A fine balance

Who leads the learning in your institution? Is it the teachers, or students - or do both contribute equally to ensure the best possible conditions for learning? It's a fine balance.

Carl Rogers championed student centred learning, while John Dewey emphasised the importance of learner participation. Seymour Papert strongly believed that the best learning takes place when learners take charge. The Progressive Education movement holds that education is not something that should be imposed upon students, but instead should be a conscious consensual process with which each learner is actively engaged. Education is not done to us. Education is something we do. Education is at its strongest when learners are at the centre of the process, and can exercise their choices about what happens.

For students, education should be about taking control of learning, while for teachers it should be focused on letting go. But that can be a difficult proposition for some teachers, because we tend to teach in the same way we were taught. Perhaps the biggest objection traditional educators have about learners taking control is the argument that students don't really now what they want, so can't effectively direct their own learning. Progressives respond by pointing out that the most powerful learning occurs when it has personal meaning, and only the student can construct that.

The middle ground is that students can be given freedom to learn while they are scaffolded by experts within prescribed knowledge sets. What students learn is important, but so is the manner in which they learn. The big question all educators must answer in the coming years is how we create a fine balance where students have control of their own learning, and teachers provide the best possible support. One important movement will be from passive reception to active engagement. It will require effective management of expectations - of both students and teachers.

In Experience and Education, John Dewey highlighted the importance of students leading their own learning through active engagement: “There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education which is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his [sic] activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active cooperation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying.” Unfortunately, students will be unable to do this if the school regime forbids a student voice in favour of teacher dominated pedagogy. We need to get the balance right. 

The last word should go to Paulo Freire: “The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.” 

Dewey, J. (1983) Experience and Education. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith Publishing.
Horton, M and Freire, P. (1990) We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Rogers, C. R. (1983) Freedom to Learn. New York: Prentice Hall. 

Photo from the National Photo Company Collection via Flickr

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A fine balance by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Martin King said…

Zoom out and you will find that it is the institution that controls learning ... teachers and students are scaffolded into a performance managed learning environment for the purposes of the institution i.e. senior management .... government targets, league tables, ofsted, attendance, achievement.

Progressive educationalists have been talking about progressive education for as long as I remember (40 years) but all I have seen is that formal education has progressively subject to managerialism and all I can see is that this will get worse supported by institutional.

Formal education has become institutionally self serving .. there is a possible way out of this which I hope to blog about this years ... basically its about opening up ... making the boundaries porous to education so that there is more transparency and that education can get real.

In terms of student ideas about their education see what happened at Teach Meet Tech .. a rare event where students input into an education conference - you can read about this on the link below

Martin King said…

Education does need to have a balance ... it so often treats everything as binary .. swinging from one extreme to another.

However, I guess in the background to my thinking and ramblings about the problems with education is that we are in a Deleuzian delusion .. our narrative is trapped in Foucault's "gaze" ... student or teacher .. damn the problems are so much deeper .... "You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
peter shukie said…
I think the Freire quote is a strong one in highlighting, as his body if work does, that the educational praxis must involve co-creation of knowledge. The institutional approach already has that set, the decisions over what, when are already made. The how is tinkered with continually and the why is part of the shift to increasing marketing assaults by institutions. If we only deal with how then the potential for change is gone already - what and why need to be primary, a shift toward responsive learning that does not necessarily Eemian within QAA standardised models. We needn't have much of a debate over who as it stands, one group is paid, one group pays, one makes the decisions, the other abides, on group marks/ grades and the other is marked/ graded. We hang around the peripherally if transformational change but still seem closer to Bateson's warning over this third learning stage. Freire is right, for me, and cinscientization should be the goal - once achieved it would seem
Impossible that hierarchical, narrowly expert driven institutional practices and models would be what would be created. As legacies of a past age institutions are resplendent with those models of learning from earlier social ordering - we have had enough of those, we are tired of trees, as Deleuze & Guattari say.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks as ever for your comments Martin. I suppose you have taken 'scaffolding' beyond the Brunerian meaning I intended to convey in this post. My sense was that scaffolding supports but does not invade the learning space, and the learner remains in control of the process. In the sense you use the word I see a performativity context, and this does indeed pervade a great deal of education. And yet I can't bring myself to share your pessimism, because a number of schools I have visited recently have cultures that are founded on the ethos of progressive education and are thriving. Change takes a long time if it is to be lasting. It is a joy to visit such schools and to see children actively engaged in their learning, while the teachers see 'sitting alongside' their students as a privilege. They are exceptions rather than the rule right now, but we have to start somewhere.
Steve Wheeler said…
The blue and red pill is the ultimate binary, Martin. By contrast, in Deleuzian terms learning can assume a rhizomatic structure that is endless, has no centre and is not constrained by supposed boundaries or binaries (multiple rabbit holes perhaps?). Which is it?
martin king said…
Red pill blue pill binary - you got me there Steve :)

You are right - learning shouldn't be so contained ... why is it constrained so?

Martin King said…
Peter, Stebe - "we are tired of trees" ... in another sense to the one intended .. education is moving from nature ... it's becoming utilitarian, commoditised and commercialized - believe me - you ain't seen nothing yet ... and technology is the lever into this new era of forms; education commoditification!

Steve Wheeler said…
Generally, mainstream education is constrained from those above - as you suggest, managerialism - and this stems from the demand for metrics/success indicators. The government pays and the government therefore demands proof of good results. But some good things that happen in schools cannot (and should not) be measured.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments Peter. I echo them in a response above (to an extent). I'm intrigued by your Deleuze and Guattari comment, because although you allude to rhizomes, I'm led to think about the forest schools and progressive education that occurs among the trees. So, no - I don't thinks we've had enough of trees just yet! :)
Terry Heick said…
It may require disruption to realize student-centered learning. For now, those in control (institutions) have trouble seeing which parts of their own body are indeed theirs, and which belong to students.
Steve Wheeler said…
Good point Terry - this is something I'm writing about at the moment...
Laura Ritchie said…
I couldn't agree more. It is about helping students to become, and heaven knows nobody should 'make' someone learn, and if that is happening in a teaching space - it is not somewhere I would like to be. I wrote a book on the topic of your post (came out in Oct)- Fostering self-efficacy in higher education students. Title sounds daunting, but it is about exactly what you wrote. As for the institution, there are always big wheels turning around us, but that doesn't mean that the individual cannot or should not develop and fly. The Butterfly Effect is real.
martin king said…

"The Butterfly Effect is real" never more so than in this era of networked commons and its a big part of my thinking about education and the most interesting education projects I've been involved with have been those that connected with the real world and where teachers ask students "how can we make a difference" (in the real world).

I adopted the Butterfly as the icon for my endeavour with http://inspirenshare,.com - see "The Butterfly FX" http://goo.gl/AUxfCW .. and set this as my image in Steve Blimage challenge - see http://goo.gl/jUFA6K
Niels J said…
I believe good teaching is always a combination of monologic (teacher centered), dialogic (student centered) and polyphonic (balanced) forms. See also http://www.edidaktik.dk/en/didaktisk-model/

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