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Aim the Spotlight

Learner-centered teachers “position themselves alongside the learner and keep the attention, focus, and spotlight aimed at and on the learning process.  That is the (teacher’s) role in a nutshell.”

Maryellen Weimer

The learning process.  It used to be easy.  For the teacher there was a prescribed curriculum, laid out step by step in a textbook with accompanying workbook and tests.  If you ‘covered’ the content on schedule, you did your job.  For the students it required going to school, sitting in a desk, reading the textbook, taking the notes, doing the worksheets, studying for and passing the test.  Year after year (but not in the summer because there are crops to bring in) it was the same.

And then we started actually disconnecting teaching and learning and studying it.  People began changing the way they approached teaching to make it more meaningful to the learner.  And the learner began to realize they learned differently than others and had more control over their destiny.

Most recently, the K-12 world (I believe driven by standardized testing results) has coined this focus ‘differentiated instruction.’  Differentiated instruction (Tomlinson, 1999), “provides an opportunity to plan curriculum and instruction that meets the needs of academically diverse learners by honoring each student’s learning needs and maximizing each student’s learning capacity.” Differentiated instruction focuses on:  content, process, product, affect, and learning environment; therefore, it requires knowing learning styles and pairing them with appropriate teaching styles.

A simple definition of learning style is the way in which individuals begin to concentrate, process, absorb and retain new and/or difficult information.

A simple definition of teaching style is the way an instructor responds to the classroom environment.

So, what is the role of the instructor in creating a classroom environment that impacts the student’s ability to concentrate, process, absorb and retain information?  In the Learner-Centered Teaching text, Maryellen Weimer describes the role as one aimed at the learning process, a process that combines two things:  learning outcomes (content) and learning how to learn. Weimer also states, (and I keenly agree), “I believe that we greatly underestimate the complexity of the process involved in taking a generic active learning strategy and adapting it so that it fits the context, learning needs of students, instructor style and instructional setting in which it will be used.”  Being a learner-centered teacher is not easy work.

This is where I am beginning to realize one potential distinction between adult education and childhood education – the fact that the teacher and the learner are truly mutually-accountable for the learning, which requires a higher level of maturity and development to achieve the full potential.  Montgomery and Groat (1998) contend that, at the college level, “. . . by making an effort to consider student learning styles, we may be able to reap equal satisfaction from reinvigorating our teaching practices.” (Montgomery and Groat, 1998).  Students at the higher education level can provide more meaningful feedback necessary for instructors to reach their full potential and achieve professional growth.

So, what is the role of the instructor in a learner-centered environment?  Here are several things to consider:

  • The role of the instructor is to think about teaching and learning styles as a way to approach instruction in ways they had not in the past (thus, perhaps, gaining new and deeper understanding for content).
  • The role of the instructor is to develop a mutually-accountable relationship with the student, and to assist the student in becoming a self-directed learner. Weimer states, “Students need to be made aware of themselves as learners and develop confidence in their ability to tackle learning tasks on their own.  Self-awareness is the foundation on which further development as a confident, self-directed, and self-regulated learner grows.”
  • The role of the instructor is to know their teaching perspective (style), but to stretch both themselves and the students out of their comfort zone.
  • The role of the teacher is to consider not only ‘styles’ but also context and instructional setting.  Setting is rarely considered in good instructional practices, but human physiological, psychological, sociological, emotional, and environmental preferences play key roles in learning that may be at the root of a learning issue.  A student may need to move every 15 minutes in order to stay alert; a student may prefer a colder environment with less direct sunlight; a student may prefer to work alone on some tasks and in groups for others. How does the classroom furniture allow for this?

“The final goal of any learning experience should be the creation of meaning.

Real knowledge occurs as we take in our rich sensory environment and piece it together in our own unique way to give us a picture of our world.

This becomes our reality.

Each new experience refers to this picture; each new experience reorders and expands it.

What we know, feel, learn and think is shaped by HOW we know, feel, learn and think.”

Dr. Carla Hannaford


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