DEMYSTIFYING THE MYTH
Teacher-centered or teacher-direct orientation has long been the
focus of education in Thailand. This approach has placed an emphasis
on rote learning or memorization rather than developing the thinking
skills of learners. The drawback of the system is seen through the
passive and dependent learners, who lack the skills to think critically
and creatively. Recognizing this major drawback, the Ministry of
Education has initiated a major reform of the system—from the
traditional teacher-centered to a student-centered approach—with the
intention of producing competent, independent and life-long learners
who can keep pace with global competition. However, due to the
several changes that have occurred as a result of the implementation
of this student-centered approach, it leaves a number of teachers
perplexed about their roles and the teaching pedagogy. This article
attempts to unfold the puzzle by first giving a definition of the term and
later on examining several aspects pertinent to the approach.
The issue of student- or child-centered learning has been an
explosion of interest among educators and school/college teachers in
recent years. In fact, the term was not much recognized until the Thai
National Education Act 1999 made it the key concept in the reform of
education. This new approach, it is hoped, will maximize the potential
of Thai people to cope with the increasing demands of the knowledgebased economy and the world of information and communication
Even with this interest, however, there arises much confusion
and mistrust of the pedagogical movement behind the new model.
Some teachers view it as a threat to their long-time teacher-centered or
teacher-front orientation, while some fear that the approach will lessen
the significant role they play in class, i.e., as the importer ofpage 60 SLLT 2003
knowledge. Likewise, some students become sullen and hostile to this
approach as can be seen from the remarks that were recently reported
in the newspapers that “the child-centered approach is like ‘khwai’-
centered approach.” Literally, the term ‘khwai’ in Thai refers to a
large cow used to draw ploughs for farmers. When used in reference to
people or ideas, it implies that the compared people or ideas are
witless. By describing the child-centered approach as ‘khwai’-centered
approach, it can be inferred that the approach is a disappointment; it
does not help students to become smarter but rather impedes their
progress. Such a criticism clearly reflects the failure, not of the
approach per se, but of the teachers’ misinterpretation, misuse and
abuse of the concept.
Despite a substantial body of literature on student-centered
learning, the majority of teachers, it can be said, are still skeptical of
whether the approach can really enhance student learning quality.
Much worse, teachers are uncertain of how and what they should do to
implement the approach. A number of questions regarding the
feasibility, viability and applicability of this teaching model are raised
widely in the teaching community. As such, this paper will attempt to
clarify and analyze the principles and aspects of student-centered
learning through the most frequently asked questions in terms of this
What Is Student-centered Learning?
Simply put, student-centered learning is a model wherein
students are placed in the core of the learning process. As such,
students’ needs, opinions, backgrounds, and goals are acknowledged
and incorporated within the learning environment. In this model,
teachers are guided by what is best for the students when helping them
to learn or make decisions.
The concept of student-centered learning is derived from
several models. It first evolves out of the constructivist learning theory
which asserts that knowledge is constructed uniquely and individually
in multiple ways (Vygotsky, 1978, cited in Bush & Saye, 2000). It also
derives from the experiential model in which teaching is seen as
transformation of existing knowledge (Kohonen, 1992) and the active
learning model which suggests that all learning activities involve some
kind of experience or some kind of dialog such as dialog with self and
dialog with others (Fink, 2002).SLLT 2003 page 61
What Are the Characteristics of Student-Centered Learning?
On the basis of the models from which it derives, studentcenteredness entails these characteristics:
• The focus is on active learning, using an integrated approach to
connect new learning to prior learning, stimulating interest and
relevance, providing student choice and control, adapting to
individual developmental differences, and providing a caring
and supportive learning environment (Bansberg, 2003).
• Knowledge is constructed through authentic learning. It is
learnt in a real context or the context in which it was first
generated. In other words, it links school learning experiences
to real world situations.
• Students are active participants in the learning process rather
than passive recipients. They have opportunities and increased
responsibilities to identify and self-direct their own learning
needs, locate learning resources, and construct their own
knowledge based on those needs.
• Class activities and project work are arranged differently to
allow learners a variety of choices to select according to the
needs of each student. This results from the notion that students
have different capabilities and preferences for learning modes
• A learning environment, where learning may take place
anywhere, at any time, in many forms and by diverse means, is
created. Such a learning environment enables students to be
responsible for and involved in their education. As such,
students are provided with substantive out-of-classroom
activities that increase students’ learning in a number of
• Students are motivated more intrinsically (self-motivation) than
extrinsically (external motivation). Simply put, students are
motivated from within not from without. For example, they
type a written assignment because they take pride in their work
not because they want people to admire or approve of it.page 62 SLLT 2003
Why Switch to this New Model?
What Is the Problem with the Traditional Method?
To answer these questions, we need to look back to analyze the
nature of the traditional teacher-centered approach, and its outcome on
learners to see why a student-centered approach should be promoted as
The teacher-centered approach, influenced by the transmission
model, affirms that knowledge is something that can be transmitted
from teachers to students, like a two-dimensional learning of teacher to
student instruction. In a classroom, a teacher is the person in authority
whose job is to impart knowledge and skills, evaluate and correct the
learners’ performance according to the criteria he/she has set. The
students are relatively passive recipients of knowledge, and expect the
teacher to be totally in charge of their learning. As such, the typical
pattern of classroom interaction in this transmission model is IRE—
teacher Initiation, student Response, and teacher Evaluation (Mehan,
1979). In the IRE pattern, teachers are always at the front of the room,
providing knowledge, asking students to demonstrate knowledge
previously taught, and evaluating the students’ responses and
This teacher-centered practice is deeply rooted in Thai society,
wherein “hierarchy” lies as a central value. Since Thais place an
emphasis on the vertical respect relation and submission to authority
(Williams, 1980), teachers, who have a much higher status than
students, are regarded as the second parents whose mission is not only
to impart knowledge but to teach morals and mold the students to be
good citizens in society as well. The image that is generally assigned
to a teacher is that of a “righteous guru” who possesses great
knowledge. As such, it goes without saying that in the learning
process, the teacher, not the learner, is placed right in the center.
In view of these two factors, the hierarchical pattern of society
and the transmission model of education, we can understand more
clearly why Thai teachers need to maintain their “righteous guru”
image through the use of teacher-front orientation and the IRE pattern.
Unfortunately, however, such teaching practice has a major downside,
for it has shaped learners to be passive recipients who merely listen,
memorize, and absorb the information transferred by the guru rather
than to initiate or negotiate the outcome of the learning process.
Students are not trained to exercise their analytical, critical, and
reflective thinking. Much worse, this education system does notSLLT 2003 page 63
prompt students to become independent learners who recognize that
knowledge is constructed in many ways, see the value of learning,
realize that learning is a life-long process, and understand that there’s
no one else but themselves be responsible for their own learning.
To keep abreast with the rapidly changing world of information
and the economy that requires critical thinking, we need to empower
the students. We need to enable them to think critically and
independently, and be responsible for and involved in their learning.
Students need to be self-directed and become active players in the
academic learning enterprise. On all these accounts, it is time to
advance from two-dimensional teacher-to-student instruction to threedimensional student-centered learning where students and teachers are
involved in project work. According to Watanabe (1999), the latter can
“allow for a depth in the learning process through the students and
teachers active participation in the learning process—a participation
that allows for an unlimited amount of creativity” (p. 1).
How Can Student-centered Learning be Implemented?
As mentioned earlier, the teacher-centered model has long been
the focus of our education system. Therefore, in an attempt to
implement the student-centered approach, the first thing that needs to
be done is to reconceptualize teaching and learning. The traditional
concept—that emphasizes knowledge as the object to be transmitted,
teaching as the presentation of knowledge, and learning as its
absorption—must all be reformed. We need to implement a new
conception that views knowledge as something that can be
constructed, teaching as a means to provide an environment that is
most conducive to learning, and learning as the process of learning
how to learn. Based on the new concept, teachers and students need to
modify their new roles to fit the learning process. These can be
outlined as follows:
The Role of a Teacher
The teacher’s role, in a student-centered classroom, is much
more crucial and valuable than that of the teacher-centered orientation.
Teachers need to:
• Change from the role of authority and presumed expert who
possesses all knowledge to become a facilitator who provides apage 64 SLLT 2003
setting in which the students can play an active and inquiring
role in their own learning.
• Create a learning environment that stimulates and challenges
learners, fosters critical thinking and the process of knowledge
construction. For example, teachers can enhance the thinking
skills of learners through doing such activities as reasoning,
decision making, reflecting, making inferences and problem
solving. These types of activities encourage students to engage
cognitively and emotionally with the learning tasks. The latter
activity, especially, can be done by building an environment
that allows students to examine complex problems using a
wide variety of resources, develop their own strategies for
addressing these problems, and present and negotiate solutions
to these problems in a collaborative manner.
• Promote collaborative learning. Collaboration among students
is an integral component of the student-centered approach.
Working as a team, according to Kohonen (1992), can create a
positive interdependence and individual accountability among
learners as each member attempts to contribute to the team
product and thus is in charge of helping his/her teammates to
learn. Collaboration can also foster learners’ growth, develop
social and learning skills, and help them construct their own
knowledge through engaging in the exchange of ideas.
• Recognize the individual differences in approaches to learning.
Teachers should set multiple tasks and give choices to learners
to select and sequence their own activities independently.
• Reinforce the idea that the source of knowledge is not confined
within the walls of a classroom, but may also be discovered
outside. Some examples of sources of knowledge include:
parents, elders, libraries, museums, historical sites, authentic
materials, and the Internet.
• Utilize “authentic assessment” (“Authentic Assessment,”
2001)—one that examines a student’s collective abilities,
criterion-referenced, and performance-based—rather than
• Draw from different disciplines to integrate learning
experiences and more importantly, use team teaching toSLLT 2003 page 65
achieve integrated learning outcomes. For example, teachers
with different expertise like tourism and biology, working
together, can bring together the concepts in different subjects to
teach generally about the environment.
• Draw upon the relation between the students’ prior knowledge
and experiences to the new learning. This is based on the
notion that the learning experiences that relate to the students’
personal knowledge and experiences are the most easily learnt
and often the most difficult to forget.
The Role of a Student
In a similar vein, students play a significant role in the learning
process. They no longer view themselves as empty vessels waiting to
be filled. Instead, they need to:
• Change from the old belief “knowledge is to be transmitted by
teachers” to the new understanding “knowledge is to be
constructed,” and be aware that students are responsible for
constructing their own personal knowledge.
• Change from merely being passive recipients to taking part as
active participants who are engaged in all aspects and activities
of their learning (both cognitively and physically) that are
generally the duty of the teacher in most traditional learning
• Set meaningful goals for completing the learning activity,
assume more responsibility for meeting those goals, and
monitor their progress in order to determine if the strategies
they are using to accomplish their goals are effective
Is the Use of Technology an Integral Component
in Student-Centered Learning?
There is no doubt that in the 21
century technology is
increasingly important. Not only does it affect the way we live, the
way we conduct business, the way we communicate with one another,
but also the way we teach and learn. According to Tsang-Kosma
(2003), the business world demands that schools prepare graduates
who are skilled at working in teams, can effectively solve problems,page 66 SLLT 2003
are able to process and apply information, and more importantly, can
use technology effectively in order to maximize productivity. As such,
the challenges and educational goals for schools should focus on
creating the learning environment that incorporates technology as well
as fosters the skills necessary to empower students. If integrated
properly, technology such as audio, dynamic visual formats,
computers, and the Internet, will enrich the learning environment by
using them effectively as a medium of instruction or a tool to enhance
student learning. Some merits of technology, as outlined by NCREL
(2003) are highlighted here:
• Technology can change the learning context from teachercentered to learner-centered activities, giving students more
control of content, creating a more collaborative learning
environment, and providing different ways of accessing
information and communicating with people. Many interactive
software programs can lend themselves well to learnercentered instructional approaches.
• Technology provides hands-on, minds-on activities—those that
engage students’ physical as well as mental skills to solve
problems. The activities can increase students’ fluency with
given content, strengthen basic skills, help students acquire
higher-level proficiencies, increase the relevancy of instruction
to students’ lives, provide interactive feedback about their
performance, and most of all, motivate students. For example,
the use of electronic books, often on CD-ROM, can turn
reading from a static, print-based activity into an exciting,
• Technology, particularly the Internet, is a tool well-suited to
learning. It provides an ideal learning environment that allows
anyone to learn by doing, to receive feedback, to refine
understanding, to build new knowledge, and to reflect
(“Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers,” 2003).
What Difficulties Can Arise in the Implementation
of Student-Centered Learning?
The difficulties that may arise from implementing this
innovative model include:SLLT 2003 page 67
• Some teachers resist changing their old beliefs and usual
teaching practices. Such resistance may occur from the deeply
rooted “righteous guru” or “imparter of knowledge” image
fixed in their head. These teachers view themselves as the
authorities whose mission is to teach, direct, instruct, and
control students. Therefore, they may fear doing things
differently; they may see the change as a threat to their status
• A number of teachers are not willing to implement the
approach, for they perceive that the way they teach is already
the best and thus there is no need to change. Since these
teachers opt to use only one way or method that they feel
works best, they are not open to new ideas or other
• Some teachers are in a rush to implement the approach without
a thorough understanding of the principles and a careful plan of
teaching. These teachers are too eager to make changes and do
not take into consideration the culture and realities of their
• Some teachers lack the knowledge and skills to incorporate
technology into their own teaching. Unfortunately, many
teachers know very little about computers and are not
interested in learning; while others may try to seek new uses
for technology in the classroom but do not have sufficient
technical support. These teachers see the value of technology
but they feel frustrated because they are not trained to use these
resources in the classroom setting.
• It may be the case that while many teachers are personally
committed to serving students’ needs, the structure of their
organization and policies may not accommodate or, in some
cases, hinder the desire to be more student-centered.
• Some students reject the approach because they want evidence
that they are being taught something. These students, like some
teachers cling to the perception that knowledge must be
transferred and thus wait for teachers to spoonfeed them.page 68 SLLT 2003
What Results Can be Indicative of Success in
the Implementation of Student-Centered Approach?
The ultimate goal of student-centered learning is to produce
self-directed, lifelong learners. This means that teaching can facilitate
students to move from dependency toward autonomy. The success of
the implementation of such an approach can be examined from the
stages of student development below: (“Steps Toward,” 1996)
Stage One: Dependent Learners
Learners, at this very first stage, are dependent on teachers—
authorities who impart knowledge, give explicit instructions on what
to do, how and when to do it. To students, learning is teacher-centered.
Students are not given an opportunity to make choices or exercise
control over their learning.
Stage Two: Interested Learners
At this stage, learners show positive response toward the
motivation and guidelines given by teachers. Despite a directive
approach, teachers can successfully link content to students’ interests,
show high support, and build a good rapport in the classroom
community, all of which can reinforce student willingness and
Stage Three: Involved Learners
Students, at this level, are much more developed. More and
more, they see themselves as participants in their own learning, seeing
the value of their own life experiences, and also the value of learning
from and with others. Learners respond well to teaching through
Stage Four: Self-directed Learners
At this stage, learners can set their own goals, plans, and
standards. This gives them a sense of independence in, and
responsibility for their learning. Teachers no longer give lectures, but
rather act as consultants, monitor student progress, and give feedback
in the learning process.
ConclusionSLLT 2003 page 69
Student-centered learning is a model in which students are the
focus of the learning process. This model, however, does not mean that
teachers will step aside, letting students alone run everything. Rather,
it means that teachers, when planning their teaching, will take into
consideration the views and needs of students and run the classroom to
the benefit of students. It also means that teachers will manage their
teaching in a way that makes students feel included, value the
educational process, and take control of their own learning.
Implementing a student-centered model is a true challenge for
century. The process of incorporating it into our education
system demands hard work and effort from teachers and students alike.
The key to the success of implementation requires, on the teacher’s
part, a careful study and a thorough comprehension of the model’s
principles, as well as a genuine recognition of its value. Through the
new understanding, teachers then can change their old beliefs and
practices; they can set the new goals and standards, and plan their
teaching, taking into account what is best for students. In so doing,
teachers can also work on their personal and professional
development. On the learner’s part, likewise, students, guided by
teachers, need to adopt a new conception of the learning process. They
need to realize that if they are to keep pace with the rapidly changing
world, and to compete in the global market place that has a growing
demand for educated workers with skills in critical thinking, problem
solving and decision making, they must change their long-time
practice from passive to active learners. They need to empower
themselves, gain control over their learning, and become autonomous
learners. Finally, it is hoped, teachers and students working in
collaboration, can gradually make the learning environment become
productive and worthwhile.
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About the Author
Asst. Prof. Chutima Thamraksa obtained her Ph.D. in English
Rhetoric and Linguistics from Indiana University of Pennsylvania,
U.S.A. in 1997, M.A. in English for Non-Native Speakers and a
Certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL)from
Central Missouri State University, U.S.A. in 1988, and B.Ed. in
English from Chulalongkorn University in 1985. She is currently the
Chairperson of the English Department, School of Humanities,
Bangkok University. Her publications include three textbooks:
Exploring through Writing: An Advanced Rhetoric; Report Writing;SLLT 2003 page 71
Critical Reading, and articles on Virtual schooling: a technological and
educational revolution, and The use of ICT on language teaching.