By Ian Clifford

07 October 2015 - 04:49

'[A] learner-centred approach can generally be contrasted with teacher-centred approach, which has come to be seen as authoritarian and hierarchical...' Photo ©

Boothee (Astrophoto)

Is it time to challenge Western assumptions about education, especially when it comes to promoting 'good teaching approaches' in the developing world? The British Council's Ian Clifford looks at the case of Burma, ahead of his webinar on 12 October 2015.

The terms 'learner-centred', 'student-centred' and 'child-centred' are often used interchangeably by Western educators to stand for everything that’s good and wholesome in education. The three terms have a similar philosophical basis, but 'child-centred' has the oldest history, drawing on the work of 18th century philosophers such as Rousseau and Locke.

But what exactly do these approaches amount to in the classroom?

A recent survey of best teaching practices by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) chose to avoid terms like 'learner-centred', suggesting that it's not always clear what classroom practices they refer to. Indeed, there are different interpretations among educators: some associate learner-centred approaches with techniques such as group work; others with practices whereby the teacher gives little instruction and learners find out for themselves; others say it’s all about a 'philosophy', and not tied to any particular method at all.

Despite these differences, a learner-centred approach can generally be contrasted with a teacher-centred approach, which has come to be seen as authoritarian and hierarchical, encouraging rote learning and memorisation, without any real understanding.

But can we really be sure that one approach is better than the other, and should we be promoting a learner-centred approach in the classrooms of developing countries where more 'traditional' approaches are common?

There's no agreement about 'the right way to teach'

One of the problems with promoting a learner-centred approach in the developing world is that it gives the impression that everyone in the West agrees this is the right way to teach. In fact, the tendency in many Western countries is to move away from such approaches. Teaching methods that involve learners finding things out for themselves with minimal teacher instruction have taken a particular battering. Writing in the Educational Psychologist journal, Paul Kirschner and colleagues present a range of evidence showing that leaving learners to solve problems for themselves leads to brain overload and prevents learning being stored in the long-term memory. Similarly, a UK report called 'What Makes Great Teaching' concluded that the evidence favoured 'direct teaching' rather than approaches that involved little teacher instruction such as 'discovery learning'.

Whole-class teaching can be very effective

Proponents of a learner-centred approach often argue that it fits with ideas from brain science, which show that, when we learn something, we have to connect it with what we already know. It’s less clear, however, whether there’s just one approach to teaching that can achieve this. John Hattie, an educationalist from New Zealand, looked at a large amount of education studies to try to find out what works best and concluded that whole-class teaching – what he calls 'direct instruction' – is one of the most effective methods of teaching. Hattie argues strongly that, just because learners construct knowledge for themselves, it doesn’t mean we have to take one particular approach to teaching; in fact, he argues that whole-class teaching can achieve this if done in an interactive and effective way.

Learner-centred approaches are not always a good cultural fit

Another problem with promoting learner-centred approaches in the developing world is that they just don’t seem to stick. Michele Schweisfurth, one of the leading authorities on student-centred approaches in the developing world, summarised a review of 72 projects attempting to promote these approaches internationally as 'a history of failures great and small'. She gives four main reasons for the failure: governments often have overly high expectations of such reforms and try to make the change too quickly; reforms in teaching aren't joined up with changes in the exam system and curriculum; practical problems such as classes of 50 and a lack of appropriate materials; and, most importantly, cultural mismatch. Approaches to teaching based on a Western idea of the individual don’t fit well in cultures which emphasise group goals over individual needs. In such cultures, teachers are expected to be authoritative and learners obedient.

The case of Burma

All the above barriers can be seen as an issue in Burma, where the British Council is working on a large teacher education project. Various development agencies have tried to implement a 'child-centred approach' over the past few decades in Burma, but evaluations have shown that such programmes have had little impact. These problems have even made it into the local press, with a recent article in the Myanmar Times bellowing: 'Child-centred education a failure: experts'.

As a result of such failures, many within the education and development field are arguing against seeing learner-centred and teacher-centred approaches as opposites. Frank Hardman of the University of York argues that we need to help teachers from the developing world build on their model of whole-class teaching in a way that broadens it out with better questioning skills.

This is what the British Council’s English for Education College Trainers (EfECT) project in Burma is trying to do. The first six months will support local teachers to do whole-class teaching more effectively and interactively, and the second half of the year will teach techniques to get learners learning from each other.

Editor's note: an amendment regarding an attribution to Rousseau and Locke was made on 30 October 2015.

Teachers and education professionals, register for Ian Clifford's free webinar, taking place on 12 October 2015.

Ian Clifford is co-author (with Khaing Phyu Htut) of 'A transformative pedagogy for Myanmar?', which looks at how pedagogy and assessment can support learning.

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