Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Education à la Carte: The Shift from Traditional to Student-Centered Teaching

Old-fashioned classroom with wooden table and chairs and blackboard
The Classroom not to mention curriculum and teaching methodology has changed significantly over the years. Class sizes with the exception of colleges that tend to cap the number of students allowed and admitted per classroom have grown exponentially in most academic institutions. Universities have for the most part gotten rid of those uncomfortable and inflexible wooden student writing chairs I used to find myself trapped in for the duration of the class; at the same time, a great deal of traditional writing utensils, such as old-fashioned pen and paper have also been eliminated and are now replaced with styluses, laptops and / or iPads. Electronic cellphones are in practically every hand, be they those of students or teaching faculty, and these gadgets have become an indispensable part of daily life, whether we approve of them or not.

The times they are a-changin’ and technology has affected us in often imperceptible and implicit ways. Yet it has had perhaps one of its most drastic consequences on teaching itself. Schools and universities are naturally more conservative in nature and tend to view trends with a suspicious eye; whenever they feel threatened or invaded by something, they simply ban it. They foment and thrive on fostering discipline and use the cloak of authority to enforce this most effectively. In the past, physical punishment was the norm for misbehaving students and often students were threatened with having parents notified or they would be served notice of possible expulsions from schools and universities.

Students used to have little to no say when it came to their education. They were not asked or consulted, and, in many cases, they were not even considered nor taken into account when it came to educational matters and methods. Instead, the school board and university management emphasized and aggrandized the role of their teachers. The latter were to be treated with utter respect and it went without saying that everything from curriculum to methodology was, ipso facto, teacher-oriented.

Instructors would proverbially preach from the podium and with hanging heads the students would jot down every pronouncement coming from the teacher’s lips as if they were the words of God.  Rote exercises and memory drills would ensure that knowledge of dates and details were imprinted indelibly onto the fresh and impressionable minds of the young. The exams would test rather mindlessly - that is with little creativity and even less critical thinking - what the students had retained from the previous lectures. Those with good or photographic memories would for the main part excel and they could impress with citations of facts and recite poetry without understanding or appreciating any of it.

The adage of knowledge being or posing as power was deeply ingrained into their minds, so students would vie and compete with each other to see who can cram the most amount of information into their spinning and overstuffed heads. Back then, there were not many ways of verifying information except through a quick visit to the local library. But today with the access of knowledge on the fingertips of almost every individual on the planet, facts can be quickly checked and verified or disputed; consequently, the teachers have lost some of their hegemony and autonomy in claiming to be always in the right. In other words, it has become easier now to prove one’s professors wrong and the latter could not just rest on their laurels nor nest on their diplomas but had to ensure now that their facts were indeed correct.

These technological changes alongside changing political and economic circumstances have shifted the focus and practice of education. While the student used to be perceived as an empty vessel that needed to be filled with knowledge, now we view them as autonomous human beings who, more importantly, have their share of rights. Teachers cannot physically punish their students anymore, nor should students be treated disrespectfully; in fact, students are to be seen as active as opposed to passive members in the educational exchange. Moreover, educators do not treat them as blank slates but try to delve into and even utilize their previous knowledge or build upon their existent skills.

Since encyclopedic knowledge has lost its status and value (few today truly and fully believe that knowledge is indeed power) and since information access has become rather commonplace within the new paradigm (essentially anybody can google information), the shift has moved from mere acquisition towards the application of knowledge. This is accomplished via critical thinking and it is a move away from content-specific information (who wrote what when) to skills and learning outcomes (what are the implications of the text in today’s world). What the education system is interested in nowadays is less whether students know something but how they can use and apply their knowledge in their own lives. This has led to the shift from a teacher-oriented to a (more) student-oriented approach.

All of this is constantly shifting and changing and sometimes it goes off course or even overboard. One of the latter instances is the use of a flipped classroom. In this case, it is all about the students and the teachers are stripped from almost all their authority and input and are considered facilitators of the learning process. This can be quite challenging not to say frustrating for students. It may be akin to the (mal)practice of throwing children into the swimming-pool and letting them figure out how to swim by themselves.

There are certainly some benefits to be attained from eclipsing the over-imposing and often interfering figure of the teacher and to give the students opportunities to collaborate and solve problems so that they can think in an active and productive manner. However, the flipped classroom is taking the thought to an utmost and extreme degree that cannot be the best nor the most efficient approach. One should not unduly restrict nor give too much leeway to the students but hold them responsible and accountable while guiding them with appropriate measures. The middle way generally proves best for positive results and there is rarely one single approach that can give the most dividends but rather an amalgamation of different styles.

In the same vein, I do not think that students and teachers should be on equal footing. In many cases, students are already too much in control when it comes to power and authority. This is especially so as higher education is now mainly a form of business and like any successful enterprise it would wish to or has been economically forced to provide their clients and consumers with what they crave most. Certainly, educational standards ought to be kept at a similar level, but these also have become more flexible and may even adjust to political strategies and structures of the times.

Students have earned their human rights, but they should not dictate the mandates of their own education. I disagree with students making up their own exams, deciding on the content of the course or generally doing as they please; students already have a shorter attention span and have problems with concentration and following instructions, so they should not be left to their own devices. Part of the reason why the traditional model of lecturing is not functioning anymore in today’s world is because their capacity to focus has diminished due to the use of various forms of technology and there is little to help them change much or to become otherwise.  

For this reason, educators need to adopt strategies that are best suited for the given outcome. In other words, I would not wholly eliminate the lecture as a source of teaching but would have it minimized and followed with active involvement and participation. It should not be all about the teacher nor should it be all about the student but there should be a healthy balance, the middle-way compromise among the two. What worries me is the danger of eroding respect for the authority, in this case, the teacher or instructor. Their relationship should remain and be on the formal and professional side. It should not be rigid but still have a firm grounding or foothold.

In fact, education should not be a restaurant where students can order whatever they please. It should have an established menu yet be open-minded and flexible to switch its ingredients or change the way the meals are served. One could adjust one’s teaching methods under what I like to call framed spontaneity to make room for improvisations and possible on-the-fly changes to one’s course content as well as delivery. Furthermore, one should not shun nor fear technology by prohibiting cell-phones, laptops or other electronic devices in the classroom but rather take advantage of them and use them for the benefit of everyone involved.

A blended class where classroom interaction is enriched instead of wholly substituted by technological tools would be the most ideal outcome. And in many of these cases, it is common that students know more about technological use and advances than the teacher, so this new knowledge can come in handy for the educator as well. This situation could serve, if used efficiently, as a veritable educational encounter and as a profitable interaction between students and educators, and it would ensure that learning continues to take place on both sides of the spectrum.