This approach implies that people construct their own knowledge and understanding of the world by means of experiencing things and reflecting on them. When person encounters something new, it involves the process of reconciliation this new knowledge with previous experience, which makes this person and active creator knowledge rather than a passive recipient. The constructivism approach involves the exploration, assessment and interactive extension of one’s knowledge.
The case with English teacher who implemented the learner-centered approach on the basis of constructivism theory has demonstrated how learning can bring numerous benefits not only to children’s intellectual background, but also to the development of their critical thinking and collaboration skills, as well as their individual abilities and potential. Children’s involvement in learner-centered approach to teaching helps them to learn more, while enjoy the process of learning by means of active interaction, rather than passive reception. Besides, the educational process is more effective, when it focuses on thinking and understanding, rather than on rote memorization. Therefore, constructivism is concerned with teaching how to think and understand. Besides, this approach transfers to students the organizing principles, which they can apply in other learning environments.
Another distinctive benefit of constructivism is that it allows students to own what they learn, because they become actively involved in exploration and often have a hand in designing the assessments. Constructivist-based assessment involves students’ initiatives and personal investments in their research reports, journals, artistic representations and physical models. Since the process involves creative thinking, students learn how to express knowledge through many different ways. The acquired knowledge also has more chances for real-life implementation.
In collaborative environment that encourages an exchange of ideas, constructivism also promotes social and communication skills. Students acquire the principles and teamwork and learn how to articulate their ideas clearly. Thus, students learn the negotiation and problem-solving skills, which are essential to success in real-world interaction, where they will be always exposed to situations, where cooperation and navigation among ideas of others should not lead to overwhelming their own individuality.
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