I always laugh when I tell students that I first became a teacher because I couldn’t get an acting gig. My early teaching experiences were, for me, performances; and I was not so much an actor but a conductor, orchestrating a lesson as if it were a symphony, asking questions and pointing to students to answer. As if I waved a baton, I directed students through the movement that I hoped would lead them to think deeply about what we were reading, prompting one, then another, to think critically about how authors use language to construct meaning, calling on others to unpack the messages within an author’s language choices. I thought because there was more student-talk than teacher-talk that I was practicing feminist pedagogy, de-centering authority in the classroom to help students own their learning. When reflecting on these classroom practices, I see myself either at the front or back of the room, yet still central, directing the conversation and, thus, directing the learning. Now my truth as a teacher has revealed that I must abdicate my role as a conductor if students are to go beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge.
When I give up the baton and stop directing learning, students find their own voices and agency, fumbling into a realization, improvising jazz riffs, that sets the tone and tenor for the rest of the discussion. Ultimately they become their own drummers, keeping time by constructing their own meaning of their world. In a learner-centered space, students develop their agency and tools they need to deconstruct the dominant culture and uncover imbalances in power. Ultimately, I believe that integrating questions of social justice into education by drawing attention to voices often silenced or marginalized is vital to educating students and is work that is best done in a learner-centered class.
We can see the theoretical underpinnings for a learner-centered approach in Paulo Freire’s belief in an authentic approach to education that moves students to construct meaning through real and direct participation in the world and through socially-embedded learning in Lev Vygotsky’s social constructivism where students create meaning through human interactions, framing learning within a social process. When we situate our teaching with an understanding that the social context of knowledge is critically important for learning, not surprisingly we empower students to take responsibility for their education through opportunities to direct their own learning, particularly now as we find ourselves (again) in the middle of a civil rights debate about the history of our country. A learner-centered approach makes these opportunities real for our students.
I stand for learner-centered education because learning in this environment cultivates a just and equitable learning experience, motivating even the most reluctant students to engage and manage their learning. An authentic approach, learner-centered education constructs a social process of learning that also produces effective, and sometimes noisy, education. When students can shape their own learning, it becomes inherently multi-disciplinary as they experience real-world work and learn skills that connect them to the work of their communities to find their place in the greater world. This approach affords students with opportunities to uncover social and political contradictions and wrestle with ways to communicate these discoveries. We have the responsibility to empower students to find the connections (and disconnections) between their lives and the world they live in.
I believe the vast responsibility of effective teaching requires teachers to move away from the front of the classroom so that they can foster not only questions about social justice but also to help students navigate their learning so that they can answer these questions. I also believe teaching needs markers and computers, books and music, laughter and passion.