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Educator Simon Brooks: Student or Teacher Centred Learning?

Posted by Colin Klupiec on May 20, 2016 at 12:41 PM

simon_Brooks2.jpgTeacher centred vs student centred learning is one of the debates that’s receiving a lot of attention around the world in modern education. And what about self directed learning? Are all students capable of being self directed, or does a student need a certain aptitude to make it work.

I discussed these issues on the Learning Capacity podcast with Simon Brooks.  Simon works with schools in the change management process as they consider new frameworks and ideas for education. He has worked extensively with the Project Zero team at Harvard University, and is a specialist in developing Cultures of Thinking.

In this episode, Simon shares how his experiences influence his ideas on this debate.

Listen to the podcast.

Topics covered

  1. Student-centred learning
  2. Teacher-centred learning
  3. Self-directed learning
  4. Accountability of school principals

People & organisations mentioned

  1. John Taylor Gatto
  2. Coleridge
  3. Project Zero
  4. Harvard Graduate School of Education
  5. ATAR
  6. Peter Hutton
  7. Templestowe College
  8. Dr David Perkins 

Resources/books/articles mentioned

  1. Weapons of Mass Instruction
  2. Hard Times, by Charles Dickens
  3. Making Learning Whole
  4. Cultures of Thinking
  5. Simon Brooks Education

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

 Episode 61 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Educator Simon Brooks on the Student Centred vs Teacher Centred learning debate

Colin Klupiec: Simon Brooks, thanks for joining us again.

Simon Brooks: My pleasure.

Colin: Something that you are very keen to talk about is the argument for student-centred learning versus teacher-centred learning.

Let me start you off with something fairly hard hitting. John Taylor Gatto with his book "Weapons of Mass Instruction." He tells a story how a principal asks him to help develop a program for critical thinking within the school. And he says: "Well, of course I'd like to help you with that."

But he warns the principal that if we do this right it's going to make the school unmanageable, because "Why would kids taught to think critically and express themselves effectively put up with the nonsense we force down their throats."

So it's a little bit like an awakening moment or like the matrix, you know, the red pill or the blue pill.

Simon: Which pill are you going to take?

Colin: Exactly. Needless to say the program never got off the ground. Are we at risk of doing the same thing here in Australia? 

Simon: Well, intellectual unmanageability sounds pretty good to me. I love that idea.

Colin: But risky to some.

Simon: If my classroom is a place where children are constantly critiquing ideas respectfully, not each other rudely, challenging ideas, challenging notions, being healthfully sceptical about concepts, being curious about the ideas that they are exploring together.

If that's what it is to be unmanageable, that sounds brilliant. I am not advocating unmanageable behaviour, but I think if we can work for a world that separates the behaviour from the intellectual work that's going on in that space, then I'd advocate that completely. I've not read that book but I love the sound of it.

Colin: Well, as I said, the title sounds pretty good too. This leads into the self-directed learning debate, because if students really do become self-directed or if they do become true critical thinkers and express themselves effectively, how do we then manage that whatever we might suggest to them just might not interest them anymore?

I mean, or let's look at it this way. What happens if they become so interested in things that we are just completely unprepared for? What do we do then?

What is the role of teachers?

Simon: Well I think that probably speaks to another interesting point which is as teachers do we need to represent ourselves as custodians of all knowledge? If students find pathways of interest that engage them that we are not particularly prepared for, that we may not be as knowledgeable about as we would like, nonetheless there is still great value in them exploring that pathway.

Maybe as teachers if we try to represent ourselves as feeling excited about the opportunity of learning as much from our students as they might learn from us. If we can inhabit that particular paradigm then I think that space will help us find pathways through that puzzle.

Colin: I can't help thinking that it's still the adults who are debating the debate. In other words it's us who are saying, we think this is best for the children. Do we even know that this is what the children want? Do they actually want to be themselves centred in their learning?

Simon: It's always a good space I think to begin with to ask students what they want and what's working for them. And that's why student questionnaires and just talking to students not just student questionnaires can such a valuable experience.

Where I stand on this debate is also where I stand on many debates, which is I think polarising is probably a dangerous place to go. So if we think on, if we got an extreme left wing stance which is almost like a laissez-faire approach to teaching and learning. 

Many of the romantics, such as Coleridge for instance, advocated this type of approach. Let children wander off into the world and they would discover. And there are some educational systems that still operate, which are built on these types of ideas. 

Then at the extreme right wing we can think about the old fashioned stand and deliver style, you know. When I think of Charles Dickens' Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind and the wonderfully named Mr. M'Choakumchild.

And they talk about that what we want is we want children dutifully arranged in rows in the classroom. Imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they are full to the brim. So we've got that approach on the extreme right, we've the laissez-faire approach on the extreme left.

Are either of those approaches on their own the right way to go with young people? I mean as teachers what is our role? Sometime our role is to be ideas purveyors.

Colin: Yeah.

Simon: We've got some interesting expertise to share. So let's share that expertise. I didn't think that the teacher should feel pushed out of the education experience. But then on the other side of it, well, we are learning facilitators. We are there to ask questions that help children forge their own understandings.

Why is it that we need to inhabit either extreme pole? Why can't we find a space in the middle that best serves the learning experience and the development of understanding that takes place within the learners with whom we work?

Colin: How do we then handle that poling process? How do we get into the minds of the students to say, "What is it that you want?

Spoon feeding students

Simon: Yeah absolutely. In my experience often when we get to the high stakes of our time with students. So if we are talking about New South Wales Australia, where we are running this interview, we are thinking about the HSC examinations.

When children get to years of 11 and 12, their two final years, then quite often as a teacher myself, students look to me and they say, "Come on Mr. Brooks, get out the spoon." Spoon feed us.

Colin: Feed me.

Simon: Tell me what I need to know in order to do well in this examination. Because this examination, well the results of that are going to affect my ATAR score, and that’s going to affect the course I am getting into the University.

So stop playing around with all of this silliness, stop playing around with these thinking routines you are doing, trying to get us to think.

Colin: Just get me over the line.

Simon: We don't have time for that now. And what comes from that sometimes is quite a dangerous sort of secret unspoken pact that exists between teachers and students. Which is the students submit to being bored senseless by their teacher in the name of high academic achievement.

I wonder if students always know what's in their best interests. Is that the thing that’s actually going to get them to high academic achievement? And also is that the thing that’s going to benefit them best as they go through the rest of their lives. 

Colin: As we are talking about it, I can imagine that many teachers might be thinking, "Hold on a second, I can feel the balance of power shifting, I've got less power." Some might be thinking, "Great, I don't want any power at all. I am quite happy to sit at the back of the room and do nothing while the students do everything."

But I can imagine some teachers, again there is the polarisation thing coming up, saying, "Hang on, that means I am going to lose control in my classroom." What would you say to people who are in the "Oh my goodness, I am going to lose control camp?" 

Simon: Well, first of all, I am seeing this come out as an anxiety a lot in classrooms around Australia in the moment.

Very much so. And I've been in classrooms and I've seen it happen more than once, where teachers would begin a lesson and they'll say something like this to the students. They will say, "Okay guys, we are going to start a lesson, apologies, I am going to talk to you for about 10 minutes and then after I've done that then you can get on with some learning activities."

Colin: Sorry, you are going to have to hear me talking.

Simon: That’s right. "I apologise for being an expert of knowing interesting things. You'll have to submit to that for a bit, before we get to the good stuff." And when I hear that happen then I start reflecting thinking why is it that teachers are saying these types of things? What are they tuning into? 

Colin: Yeah, why would I apologise for myself?

Student-centred vs. teacher-centred learning

Simon: Yeah, you know, where is the guilt coming from here? And I think it's because, and this is just my theory, that there is this raging debate at the moment in education between student-centred and teacher-centred learning. There is a prevailing paradigm, and I think it's a pretty strong paradigm, which is student-centred is best.

And the work I do around cultures are thinking might be misrepresented as suggesting that it is all about that and there is no place for teacher. So I think that teachers tune into that and they start thinking, "Okay, really I am not here to be an expert anymore. I am here to facilitate the children's learning. So there is no place for my wisdom, there is no place for my expertise."

Self-directed learning

That worries me and I think it's also compounded by another approach in education which relates back to self-directed learning. I think there are a lot of other schools out there that think "We get self-directed learners by building expensive and fancy spaces for them."

Colin: I would like to call it the IKEA room.

Simon: Very much so, with a lot of lovely soft furnishing.

Colin: And bright colours.

Simon: And they can sit wherever they want in it. They can lay down as well and they can...you know, that's how they learn at home in their bedrooms and maybe they've got on some sort of online learning platform where they can access their learning experience through.

And, again for me this is dangerous. Do children become self-directed learners if we as teachers abdicate responsibility for their learning. Or, perhaps paradoxically, do children become self-directed learners when we as teachers work even harder with them to help them acquire that disposition.

Colin: So do we know that at all? I mean is there any work being done on finding out the answer to that question?

Simon: Well the work that I am affiliated with, with the folks "Project Zero" at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has been working on these ideas for many years. And they explored the dispositional approach to learning. In other words, how can we help children develop the disposition to be self-directed learners.

Colin: Okay.

Who is doing the thinking in my classroom?

Simon: If we let that question guide everything we do, if we are constantly resisting the urge to do the thinking ourselves, but we are pushing it back to the students, what makes you say that? Why is that idea important to you? How is that idea connected with what Bob said earlier on?"

Those type of questions that come through the language we use and the interactions we have, that's what builds the disposition to be self-directed in young people.

Colin: It sounds to me like the anxiety that you mentioned before is not necessarily happening just from the shift of power, but from the perception that the importance is being lowered.

I mean if you think about walking up to someone and saying "Hello, I just like to inform you today that as of today you are going to become less powerful, you'll have less influence and on top of that you are going to be less important. 

Simon: Sounds like most episodes of Game of Thrones. 

Colin: And sadly I suspect that might actually be the case for many educators around Australia and the world. That really is a very important anxiety to try and manage. How do we do that from the administrational point of view?

Simon: I think the idea is always to keep teachers at the core of their own professional and developmental growth. So with the work that I do in schools there are a lot of pathways into that. One of those pathways is through something called "action research" that a lot of folks are familiar with.

That's when teachers identify the big puzzles of practice that they have and they work through processes to help them explore that puzzle of practice to make some movement forward with that puzzle of practice. Teachers own their own personal growth. So coming back to self-directed learning a teacher might ask themselves, "How do I help my children become more self-directed?" And they own that problem. They themselves find pathways through it.

Principals are the gatekeepers

Colin: Let's step this up a little, shall we? Principals, let's talk about principals, they really are the gatekeepers in this scenario and if we are to take this to its natural conclusion the buck stops with them. And what we are talking about here is like the opening of the floodgates of change, if I can put it that way.

Now some people have taken this on-board, another Peter Hutton at Templestowe Collegein Victoria has done this with some great success and without any sort of ideas to how it was going to succeed. And one of the examples for them is they have 120 electives for students to choose from, and he employs the students.

So why aren't more principals doing this in light of the fact that there is evidence of merging amongst us, here in Australia. You can actually go there, you can drive there, you can fly there. You can call them up on the phone and talk to them. Why aren't we doing this?

A school can become a feather dancing in the breeze.

Simon: Well, first of all, I think the language you are using here "gatekeeper" it's important for principals to be that. And that’s the central role of a principal, because there are a lot of new ideas flying around in education all the time. And if you don't have a principal functioning as a gatekeeper, well then a school can become a feather dancing in the breeze.

It can just be blown in the direction of whatever the prevailing ideology takes it. So important for school to have a set of principles, a set of values. It's understanding who they are as a school and then to think how might we augment that with ideas that are flying around in the educational arena. 

Colin: I heard the comment once about developing one's mental library, so affectively putting all of those things together but then applying that in the best situation. But I agree with you, I think principals do need to be good gatekeepers for exactly the reasons that you've mentioned.

But the desire for change is being debated so wildly throughout the world at the moment. Why is it taking so long?

A lot of accountability being a Principal

Simon: I wonder whether to some extent it's fear, it's underpinned by fear. Principal, there is a lot of accountability being a principal or part of an executive leadership team in a school, and even obviously for teachers there is a huge amount of accountability here.

If we embrace something that takes the school and its learners in the wrong direction, that’s a potentially dangerous step with extensive consequences. So I think it's that potential concern about harmful side effects of what might be adopted that could drive some principals not wanting to embrace change.

And probably the same thing applies to anybody who is thinking about some form of significant change.

Colin: I asked Peter Hutton the question as to whether he thought he was lucky because in his situation the school was on the verge of closure and there are many schools around the place that aren’t on the verge of closure. So for them the risk level I guess is much higher, and you could use phrases like "Peter had nothing to lose" on one hand.

And the first couple of years he described to me that the government or the educational regulator was so happy to just be able to distance themselves from the school and say, "Look, it doesn’t matter. Let's see what comes out of that. 

But now that's actually turned around and it's turned into a success story. I guess what I am trying to say is how do we get more people having the discussion and having the debate to say, "Look really what have you got to lose here and do you, in fact, really have that much to lose?"

Simon: There are a lot of schools out there, particularly the very well-established ones that are little bit like the Kiwi too. You know they are slow, heavy and it's difficult to change direction.

Colin: And many of them are quite beautiful with rose gardens and manicured lawns.

Simon: Exactly.

Are students consumers or producers?

Colin: Just like the Kiwi too. Let me throw this idea at you. Do you think that the teacher-centred versus student-centred debate has something to do with the concept of students being more like consumers rather than producers.

And this comes back to Gatto's work that I referred to at the beginning of the conversation. In the end we really are asking students to consume something that's been pre-prepared. The student comes to school, there is a maths text book and that’s the accumulated knowledge of a whole bunch of people who have been enterprising up to write it down and sell them a maths text book.

Rather than getting the students to think about a problem in a mathematical way and getting them to solve that, some people might again say, "That's just going to take forever if I've got to explain maths that way.

It's much easy to batch them through." What do you think about the idea of students being more consumers than they are producers?

Simon: I think questions like this are fundamentally important. I am going refer to a book by one of the Harvard educator called David Perkins, and the book that he wrote is called "Making Learning Whole."

And in it he takes this really interesting metaphor this idea of playing the whole game. So if I just take a second to explore that metaphor.

Colin: Sure.

Getting caught up in the subject’s details: "aboutitis" 

Simon: What he talked about it is when we as teachers are working with students, it's very easy to get caught up in the detail of whatever the subject is that we are exploring. He's got a name for that too. He calls that "aboutitis," a disease that we as teachers might suffer from where we are constantly teaching them about the subject.

But they don't really understand why. It also takes the analogy of the game of baseball. If we want to teach children about baseball, we don't spend the whole of the first experience they have just about teaching how to pick the bat up off the ground. We let them play baseball.

Learning about the subjects vs. learning though the subjects

So what David Perkins urges us to think about is how can we defeat the disease of "aboutitis." How can we stop our children from learning about the subjects that we work with them on towards learning though the subjects. So we are not learning about mathematics, we are being mathematicians. We are not learning about science, we are being scientists.

How can we make that happen? And for me often that comes through the use of things like big ideas in the classroom. So in history classroom we might be about teaching on the industrial revolution. We might take a big idea like is economic profitability more important than human rights?

If we take that really big idea and that idea runs as a key note, as a through line, through the whole learning experience, then we are not just learning about the industrial revolution anymore, we are thinking about a really big ethical idea. Is it okay for people to be exploited in the name of financial profitability?

And then we learn about the industrial revolution but in view of that big question that speaks to the human condition. So if we are going to overcome the disease of aboutitis, it maybe a powerful direction for teachers to think about what are those big questions that underscore everything that I am exploring with my learners.

Why does this subject and why does this topic matter?

Teachers more important than ever in a student-centred model

Colin: This lends way to your idea that teachers are probably more important than ever now in a student-centred model. This is because what you are talking about is more an insight based model of helping someone understand a concept through their own life experience, because you've had an extra 20 or 30 years to think about these concepts.

So wisdom becomes very important. If a teacher really believes in a student-centred model, let's say they are listening to this conversation, "Yeah, yeah I get it, but I just don't think I am quite there," what do they need to think about first and how do they themselves need to change, if in fact there is a need for them to change?

The cultural force of time

Simon: Well, that would be the first thing always beginning with what might that need be, and is there really a need? It comes back again to the cultural force of time.

If teachers believe that their role is to disseminate information, that’s what they are there for, to share their wisdom and their expertise with their learners, then that’s what they will allocate time to.

But if teachers believe that their role is to build a culture of critical and creative thinkers to help young people become critical and creative thinkers, then that's where they will allocate their time.

So in working with schools who are interested in these ideas but don't really know how to start, I think it would be a mistake to start just by trying ideas.

I think that the beginning point has always got to be to confront the fundamental beliefs. Do we really, really want to make the learning experience student-centred? Is that really what the school values?

Colin: That’s a good question, isn’t it? And do we actually really talk about that openly and honestly enough and then actually write down an answer and stick to it. You might hear that question in a staff meeting. People might say, "Oh, yeah, I think that's a really good idea." And then there is a lot of talk and then people say, "All right, that's it, time to go" and they get back to their desks and they go home.

But how do we bring that, how do we sort of rewind that if you like, if you can think about a movie where you see a scene happen and then they rewind it and "Okay, let's go back where we started." Actually what we thought was we get an answer but we don't have an answer. How do we stop that moment in time?

Simon: You know what, when I walk past a bakery, there are a lot of beautiful cakes in the window display. I can see my favourite, chocolate brownies. I can see lovely cream cakes. I can see scones, as an Englishman I love those.

But if I'm not hungry, then however beautiful those cakes are, I'm not going to purchase them. So we've got to start with the hunger, we got to start with those core values and principles before we start trying to do something about it.

Colin: Maybe start asking some "what if" questions. What if my day wasn't so busy? What if I thought that I had more time? What if I thought that my administrators in my school were actually listening to what I thought was a problem? Now there is something controversial, how about that?

Simon: I am glad you said that, not me.

Colin: I am quite happy to take the responsibility. Simon, we could talk for a very long time and this has been great to speak to you today. Thanks so much for your time.

Simon: Pleasure. Thanks for having me along.

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