Featured Articles Op Ed Opinion:Thai education Opinion:World Education

The Heart of the Matter…..

This commentary is titled “The Heart of the Matter”, this is the name of a famous song made popular by Don Henley, of the Eagles. As so often happens, the melodies of music and the lyrics of songs truly speak to us. What I will focus here, is matter about education, but what I am about to say also brings to my mind the title of that beautiful love song sung so well by Don Henley and many others. Although the song’s theme is different from our mission and this article, its title is truly relevant to the cause of this web site.

The SCLThailand website is dedicated to assisting Thai school administrators and classroom teachers to move more swiftly than has been possibly so far, towards the realization of the goal of student centred learning being the norm in Thai government schools. This goal was established in the Thai National Education Act, 1999 (Buddhist Era, 2542). Interestingly, the Act did not set a date for the massive paradigm shift that it seeks to happen.

Would it have been better to set a date for national implementation of that important goal? That is a question with many pros and cons.

Let us get back to “The Heart of the Matter”. It is now March 2012 [BE 2555], 13 years have passed since the promulgation of the Act. I wrote in a previous article [January 2012] about the need for education reformers to recognise that change is a slow process, this is certainly being borne out by the slow pace of change in implementing the move to student centred learning in Thailand.

Perhaps a symptom or sign of the lack of progress is the entrenched nature of the examination system in Thai schools. Each year, in mid March, students are very busy studying for end of year exams. On the face of it, this seems quite reasonable, but a few questions come up. Exactly which students are preparing for exams?  Answer: From primary school students as young as 6 years old in Primary 1 [Prathom 1] up to Year 12 in secondary [Matayom 6].

This leads to further questions.  How do young students in Year 1 prepare themselves for these examinations?  What is the general content of the examinations? Another significant question to ask is – why is it that children as young as this are subjected to examinations at all?  Another important question is – what hangs on the outcomes of the examinations?

I ask these questions in the hope that they will provoke some discussion on this website. The emphasis on examinations runs counter to the way students’ progress would be assessed in a pedagogical system where the student is at the centre of the teaching and learning.

In a student centered system there would be little emphasis on examinations – this may even be true for Thai schools today – the exam is not so important, although I suspect that is not the case.

But what about “The Heart of the Matter”?  

Let me come to it quite pointedly, “The Heart of the Matter” in educational terms is this: at the very core of the classroom, the school, the education system, and the nation’s  standing in international educational performance rankings, it is the teacher who matters most in students’ learning achievement. There is plenty of research evidence about this.  However, this is not the place to quote much of the research evidence. Perhaps the best evidence of the key role of the teacher is to look at the highest performing education systems in Asia and examine the factors which make them such high performing systems.

Four of the world’s highest performing education systems are from Asia. These are Hong Kong, Korea, Shanghai, and Singapore. The OECD’S Performance Indicators of Student Achievement [PISA] assessments in 2009 showed for example, that in Mathematics, 15 year old students from Shanghai performed two or three years above the level of students of the same age in Australia, the USA.

What is it about these four education systems that puts them well above other Asian systems and puts them in the class of world top performers?

The Grattan Institute from Melbourne University in Australia examined the four systems in an endeavour to get an answer to this question. The results of their investigation were published in an important report – Catching Up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia []

What the Institute found:

There is growing global agreement on what works in schools

A body of international research has identified the common characteristics of high-performing education systems.


• Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. They attend to best practice internationally, give close attention to measuring success, and understand the state and needs of their system.

• Value teachers and understand their profession to be complex. They attract high quality candidates, turn them into effective instructors and build a career structure that rewards good teaching.

• Focus on learning and on building teacher capacity to provide it. Teachers are educated to diagnose the style and progress of a child’s learning. Mentoring, classroom observation and constructive feedback creates more professional, collaborative teachers.

The four high performing East Asian systems are implementing what works. They have introduced one or several of the following reforms.

In particular they:

• Provide high quality initial teacher education. In Singapore, students are paid civil servants during their initial teacher education. In Korea, government evaluations have bite and can close down ineffective teacher education courses.

• Provide mentoring that continually improves learning and teaching. In Shanghai, all teachers have mentors, and new teachers have several mentors who observe and give feedback on their classes.

• View teachers as researchers. In Shanghai teachers belong to research groups that continuously develop and evaluate innovative teaching. They cannot rise to advanced teacher status without having a published paper peer reviewed.

• Use classroom observation. Teachers regularly observe each other’s classes, providing instant feedback to improve each student’s learning.

• Promote effective teachers and give them more responsibility for learning and teaching. Master Teachers are responsible for improving teaching throughout the system.

A few of the keys they took: In Hong Kong the emphasis on examinations was abandoned, in Singapore teacher education courses were re developed so they place a much greater emphasis on practical classroom management and pedagogical methodology accompanied by a reduction in the philosophical and reflective elements of the courses. In Singapore, pre service teachers are paid as government employees. In Shanghai teacher’s class contact hours were reduced so they would have more time to work with mentor teachers.

But the key thing is that in each of these systems government education policy is always linked closely with teachers’ working conditions, professional learning and career pathways.

In future months we will explore these systems more deeply.

I wonder how many of the reforms evident in Singapore Hong Kong Korea and Shanghai, have been considered in Thailand?

Whichever way educational reform is looked at, researched and examined, at the heart of educational improvement, are the teachers. In his book,  Why Not the Best Schools? [ACER Press, Camberwell, Australia, 2008] Brian Caldwell devotes a chapter to demonstrate that the quality of schools will never exceed the quality of the staff.

It is in this area, that Thailand needs to make some giant leaps so that its teachers will be trained and supported in such a way that will help the country achieve the goals of the National Education Act of 1999.  The Thai system can be as good the four Asian high flyers mentioned here, but my guess is that it needs to look closely at what those systems have done to move educational reform so quickly.  Similar things could be done in Thailand.

Greg Cairnduff

Acting Editor

Featured Articles Op Ed Opinion:Thai education Opinion:World Education


The pace of change in the world today is a feature of daily life in the 21st Century.

Educators who were in schools 30 years ago will remember the anticipated arrival of computers into daily life. Probably not many people fully realised the full impact of the rapid development of Information and Communications Technology daily life, but the coming of computers was something that was looked forward to as people felt there would been many social and economic advantages that would come with the widespread introduction of the new technology. There was talk of how computers would take over so much work that people would have much more leisure. Some education systems introduced “leisure education” into the curriculum!

I guess a question remains on whether or not the introduction of computers as an essential business and household tool has brought increased leisure. Many would doubt that it has.

But one thing was true about the 70s anticipation of the coming Information Age. In the 21st century digital technology permeates many aspects of daily life. It would be easy to list the many changes in personal and work lives that have come about as a result of pervasive ICTs, but those things are so obvious it is not necessary to mention them here.

One very important thing that is vital for educators to grasp is the rapid pace of change in work life and the exponential explosion in knowledge that has come about in the years between the final decades of last century and today.

Children born since the start of the 21st century are “digital natives” they are growing up in a truly digital, flat world.

What about the teachers of those children?

Not too many of them would be true “digital natives” most would be “digital immigrants”, they would have had to learn to live and work in the new digital age. The use of the tools of that age does not come easily to all people, teachers included. It must be admitted, however, that just as some people have a flair for learning languages other than their own native language, so too do some people have a flair for learning the digital “language” so essential to mastering the digital tools available to teachers.

Just imagine this scenario – a teacher in a high school who cannot use email, who cannot browse the internet, who cannot use tools like Skype, who does not know anything about Facebook. How can that teacher understand the real needs of the students he (or she) teachers. How can such teachers understand the world of their students and in fact how can they know their students in a way that will enable the teacher to teach the students as individuals?

Such teachers are a bit like teachers who are asked to teach a foreign language to students when they, the teachers in fact cannot speak that language themselves. They are being put in an impossible situation by the curriculum planners and administrators who introduce such initiatives without the requisite professional development of the teachers faced with implementation of the new language.

Do you know any teachers like this? Do you work with teachers like this? What are their lessons like? What is their relationship with their students like?

In Thailand I am sure many such teachers would be found in schools.

Teachers who have not adapted to the Information Age should not be condemned or looked down upon. They deserve and need as much help as possible from colleagues and their employers so that they have the confidence to use ICTs to improve their pedagogy.

Unlike the example of the jurisdictional introduction of a new curriculum above, the students who are the digital natives of the 21st century deserve to have teaching methods and a curriculum that is suited to their digital world and times. This need is not being imposed by administrators or governments as in the case of the imposition of foreign language learning as in the example above, it comes from an inevitable international spread of digital technology. So governments have to get their educations systems to respond to this as an imperative for their education systems.

In the case of Thailand, the government is about to start the distribution of computer tablets to students in Matayom 7 [year 1, high school]. The government should be applauded for taking a big step in providing Thai students with an important digital tool.

The advantage to be gained from this bold and brave initiative will not be maximized unless there is a program to train and support teachers in the use of these tablets. If there is adequate support this program could provide a dramatic swing towards student centred learning in Thai schools

SCLThailand will continue to monitor and encourage the government to follow through with it’s tablets for school children program.

articles Featured Articles

Teaching for Understanding : Article 1

Teaching for Understanding

An Introduction


Thai teachers

Shifting the Educational Paradigm  to Student Centered Teaching and Learning


Greg Cairnduff

By Greg Cairnduff, 

Director The Australian International School of Bangkok 

January  2012  





This article is a  contribution to the  discussion about moving Thai education  from rote learning as the pedagogical norm, towards a pedagogy that is student-centered  and one that  will enhance the capacities of Thai students going into  the 21st Century workforce.

This is the first of a series of three articles on the basics of the methodology known as Teaching for Understanding.

Educational Change is Not Easy to Achieve

The challenge of educational change is well documented  and demonstrated in the practical attempts at reform by education systems around the world. Evidence of reform efforts reveals one inescapable factor: large scale educational change is never easy, nor is it quick to achieve.

The Finnish education system is an outstanding example of a high performing, high quality system. But it should be noted that it took Finnish educators  least 15 years to develop their at system to its current level.

Systemic context is relevant to the pace of successful reform. For example, Finland’s context is one of a relatively small country of under 6 million people compared to Thailand’s population of 62 million. On this count alone, the contexts of the two systems are very different.

Educational Change in Thailand

Thailand has  a very large education system. To move from an old paradigm of education [20th Century model] to a new paradigm [21st Century model] in a system of over 35 000 schools is like turning a large ship around – it takes time and sea space; it can be slow, cumbersome, and hard to achieve in the short term.

Despite these contextual challenges, the shift to student-centered learning is the  shift that is essential for  students’ success in the 21st Century.  In the end it is teachers in the classrooms of Thai schools who have to actually bring about this big change.

What are some of the needs of 21st Century Education?

Students must be prepared differently to enter the Information Age [C21st] workforce than in the Industrial era. The main difference is  preparation related to knowledge work, the kind of work that more and more people will do in the 21st century.

If Thailand is to have workers with the necessary skills for these times, the nation must have an education system that focuses heavily on the skills required for this  century, particularly communication and computer skills

What Knowledge and Skills are required for the 21st Century?

Building knowledge and developing sets of skills have traditionally been considered the mainstays of education.

In the rapidly changing world, the acquisition of the standard skills of reading, writing and numeracy are no longer sufficient. Internationally, education systems are  looking at ways to prepare students for  jobs that involve complex thinking and communication skills. These are the knowledge work jobs of today and tomorrow that require complex skills, expertise and creativity.

What seems certain is that there are two sets of skills that are at the top of job requirements for 21st century work: The ability to quickly acquire and apply new knowledge and  know how to apply certain commonly required skills to all aspects of the workplace; such as  problem solving, communication, teamwork, technology and innovation.

Four powerful elements  are converging and leading towards new ways of learning for life in the 21st century.

These  are generally recognised as:

  • Knowledge work
  • Thinking tools
  • Digital lifestyles
  • Learning research.

The diagram  provides an  indication of how these four elements fit together.

Education Transitions

Knowledge Work

The Thai Education system faces increasing pressure to produce knowledge workers.

Internationally, corporations are making investments in global programs to attract graduates to the high technology fields and to train them in these fields. The Thai education system has to ensure that students are not at a disadvantage when these corporations are in the Thai or international market for knowledge workers. For example, Thai graduates have to compete with well educated graduates from India and China.

In the book, The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What it Means for all of US, the author, Meredith writes “suddenly Americans must compete with much of the rest of the world for their jobs with much of the rest of the world “ [1] This comment emphasises the same for Thailand – Thai workers are competing with Indian and Chinese workers on the international job market.

Thinking Tools

The mental tasks of knowledge work involve accessing, managing, creating, and communicating information. These tasks are becoming easier and more efficient as digital tools for assisting with the tasks become increasingly sophisticated. Therefore, teaching in and learning in Thai schools has to move towards teaching students methods to help them organise their thinking, as well they need to use the digital tools available to them.

Digital Lifestyles

The terms “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” describe the divide that often exists between the students who are digital natives and their teachers, who are mostly digital immigrants. These digital natives [the students] and the digital immigrants [the teachers], must be able to work together. It is likely that it is the teachers who have to change the most.

Traditional Teaching

Studies of traditional teaching practices reveal numerous and persistent pitfalls. Too frequently students can’t remember what they have learnt or don’t understand the material well enough to apply it in different situations.  Regular classroom activities are often too routine to promote understanding.

The spelling drills, true-and-false quizzes, arithmetic exercises and conventional essay questions so common in the teacher-led classroom, promote the learning of knowledge, but limit the versatility of the skills.  The development of knowledge and routine skills are important, but what students learn is superficial and often remains inert, students are unable to apply their knowledge, or recognize opportunities to do so.

Educators must provide alternate applications for the theory and real-world examples. Learning experiences where students can apply their new knowledge and understanding outside the academic context, and

Teaching for Understanding

The approaches to developing understanding in students as used in many parts of the world  are  often based on the work of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Faculty members at the Harvard Graduate School of Education collaborated with many experienced teachers and researchers to develop, test, and refine this approach for effective teaching.

It is strongly recommended that readers refer to the web site at:

Teaching for Understanding is based on the premise that students who understand information are more flexible with their knowledge.

What is Understanding?

The term understanding denotes a variety of mental processes, states and structures.

  • Understanding refers to the ability appreciate the nature, significance, or explanation of a concept and apply these concepts appropriately (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 2002).
  • Understanding implies to the ability to make connections between facts [knowledge] and relating newly acquired information, to that which is already known and integrating knowledge into a cohesive whole so that ideas and concepts are understood.

The Need to Develop Understanding in the Teaching and Learning Process

Educators and students find themselves in the middle of an information explosion and a rapidly changing world.  The increased body of information proves problematic for teaching and learning. It is no longer feasible for students to memorize all the facts and figures that come at them on a daily basis.  Instead, teachers need to work with students to develop their ability to understand concepts and principles that will permit them to operate in the rapidly evolving world.

Researchers and educational reformers have worked collaboratively to develop a definition of understanding and identify approaches to teaching that develop skills and improve student understanding.

Developing Understanding  

Students’ ability to understand the world needs to be developed so they are able to adapt to new situations and apply their understanding to enable them to solve  problems.

The application of skills and knowledge beyond the classroom requires more than just the ability to do the task. It requires understanding of concepts and big ideas.

In Thailand [and not only Thailand] most of the current teaching practice has students acquiring knowledge and routine skills without necessarily any real understanding of the concepts and reasons which underpin the acquired knowledge. Often students know how to do something, but they have no depth of understanding of the processes and outcomes of what they are doing.

For example, students may know how a car can be driven so that it moves, but do they understand the chemistry and physics in causing this to happen?

In looking at an issue for example, the environment, it is necessary to have an understanding of the internal combustion engine in order to make judgments about the impact of the car on the environment.

Implications for Thai teachers

The challenge for Thai teachers is to move their practice from mainly teaching and testing the acquisition of knowledge to teaching students to think, ask questions, and develop deep understanding of the knowledge they acquire and rather than testing knowledge,  assessment ought to part of the learning process.

Articles presented in earlier by Ellen Cornish and Dr Don Jordan [December, and September October 2011] provide practical examples of how teachers can plan for this type of teaching.  

Article 2 in this series on Teaching for Understanding in February, will suggest ways teachers can enhance the development of deep understanding.

[1] Meredith, R. The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What it Means for all of US New York, Norton, p190

Featured Articles Op Ed

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

Getting Down to Brass Tacks:

Making Student -Centered Learning Work in Thailand

Starting at the Teachers Colleges

There seems to be a common consensus among educators that teachers colleges throughout Thailand need to be doing more in order to prepare future teachers to meet the challenge of fulfilling the mandates of the Education Act of 1999.  The purpose of these remarks is to spark debate on what exactly teachers college are now doing and what more they need to do to prepare pre-service Thai teachers.

My hypothesis is that a major reason for the delay in the actualization of the goals of the Education Act of 1999 is a lack of rigor in the curriculum and instruction at many of Thailand’s teachers colleges. This reason coupled with the lack of incentives to attract the best Thai students to become teachers are the main obstacles blocking Thailand’s path to excellence in public education.

I wonder how much we know about the effectiveness of our teachers colleges in Thailand.

What research has been done in Thailand on the effectiveness of teachers colleges?  What are the teaching methods used by professors at teachers colleges?  Since the Education Act of 1999 was put into effect, what demonstrable progress has been made at teachers colleges to meet the challenges of training teachers in the digital age?

Since student centered learning is at the heart of the Education Act , we also need to answer the question of what part student-centered learning plays in today’s teachers colleges curriculum.   Before we begin to talk about lapses in today’s curriculum, let me make clear two preliminary points:

1.  student- centered learning does not mean teachers exclude from their teaching methods direct teaching to the whole class.  There is an appropriate time for the teacher to explain a principal or concept or group of facts and this time is after students have wrestled with a concept ,and

2. Student- centered learning should use cognitive science research results in order to take full advantage of providing students with optimal learning environments.

Let’s look first at all the ways that teachers have at their disposal to teach a class.

How People Learn

FIGURE 1.1 With knowledge of how people learn, teachers can choose more purposefully among techniques to accomplish specific goals. From How People Learn(National Science Foundation)

As I suggested previously, direct teaching, that is “teaching by telling” does have a place in student -centered teaching.   Many educators do not understand that lectured based teaching does have an important place in student centered learning; the key is knowing when, how long an explanation is necessary and in what order “teaching by telling” is most effective.

In sum, the mastery of teaching is knowing the proper order in which to use the methods in the chart above based on the particular subject matter. Different subjects require different approaches to learning as well. For example , in teaching science the teacher is likely to choose more often from the inquiry based choices above in planning lessons.

I am most concerned that teachers colleges in Thailand may not be adequately teaching future teachers how to use cognitive science research findings in how people learn in the design of their lessons.  I will just mention three core learning principles based on solid research as illustrative, principles explained fully in How People Learn ( National Science Foundation 2000).**

Let’s take what we know about long term memory. Students have preconceived notions about a subject for study.  Effective teaching starts with students’ preconceptions and confirms them, rejects them and modifies or replaces these preconceptions.

Second, learning is enhanced when students form concepts that are personally meaningful, that is putting the organization of learning into a framework or schema.

Thirdly, learning is optimized when students are taught to use “metacognitive” strategies.  These strategies include: sense making, self assessment and reflection on what worked or needs improvement.

Applying these and other research findings to the classroom is essential so that the teacher has an understanding of the learner, including his cultural differences and preconceived ideas of the subject matter; pays attention to “what is taught, why it is taught and what mastery of the subject look like”;and makes formative assessments, on-going assessments designed to make students’ thinking “visible to both teachers and students.”  ( How Students Learn, p.24)

Of course , the first step should be to make teachers competent and expert in their chosen field.*** At the same time , the professors at the teachers colleges should be modeling teaching for understanding , that is , demonstrating constantly what a student-centered classroom looks like. One design that might be considered at teachers colleges is to spend the first two years acquiring an expert knowledge of their chosen field and the final two years learning how to apply that knowledge and understanding to teaching.  The keys to success would be producing lesson plans of excellence using research on how people learn and applying the research in effective ways in practice teaching.

These core learning principles and what needs to be done to apply them,  scratch the surface of what teachers need to know; nevertheless, it may serve to start a dialogue of what really needs to be done at teachers college to bring a high level of learning for understanding to schools across the Kingdom of Thailand.

** we strongly recommend reading How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and Schools (2000) which can be downloaded free at:

***  To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.


articles Featured Articles

Student Centered Learning: A Case for Integrated Learning Classrooms

Ms Ellen Cornish and Dr Don W Jordan

Our classroom experience has shown us that the many benefits of moving away from rote learning to an integrated learning classroom, is that skills, values and understandings can best be taught and assessed within meaningful ‘connected’ contexts. Based on our understanding of students’ needs, interests, prior knowledge and experience, we planned a set of broad understandings to help frame our unit of work. These understandings – though specific to the topic – incorporated some of the    key concepts that students explore with increasing sophistication as they move through school.  The following is an example of what our classroom planning and teaching towards enhancing understanding in an integrated classroom looks like, sounds like, and feels like, together with a suggested unit of work on the human body, feel good feel great.

Integrated learning advantages teachers and students by:

·         Reflecting, more closely, the interdependence between all aspects of life in the real world

·         Challenging learners to use and develop their thinking as they work to make connections and see the ‘big picture’

·         Catering to the various learning styles and preferences held by students

·         Managing an increasing crowded curriculum

·         Meeting outcomes in context

·         Making more ‘sense’ to the school day – as activities have stronger links with each other

·         Providing students with a greater degree of control over learning

·         Encouraging staff to plan and work in teams

·         Structuring a meaningful context for the teaching and assessment of outcomes across key learning areas

·         Enabling students to transfer knowledge, skills and values across content and experiences

·         Skilling students to process and respond to experience in a range of ways

·         Linking purposes with activities more explicitly

·         Enriching understanding, enjoyment and reflection in teaching and learning.

The essence of this approach to planning is the relationship between those learning areas concerned with ‘the world around us’ (science, technology, health, and environmental and social education) and those areas through which we explore and come to understand that world (language, mathematics, art, drama, dance, music and aspects of technology.  Kath Murdoch (2003, P.1)


Creating an Integrated Classroom


An Integrated Classroom

Connects Prior Learning to New Learning



Fosters Reflective Practices

Makes Learning Meaningful

Recognises Individual Differences

Looks like


  • Teachers working / planning collaboratively.
  • Desks arranged in clusters of 4-6.
  • Activity centres with work space and resources.
  • Wall displays of student work and instructional material.
  • Comfortable reading space. (Cushions and books).

  • Smiling faces.


  • Tuning in activities using various graphic organisers e.g. what I know, what I would like to know etc.
  • Teacher assessment. (formative, summative).


  • Teacher and student created rubrics.
  • Students displaying their learning in a number of ways, e.g talking, writing, art, drama etc.


  • Relevant and up to date resources.


  • Adequate work spaces for students.
  • Curriculum relevant to student needs and interests.


  • Classroom program arranged to allow students to find space and resources. Allowing the teacher to give time and encouragement to students in order to demonstrate their learning across curriculum areas.
  • Learning program developed so that students can enter at their level and be extended and challenged.

Sounds like


  • Students discussing and helping each other.
  • The teacher interacting with individuals and groups.
  • Students confidently sharing their learning with the class through speaking, writing, drama, music, art.







  • Students being able to discuss their understandings and to make connections.







  • Students confidently explaining, discussing their learning with peers, teacher and parents.





  • Teacher making learning objectives clear.
  • Opportunities for students to takes risk in sharing their learning.





  • The sound of discussion between students and between students and teacher.
  • Students sharing the learning with peers, parents and teacher.


Feels like

  • Warm and safe to share confidently.
  • To ask questions and give opinions.
  • Inviting and feeling part of the group.














  • Warm and safe to share confidently.
  • To ask questions and give opinions.
  • Inviting and feeling part of the group.




  • Warm and safe to share confidently.
  • To ask questions and give opinions.
  • Inviting and feeling part of the group.


  • Students feeling confident to share their understandings with others.







  • Supportive environment so students feel comfortable to give thoughts and opinions.










Murdoch, K. (2003), Classroom Connections; Strategies for Classroom Learning. Australia: Publishing Solutions.



Overarching Goals: Goals which overshadow the whole topic.

Tuning In: Finding out what the students already know about the topic, as well as what they would like to find out in order to stimulate their interest and enthusiasm for the topic.

Brainstorm: group discussion and sharing of ideas.

Guiding Questions: questions related to the topic which promote thought as well as refining the investigation to be undertaken.

Graphic Organiser: Charts which help visually organise information (there are many examples, including Y charts, T charts, fish bones, placemats, concept maps, flow charts etc. on the internet)

Rubrics: Teacher or student generated charts based on the topic being studied to assist with self-assessment.

Formative Assessment: Teacher assessment, as well as student self-assessment which can be demonstrated through drama, oral presentations, written material, information technology, art and craft etc.

Summative Assessment: System and school based testing.

Culmination: The final part of the topic where students demonstrate their understandings using a variety of methods including drama, information technology, oral presentations, written material, art and craft etc.





articles Featured Articles

Student-Centered Learning: Demystifying the Myth




Chutima Thamraksa

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 knowledge based economy and the world of  information and communication technology.

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 of page 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 plows 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 issue.

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 and strategies.

• 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 dimensions.

• 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 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 an alternative.

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 performance.

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 not (SLLT 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  three dimensional 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 re-conceptualize 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 standardized assessment.

• 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 learningprocess. 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 activities.

• 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 (Glassglow, 1997).

Is the Use of Technology an Integral Component in Student-Centered Learning?

There is no doubt that in the 21st 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, interactive experience.

• 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 and profession.

• 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 possibilities.

• 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 classroom situation.

• 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 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 enthusiasm.

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 collaborative learning.

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.

(SLLT 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 the 21 st 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.


Authentic assessment. (2001). Retrieved April 19, 2003, from


Bansberg, B. (2003). Applying the learner-centered principles to the

special case of literacy. Theory into Practice, 42 (2), 142-147.

Bush, T., & Saye, J. (2000). Implementation and evaluation of a

student-centered learning unit: A case study. Educational

Technology, Research and Development, 48 (3), 79-91.

Fink, L. D. (2002). Active learning. Retrieved April 5, 2003, from

http://www.hcc.hawaii.edupage 70 SLLT 2003

Glassglow, N. (1997). New curriculum for new times: A guide to

student-centered, problem-based learning. Thousand Oaks, CA:


Kohonen, V. (1992). Experiential language learning: Second language

learning as cooperative learner education. In D. Nunan (Ed.),

Collaborative language learning and teaching (pp. 17-32).

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mehan, H. (1979). Learning lessons. Cambridge, MA: Harvard

University Press.

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL). (2003).

Focus on student-centered learning/Support professional

development. Retrieved March 27, 2003, from

Preparing tomorrow’s teachers to use technology. (2003). Retrieved

March 3, 2003 from


Steps toward becoming a self-directed learner. (1996). The Teaching

Professor, 10 (4). Retrieved March 3, 2003  from

Tsang-Kosma, W. (2003). Student-centered learning + technology =

rethinking teachers’ education. Retrieved March 27, 2003, from

Georgia State University

Watanabe, Y. (1999). Second language literacy through studentcentered learning. The Internet TESL Journal, 5 (2). Retrieved

March 2, 2003  from

Williams, D. L. (1980). Thai ways and my ways (Report No. SO

015980). Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University, Center for

Southeast Asian Studies. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service

No. ED 231183)

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.



*Chutima Thamraksa is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Bangkok Univeristy Language Institute

May 30th 2011

Student-Centered Learning: Demystifying the Myth


articles Featured Articles

Student Centered Learning: What does it mean for Students and Lecturers?


Student-centred learning: What does it mean for students and lecturers?

Tim McMahon

Geraldine O’Neill and Tim McMahon
University College Dublin
E-mail: /

reprinted here with the permission of both authors


The term student-centred learning (SCL) is widely used in the teaching and learning literature. Many terms have been linked with student-centred learning, such as flexible learning (Taylor 2000), experiential learning (Burnard 1999), self-directed learning and therefore the slightly overused term ‘student-centred learning’ can mean different things to different people. In addition, in practice it is also described by a range of terms and this has led to confusion surrounding its implementation.

The concept of student-centred learning has been credited as early as 1905 to Hayward and in 1956 to Dewey’s work (O’Sullivan 2003). Carl Rogers, the father of client-centred counseling, is associated with expanding this approach into a general theory of education (Burnard 1999; Rogoff 1999). The term student-centred learning was also associated with the work of Piaget and more recently with Malcolm Knowles (Burnard 1999). Rogers (1983a:25), in his book ‘Freedom to Learn for the 80s’, describes the shift in power from the expert teacher to the student learner, driven by a need for a change in the traditional environment where in this ‘so-called educational atmosphere, students become passive, apathetic and bored’. In the School system, the concept of child-centred education has been derived, in particular, from the work of Froebel and the idea that the teacher should not ‘interfere with this process of maturation, but act as a guide’ (Simon 1999). Simon highlighted that this was linked with the process of development or ‘readiness’, i.e. the child will learn when he/she is ready (1999).

The paradigm shift away from teaching to an emphasis on learning has encouraged power to be moved from the teacher to the student (Barr and Tagg 1995). The teacher-focused/transmission of information formats, such as lecturing, have begun to be increasingly criticised and this has paved the way for a widespread growth of ‘student-centred learning’ as an alternative approach. However, despite widespread use of the term, Lea et al. (2003) maintain that one of the issues with student-centred learning is the fact that ‘many institutions or educators claim to be putting student-centred learning into practice, but in reality they are not’ (2003:322).

This chapter aims to:

Give an overview of the various ways student-centred learning is defined,
Suggest some ways that student-centred learning can be used as the organising principle of teaching and assessment practices,
Explore the effectiveness of student-centred learning and
Present some critiques to it as an approach.
What is student-centred learning?

Kember (1997) described two broad orientations in teaching: the teacher centred/content oriented conception and the student centred/learning oriented conceptions. In a very useful breakdown of these orientations he supports many other authors views in relation to student-centred view including: that knowledge is constructed by students and that the lecturer is a facilitator of learning rather than a presenter of information. Rogers (1983b:188) identified the important precondition for student-centred learning as the need for: ‘… a leader or person who is perceived as an authority figure in the situation, is sufficiently secure within herself (himself) and in her (his) relationship to others that she (he) experiences an essential trust in the capacity of others to think for themselves, to learn for themselves’.

Choice in the area of the learning is emphasised by Burnard, as he interprets Rogers’ ideas of student-centredness as ‘students might not only choose what to study, but how and why that topic might be an interesting one to study’ (1999:244). He also emphasises Rogers’ belief that students’ perceptions of the world were important, that they were relevant and appropriate. This definition therefore emphasises the concept of students having ‘choice’ in their learning.

Harden and Crosby (2000:335) describe teacher-centred learning strategies as the focus on the teacher transmitting knowledge, from the expert to the novice. In contrast, they describe student-centred learning as focusing on the students’ learning and ‘what students do to achieve this, rather than what the teacher does’. This definition emphasises the concept of the student ‘doing’.

Other authors articulate broader, more comprehensive definitions. Lea et al. (2003:322) summarises some of the literature on student-centred learning to include the followings tenets:

‘the reliance on active rather than passive learning,
an emphasis on deep learning and understanding,
increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student,
an increased sense of autonomy in the learner
an interdependence between teacher and learner,
mutual respect within the learner teacher relationship,
and a reflexive approach to the teaching and learning process on the part of both teacher and learner.’
Gibbs (1995) draws on similar concepts when he describes student-centred courses as those that emphasise: learner activity rather than passivity; students’ experience on the course outside the institution and prior to the course; process and competence, rather than content; where the key decisions about learning are made by the student through negotiation with the teacher. Gibbs elaborates in more detail on these key decisions to include: ‘What is to be learnt, how and when it is to be learnt, with what outcome, what criteria and standards are to be used, how the judgements are made and by whom these judgements are made’ (1995:1). In a similar vein in earlier literature, the student-teacher relationship is particularly elaborated upon by Brandes and Ginnis (1986). In their book for use in second level education (post-primary), entitled ‘A Guide to Student-Centred Learning’, they present the main principles of student-centred learning as:

The learner has full responsibility for her/his learning
Involvement and participation are necessary for learning
The relationship between learners is more equal, promoting growth, development
The teacher becomes a facilitator and resource person
The learner experiences confluence in his education (affective and cognitive domains flow together)
The learner sees himself differently as a result of the learning experience.
The theoretical standing of student-centred learning is often surprisingly absent in the literature. However, it appears to relate primarily to the constructivist view of learning in the importance it places on activity, discovery and independent learning (Carlile and Jordan 2005). Cognitive theory also highlights activity but in a different form than that supported by the constructivists (Cobb 1999). The cognitive view supports the idea that the activity of learning is computed in the head, or as often described ‘in the mind’. The constructivist view of activity is related more to performing physical activities, for example, projects, practicals. Student-centred learning has some connections with the social constructivist view, which emphasises activity and the importance of communities of practice/others in the learning process. However, the definitions of SCL do not necessarily highlight the importance of peers in learning (Cobb 1999; Bredo 1999).

In summary, it appears from the literature that some view student-centred learning as: the concept of the student’s choice in their education; others see it as the being about the student doing more than the lecturer (active versus passive learning); while others have a much broader definition which includes both of these concepts but, in addition, describes the shift in the power relationship between the student and the teacher.

How can you implement student-centred learning?

Learning is often presented in this dualism of either student-centred learning or teacher-centred learning. In the reality of practice the situation is less black and white. A more useful presentation of student-centred learning is to see these terms as either end of a continuum, using the three concepts regularly used to describe student-centred learning (See Table 1 ).

Table 1: Student-centred and teacher-centred continuum

Teacher-centred Learning Student-centred Learning
Low level of student choice High level of student choice
Student passive Student active
Power is primarily with teacher Power primarily with the student
In examining how you might look at this in practice, it is worth thinking how far up the continuum you are able to move within the contextual barriers in your teaching situation. The next sections will present some ideas for your practice to aid you in making that progression.

Implications for curriculum design

In relation to curriculum design, student-centredness includes the idea that students have choice in what to study, how to study. However, to what extent can this be carried out in the structures of today’s Universities? Modularisation, which will be expected in all European undergraduate courses by 2006, provides a structure that allows students an element of choice in what modules they study. Donnelly and Fitzmaurice (2005) in their chapter in this collection on ‘Designing Modules for Learning’ highlight the importance of attempting to focus on the needs of the students at the early stage of curriculum design. Choice in the curriculum is not without its difficulties and Edwards argues about the dangers of individuality in the concept of the social learner and how this can in a seemingly contradictory way lead to disempowerment (2001).

One student-centred approach to curriculum design, Problem-Based Learning (PBL), allows for some choice within a programme of areas that students may study. It allows students to set some of their own learning objectives/outcomes, dependent on prior knowledge. Problem-Based Learning, through the use of problems/issues/triggers, encourages the students to develop their own learning goals, thereby filling in the gaps in their knowledge or understanding (Boud and Feletti 1997). This element of choice or control is referred to in many of the definitions of student-centred learning. This aspect of responsibility aligns with the Lea et al. (2003) view that student-centred learning involves ‘increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student’. Problem-based learning is higher up the student choice aspect of the SCL continuum in Table 1 , than the usual problem-solving or problem-oriented exercises performed in a lecture/tutorial. These approaches are more controlled by the teacher in their presentation and outcome (Davis and Harden 1999). However, they are useful in addressing the active learning aspect of student-centred learning. Other approaches to curriculum design also support the idea of student choice and activity in learning, for example, the systems-based approach, resource-based learning, and experiential/ personal relevance approach (Toohey 2000).

A growing practice in course design internationally is the writing of learning outcomes/objectives focusing on what the student will be able to do, rather than on the content being covered by the teacher (UCD Centre for Teaching and Learning 2005). This practice is an example of the move towards student-centred learning in the curriculum and helps to shift the emphasis on the learner as opposed to a coverage model by the teacher. Donnelly and Fitzmaurice (2005) re-iterate the importance of this shift in emphasis. This is also reflected in Gibbs’ (1995) definition, i.e. an emphasis on the process and competence, rather than content. Table 2 presents some examples of student-centred learning outcomes.

Table 2: Learning Outcomes and Student-centred Learning

Student-centred Learning Outcomes:
Some examples Traditional Learning
By the end of this modules: you (the student)
will be able to: The course will cover:
Recognise the structures of the heart The anatomy of the heart
Critique one of Yeats’ poems A selection of Yeats poems
Implications for teaching/learning methods

The University of Glasgow (2004) identified four main strategies in a study on student-centred learning practices in their University. The first strategy was to make the student more active in acquiring knowledge and skills and might include exercises in class, fieldwork, use of CAL (computer assisted learning) packages etc. The second strategy was to make the student more aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. A third strategy is a focus on interaction, such as the use of tutorials and other discussion groups. The final strategy is the focus on transferable skills. This last strategy is not mentioned in other definitions of the student-centred learning but does look beyond the immediate course requirements to other benefits to the student in later employment. Table 3 highlights a sample of student-centred learning/teaching methods and includes some ideas for lecturers both within (more teacher-centred) and outside of the lecture format. You may consider, however, in striving to reduce the amount of lecture contact hours for more student-centred formats, where possible.

Table 3: Examples of student centred learning/teaching methods

Outside of the lecture format In the Lecture
Independent projects Buzz groups (short discussion in twos)
Group discussion Pyramids/snowballing (Buzz groups continuing the discussion into larger groups)
Peer mentoring of other students Cross-overs (mixing students into groups by letter/number allocations)
Debates Rounds (giving turns to individual students to talk)
Field-trips Quizes
Practicals Writing reflections on learning (3/4 minutes)
Reflective diaries, learning journals Student class presentations
Computer assisted learning Role play
Choice in subjects for study/projects Poster presentations
Writing newspaper article Students producing mind maps in class
Portfolio development
Implications for assessment practices

Black (1999) summarised some of the difficulties highlighted in the literature in the area of assessment, for example, a) that the giving of marks and grades are over emphasised, while the giving of advice and the learning function are under emphasised, b) pupils are compared with one another which highlights competition rather than personal improvement. He also explains the concept of self-assessment as essential activity to help students ‘take responsibility for their own learning’, an important aspect of SCL (Benett 1999; Black 1999:126). Foucault argued that the examination was a technique of power, where a student is ’controlled through a system ’micro-penalties’, the constant giving of marks which constitutes a whole field of surveillance’ (cited in Broadfoot 1999:88). The use of the written examination is still a strong practice in today’s Universities and is primarily a summative assessment, i.e. an assessment for judgement or accreditation. The addition of more formative assessment, which emphasises feedback to students on their learning, would ‘enhance their (student) learning’ (Brown et al. 1997; Light and Cox 2001:170). By developing more formative assessment in your courses you can provide a focus for the student by highlighting their learning gaps and areas that they can develop. Examples of formative assessment include feedback on essays, written comments on assignments, grades during the year that do not add to end of year mark and multiple-choice questions/answers for feedback only. The addition of more formative assessment encourages a more student-centred approach.

Table 4 presents practical examples of student-centred assessments as presented by Gibbs (1995). Further details of some of these assessments can be seen on the UCD Centre for Teaching and Learning website (

Table 4: Examples of student-centred assessments (Gibbs 1995)

Diaries, logs and journals
Peer/self assessment
Learning contracts and negotiated assessment
Group work
Skills and competencies
Peer and self-assessment both give some control and responsibility back to the student, emphasising ‘ an increased sense of autonomy in the learner’ as noted in Lea et al.’s definition of student-centred learning (2003). Learning contracts/negotiated contracts are goals set by the student, depending on their learning gaps, which are in turn negotiated with the lecturer (Knight 2002). The contract can also highlight the manner in which the student would like to be assessed in order to demonstrate that they have reached the goals. This can add choice in what to study and, in addition, choice in how the student will be assessed. Choice is one of the key terms in relation to student-centred learning. The concept of negotiation of learning also addresses the unique change in relationship between lecturer and student noted byLea et al. (2003) in their definition of student-centred learning.

Gibbs (1995:1), as mentioned earlier, describes the range of choices available to students in relation to assessment as: ‘……, what criteria and standards are to be used, how the judgements are made and by whom these judgements are made’. In practice, how do we give students some autonomy and decision-making in an area such as assessment? Brown et al. (1994) highlight a range of suggestions on how lecturers can involve students in the assessment process: (Table 5 ).

Table 5: Assessment process and student-centred learning

Involving students at the stage when
the task is set:
Choosing the assessment task
Setting the assessment task
Discussion the assessment criteria
Setting the assessment criteria
Involving students at the stage after
the task is completed:
Making self-assessment comments
Making peer-assessment feedback comments
Suggesting self-assessment grades/marks
Negotiating self-assessment grades/marks
Assigning self-assessment grades/marks
Assigning peer-assessment grades/marks
(Brown, Rust, and Gibbs 1994)

The suggestions in Table 5 above may seem a large jump from your current practices, therefore, you might consider moving your assessment practice slightly up the teacher/student-centred continuum. An example of a small but significant change is to provide a choice of essay topics and exam questions as a manageable starting point.

The effectiveness and critiques of student-centred learning

The use of student-centred learning appears to be reflective of today’s society where choice and democracy are important concepts, however is it an effective approach to learning? Lea et al. (2003) reviewed several studies on student-centred learning and found that overall it was an effective approach. A six-year study in Helsinki, which compared traditional and activating instruction, found that the activating group developed better study skills and understanding, but were slower in their study initially (Lonka and Ahola 1995). Equally, Hall and Saunders found that students had increased participation, motivation and grades in a first year information technology course (1997). In addition, 94% of the students would recommend it to others over the more conventional approach (Hall and Saunders 1997). Students in a UK University elaborated on the impact of student-centred learning on them, i.e. they felt there was more respect for the student in this approach, that it was more interesting, exciting, and it boosted their confidence (Lea et al. 2003).

Student-centred learning, despite its popularity, is not without its critics. The main critique of student-centred learning is its focus on the individual learner. In addition, there are some difficulties in its implementation, i.e. the resources needed to implement it, the belief system of the students and staff, and students’ lack of familiarity with the term.

Simon (1999) describes that student-centred learning, in the School system, can be in danger of focusing completely on the individual learner and taken to its extreme does not take into account the needs of the whole class. Simon highlights the point that ‘if each child is unique, and each requires a specific pedagogical approach appropriate to him or her and to no other, the construction of an all embracingpedagogy or general principles of teaching become an impossibility’ (Simon 1999:42). Edwards (2001:42) also highlights the dangers associated with student-centredness in adult education where in empowering an individual there is a potential danger of ‘a person’s physical isolation from other learners’. The importance of the social context of learning and the value of interaction with peers is emphasised in the socio-cultural view of learning (Bredo 1999). The concept of being an independent learner choosing his/her own route of learning, may in fact drive some of the sociability out of the learning process if care is not taken to emphasise the importance of peers. In relation to this individuality, Lea et al.’s study on psychology students highlighted their concern over being abandoned or isolated from other supports in a student-centred learning approach (2003).

O’Sullivan (2003) described student-centred learning as a Western approach to learning and may not necessarily transfer to the developing countries, such as Namibia, where there are limited resourcesand different learning cultures. It can be equally hard at times to see how the approach can be economical in the large classes associated with many current University undergraduate courses. A comprehensive study was conducted in 2004, by the University of Glasgow, on the use of student-centred learning with full-time undergraduate students (2004). In this study they found that student-centred learning (SCL) was more prevalent in the later years of the student degrees, and this they believe is often down to class sizes.

Another concern regarding student centred learning is the belief that students hold in relation to their learning. Students who value or have experienced more teacher-focused approaches, may reject the student-centred approach as frightening or indeed not within their remit. Prosser and Trigwell’s work in higher education emphasises the different belief systems held by staff and students (2002). They found that lecturers with a teacher-centred approach to teaching held views that students should accommodate information rather than developing and changing their conceptions and understanding. The reverse was true for those with more student-centred approaches to their teaching. Perry’s work on the development of University students highlights how students move from a dualistic view that knowledge is right or wrong to a relativist view that all answers are equally valid (Perry 1970). This study highlights that even during the University years, students can change their view on learning and as they move through the years so to may their views on student-centred learning change. In support of Perry’s work, Stevenson and Sander (2002) highlighted that 1st year medical students were suspicious of the value of student-centred learning methods.

Finally, students’ familiarity with the term can be poor. Lea et al. (2003) conducted a study on 48 psychology students in the University of Plymouth on students’ attitudes to student-centred learning. They found that, despite a University student-centred policy, 60% of the students had not heard of the term.


The changing demographics of the student population and the more consumer/client-centred culture in today’s society have provided a climate where the use of student-centred learning is thriving. The interpretation of the term ‘student-centred learning’ appears to vary between authors as some equate it with ‘active learning’, while others take a more comprehensive definition including: active learning, choice in learning, and the shift of power in the teacher-student relationship. It is used very commonly in the literature and in University policy statements, but this has not necessarily transferred into practice.

Student-centred learning is not without some criticism but in general it has been seen to be a positive experience, for example, Edwards (2001) emphasises the value of student-centred learning: ‘Placing learners at the heart of the learning process and meeting their needs, is taken to a progressive step in which learner-centred approaches mean that persons are able to learn what is relevant for them in ways that are appropriate. Waste in human and educational resources is reduced as it suggested learners no longer have to learn what they already know or can do, nor what they are uninterested in’. (Edwards 2001:37).

Although recognizing that it is not necessarily an easy task, it is hoped that this chapter has gone some way to providing evidence and ideas to move you higher up the continuum towards a more student-centred practice.


Barr, R. B. and J. Tagg (1995, Nov/Dec). From teaching to learning – A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 13-25.

Benett, Y. (1999). The validity and reliability of assessments and self-assessments of Work Based Learning. In P. Murphy (Ed.), Learners, Learning and Assessment. London: Open University Press.

Black, P. (1999). Assessment, learning theories and testing systems. In P. Murphy (Ed.), Learners, Learning and Assessment. London: Open University Press.

Boud, D. and G. Feletti (1997). The Challenge of Problem Based Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Brandes, D. and P. Ginnis (1986). A Guide to Student Centred Learning. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bredo, E. (1999). Reconstructing educational psychology. In P. Murphy (Ed.), Learners, Learning and Assessment. London: Open University Press.

Broadfoot, P. (1999). Assessment and the emergence of modern society. In B. Moon and P. Murphy (Eds.), Curriculum in Context. London: Sage Publications.

Brown, G., J. Bull, and M. Pendlebury (1997). What is assessment? In Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Brown, S., C. Rust, and G. Gibbs (1994). Involving students in assessment. In Strategies for Diversifying Assessment in Higher Education. Oxford: The Oxford Centre for Staff Development.

Burnard, P. (1999). Carl Rogers and postmodernism: Challenged in nursing and health sciences. Nursing and Health Sciences 1, 241-247.

Carlile, O. and A. Jordan (2005). It works in practice but will it work in theory? The theoretical underpinnings of pedagogy. In S. Moore, G. O’Neill, and B. McMullin (Eds.), Emerging Issues in the Practice of University Learning and Teaching. Dublin: AISHE.

Cobb, P. (1999). Where is the Mind? In P. Murphy (Ed.), Learners, Learning and Assessment. London: Open University Press.

Davis, M. H. and R. M. Harden (1999). AMEE Medical Education Guide No. 15: Problem-based learning: A practical guide. Medical Teacher 21(2), 130-140.

Donnelly, R. and M. Fitzmaurice (2005). Designing Modules for Learning. In S. Moore, G. O’Neill, and B. McMullin (Eds.), Emerging Issues in the Practice of University Learning and Teaching. Dublin: AISHE.

Edwards, R. (2001). Meeting individual learner needs: power, subject, subjection. In C. Paechter, M. Preedy, D. Scott, and J. Soler (Eds.), Knowledge, Power and Learning. London: SAGE.

Gibbs, G. (1995). Assessing Student Centred Courses. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff Learning and Development.

Hall, J. and P. Saunders (1997). Adopting a student-centred approach to management of learning. In C. Bell, M. Bowden, and A. Trott (Eds.), Implementing Flexible Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Harden, R. M. and J. Crosby (2000). AMEE Guide No 20: The good teacher is more than a lecturer-the twelve roles of the teacher. Medical Teacher 22(4), 334-347.

Kember, D. (1997). A reconceptualisation of the research into university academics conceptions of teaching. Learning and Instruction 7(3), 255-275.

Knight, P. (2002). Learning Contracts. In Assessment for Learning in Higher Education. Birmingham: SEDA series.

Lea, S. J., D. Stephenson, and J. Troy (2003). Higher Education Students’ Attitudes to Student Centred Learning: Beyond ‘educational bulimia’. Studies in Higher Education 28(3), 321-334.

Light, G. and R. Cox (2001). Assessing: student assessment. In Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Reflective Practitioner. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Lonka, K. and K. Ahola (1995). Activating instruction: How to foster study and thinking skills in Higher Education. European Journal of Psychology of Education 10, 351-368.

O’Sullivan, M. (2003). The reconceptualisation of learner-centred approaches: A Nambian case study. International Journal of Educational Development. In Press.

Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Prosser, K. and M. Trigwell (2002). Experiences of teaching in Higher Education. In Understanding Learning and Teaching: The Experience of Higher Education. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

Rogers, C. R. (1983a). As a teacher, can I be myself? In Freedom to Learn for the 80’s. Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company.

Rogers, C. R. (1983b). The politics of education. In Freedom to Learn for the 80’s. Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company.

Rogoff, B. (1999). Cognitive development through social interaction: Vgotsky and Piaget. In P. Murphy (Ed.), Learners, Learning and Assessment. London: Open University Press.

Simon, B. (1999). Why no pedagogy in England? In J. Leach and B. Moon (Eds.), Learners and Pedagogy. London: Sage Publications.

Stevenson, K. and P. Sander (2002). Medical students are from Mars-business and psychology students are from Venus-University teachers are from Pluto? Medical Teacher 24(1), 27-31.

Taylor, P. G. (2000). Changing Expectations: Preparing students for Flexible Learning. The International Journal of Academic Development 5(2), 107-115.

Toohey, S. (2000). Designing Courses for Higher Education. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

UCD Centre for Teaching and Learning (2005). Course Design.