Student Center Learning Debate: Common Core vs Balanced Literacy
By Peter J. Foley, Ed.D.
The purpose of this article is to take the reader through some current arguments that are part of the debate over student centered learning. At the risk of being simplistic, the current thrust of the student centered learning advocates is to dethrone teachers from their traditional lofty perch at the front of the classroom lecturing on a topic for an entire class period. The extreme is the teacher—all too often found in Thailand—just feeding the students information with little or no chance for class discussion or exchange. At worst this teacher monologue continues for the whole class period. In fairness there are model schools throughout Thailand that have become much more student centered. There are also some private foundations that have spearheaded effective student centered model schools like the Lampaimat Pattana School for elementary school and the Michai Pattana School for high school. Both schools are located side by side in Lampimat, Burirum in northeast Thailand.
Research has shown that students normally can only absorb what a teacher is teaching for a maximum period of 20 minutes. In sum, if the traditional lecture method of teaching just described is used, student will probably be receiving about half the information the teaching is explaining at best.
Student centered learning proponents want a much more balanced schedule of teacher and student activities. For example, the classroom might start with the teacher explaining for 10 or 15 minutes the basic lesson for the day and then have students “turn and talk” about what they think the lesson is about with their fellow students. Then the teacher might introduce problems to be solved using the instructions given at the beginning of the lesson either in groups or individual work while the teacher goes around to each group or students to help . At the same time the teacher makes formative assessments to see how well individual students are grasping the information or concept.
An extension of the argument for student centered learning is currently being waged in the U.S.A. under the banner of balanced literacy vs common core. A lot of the arguments now center on elementary education, particularly on how to teach reading.
On July 3, 2014 , the New York Times featured this debate. In New York City the city government from 2003 to 2008 mandated balanced literacy methodology. Even at the end of the 1990 many teachers in New York City accepted balanced literacy as a correct way to teach. Teachers across grades and subjects were told to follow a “workshop model”, i.e. a short mini-lesson followed by practice group or independent work, then a final sum up of learnings at the end of the class. At this time, therefore, student centered learning advocates were winning the day, at least in New York City.
One of the debaters in this New York Times feature was Diana Senechal, author of Republic of Noise, The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. She argues that such pointed structuring of class lessons is wrong because so much depends on what is being taught, so the best teaching method for a particular learning sessions should be entirely left up to the teacher to decide. But this argument fails because traditional teachers—when given a choice—do not change. Despite a specific policy for a change to student centered learning in Thailand back in 1999, there has been only incremental change , and Thailand’s rural areas continue to be dominated by teachers using traditional teaching methods only.
Another New York Times participant in the debates , Claire Needell, the author of Nothing Real, argues that a balanced literacy approach gives too much freedom to students to decide what they want to read, especially on the elementary school level. Student get the impression that books are for their pleasure only and they need not tackle more difficult texts or subjects that they are not interested in. The end result, she contends, is that students will be unprepared for the rigors of high school , and later, college subjects.
And this is the main point of the common core advocates that have come to dominate the U.S.A. landscape during the eight years of the Bush administration and into the Obama Administration. American Schools must be accountable and standardized testing is the key to holding public schools and teachers accountable. This was the central thinking behind President Bush’s signature program called “Leave No Child Behind.” The actual Common Core Standards were written in 2009 under the guidance of the National Governors Association among others.
Thailand has its own Common Core and its own standardized testing. It would appear that both the United States and Thailand suffer from a testing meritocracy that favors students who, by accident of birth, are from the upper income families.
The problem with common core standards in both countries is that the standards are rigid and fail to test the real intelligence and over-all abilities of the test takers. Moreover, in countries following common core and over dependent on standardized tests, teachers are unable to teach creatively and teach for deep understanding since they are judged on how well their students do on the standardized tests.
Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, says that U.S. schools currently are over dependent on standardized tests. Furthermore, such testing is unjust since students from poverty backgrounds or minority , non-English speaking backgrounds will perform, on average, less successfully. Cannot the same be said for Thailand? Is there not an opportunity gap between rich and poor opening wider and wider in both countries? And isn’t one of the cause and over dependency on standardized tests that results in many worthy students to be cut off from further education?