The Role of the Learner-Centered Teacher

What happens in the typical college classroom? Who’s delivering the content? Who’s leading the discussions? Who’s previewing and reviewing the material? Who offers the examples? Who asks and answers most of the questions?…In most classrooms it’s the teacher.
– Maryellen Weimer

Part 2 of a book Review of Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer

learner-centered-teaching-book.jpgIn the learner-centered model, the teacher takes on the role of facilitator: guide, coach, conductor, midwife, gardener. Why?  Because the students are doing the work of problem solving, reviewing, discussing and creating. Initially, this may feel like the teacher’s job has been replaced by her students. However, the teacher’s voice becomes more critical because she is now engaging her students as they work through higher order thinking skills of application, evaluation, and creation. This doesn’t mean that learner-centered teachers stop giving examples, telling stories, and exploring content in front of their students. As the author explains, “That’s [demonstrating critical thinking, illustrating points, etc.] a legitimate part of teaching. But they shouldn’t be doing these tasks all or even most of the time. Ultimately, the responsibility for learning rests with the students.”

Weimer offers seven principles for teachers who want to develop their facilitation skills. Throughout the chapter, she provides very helpful, concrete examples from her own teaching experience and from other teachers.

 7 Principles of Facilitative Teaching

1. Let Your Students Do More Learning Tasks: Set your students up to do all of the things mentioned in the quote at the top of this post. The challenge we encounter here is that our students aren’t going to do these tasks as well or in the same way as we would. It’s like learning to walk, they will pick up the skills of our discipline as they try it out.

2. Teachers Do Less Telling so that Students Can Do More Discovering: Most teachers I know spend an entire class session reading through their syllabus. Weimer offers a totally different and interactive approach where here students explore and discuss the elements and structure of the course.

3. Teachers Do Instructional Design Work More Carefully: In short, the lion’s share of a teacher’s work is done before class. I think that online teachers have an edge here because their classroom time has been displaced and is most often asynchronous. For those of us moving our courses to a hybrid format, we are offered an opportunity to rethink and better integrate the learning activities in our courses. Instead of just preparing lectures, we are designing learning activities for our students to participate in.

4. Faculty More Explicitly Model How Experts Learn: In the place of a polished talk, we explain our own process: what we do when we encounter difficult learning tasks, how do we decide if a resource is worthwhile, and how they are encountering new information in their field. She explains that “Students need to see examples of learning as hard, messy work, even for experienced learners.”

Group Projects

Credit: Endless Origami

5. Faculty Encourage Student to Learn From and With Each Other: Most students and teachers groan when they hear about “group work” (see the image ->).
But I think that’s because we expect collaborative projects to work right out of the box. They don’t. Later in the chapter, the author shares one such experience and what she learned from it. Given time by perseverance, and improvement through redesign and skill development, group work can be a very effective teaching strategy.

6. Faculty and Students Work to Create Climates for Learning: When students are given responsibility for their classroom experience,  classroom management becomes a secondary issue.

7. Faculty Use Evaluation to Promote Learning: Students learn to evaluate their own work and the work of their peers. Teachers still issue grades, but the evaluation process becomes formative as well as evaluative.

I’m impressed with Weimer’s reminders that this is a “messy” process, and that even in this 2nd edition to the book, she doesn’t have good answers for teachers who are trying to figure out when to intervene and when to hold back. My final reflection on this new role is that it demands a modicum of humility. Students will have insights we’ve never thought of, and others will try our patience. The facilitator role means that our students will see the limits of our expertise and our abilities to perceive and communicate. For us, turning the tables demands deeper character and developing new skills.

Get the book

Part 1 – Overview of The Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 2 – The Role of the Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 3 – The Balance of Power in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 4 – The Function of Content in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 5 – The Responsibility for Learning in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 6 – The Purpose and Process of Evaluation in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 7 – Transitioning to Learner-Centered Teaching (a developmental approach) – coming soon

Part 8 – Dealing with Resistance to the Learner-Centered Approach – coming soon

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