The concept of learner-centeredness is not difficult to understand. However, it can be difficult to implement in the classroom. In the following paragraphs, I will paint some verbal pictures of what I understand by learner-centeredness. When I came across the concept early in my own teaching career, it made intuitive sense, and so it was only natural that I sought to weave it into the fabric of my own teaching. As you read on, you will find that the points articulated in the paragraphs are interrelated. Each describes one face of a multifaceted prism.
In a learner-centered classroom, learning experiences are related to learners’ own out-of-class experiences.
In a learner-centered classroom, learners take responsibility for their own learning.
In a learner-centered classroom, learners are engaged in their own learning.
In a learner-centered classroom, learners are involved in making decisions about what to learn, how to learn, and how to be assessed.
In a learner-centered classroom, there are two sets of goals: language goals and learning goals.
In a learner-centered classroom, the strategies underlying the pedagogical tasks in which learners are engaged will be made transparent.
The ultimate goal of a learner-centered teacher is to make him- or herself redundant. As my colleague Geoff Brindley wrote over thirty years ago:
“One of the fundamental principles underlying the notion of permanent education is that education should develop in individuals the capacity to control their own destiny and that, therefore, the learner should be seen as being at the center of the educational process. For the teaching institution and the teacher, this means that instructional programmers should be centered around the learners’ needs and that learners themselves should exercise their own responsibility in the choice of learning objectives, content and methods as well as in determining the means used to assess their performance.“(Brindley, 1984: 15) Brindley was thinking of adult learners when he made this statement. However, I believe that it is relevant to all learners. As I write this book, I am working with a group of ten–eleven-year-olds in Korea. With appropriate guidance and support, these children are able to articulate how they learn best, which kinds of activities they like to engage in, and which they don’t. They can also tell you how they go about learning and using language, not just inside the classroom, but outside as well.
In this vignette, a group of high-intermediate young adults in an EFL setting are attending the first day of class with a new teacher. The teacher introduces herself and then says, “In the lesson today, I want to find out your ideas about what you want to learn, how you like to learn, and how you want to be assessed. I also want to learn about what you don’t like. So, I’m going to give you a little survey to do, OK?” She hands a sheaf of papers to the student sitting nearest to her and asks the student to distribute the surveys to the class. “I want you to complete the survey individually. Then, when you have finished, I’ll tell you what comes next.”
My Observations on the Vignette
1. The teacher sets the agenda clearly in the very first lesson. The students learn that they will be actively involved in making decisions about what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will be assessed. There is a clear expectation that they should look for opportunities to practice their English outside of the classroom. Class time will be used for active, collaborative learning rather than listening to the teacher. The two key interpretations of ‘learner-centeredness’ are evident in the vignette. First, learners’ attitudes, ideas, and preferences will be taken into account in making curricular decisions. Second, learners will be actively involved in learning through doing.
2. Learners won’t necessarily get everything they want. The pedagogical agenda will be negotiated, and there will be times when compromise will be necessary. Teachers have their agendas, and there are many situations in which the teacher knows best, and brings his/her professional skills and knowledge to bear in the learning situation.
3. In the final statement to the class, the teacher makes it clear that during the semester, there will be opportunities for learners to reflect on their learning preferences, and that their ideas are likely to evolve as they think about their own learning processes. Andragogy, the study of adult learning, has had a significant influence on learner-centered language teaching. A study that influenced my own thinking back in the early 1980s was Brundage and MacKeracher (1980).
Issue in Focus: Negotiated Learning
The idea that learners can and should contribute to their own learning by making decisions about what they should learn, how they should learn, and how they should be assessed is controversial. Some teachers feel that the notion calls into question their professional expertise. At a seminar in which I spoke about the virtues of negotiated learning, a teacher asserted that asking learners for advice on what and how to learn was like a doctor asking a patient for advice on what medication to prescribe. This analogy is misguided. As teachers, we are not setting out to cure our learners of the malady of monolingualism. While it is true that we have professional knowledge and expertise on language teaching and learning, ultimately, if learning is to occur, it is the learners themselves who have to do the work.
Resistance to negotiation can also come from learners who feel that it is the teacher’s responsibility to make decisions about the what and how of learning. Personally, I’ve never encountered this problem. In fact, negotiation is a normal part of the teaching learning process. When students ask for an extension on an assignment, they are negotiating. When, in a lesson involving both reading and listening, you ask whether they would like to do the reading or the listening task first, you are negotiating.
Another technique that I have found to be useful is to encourage learners to become researchers of their own language. Learners, regardless of their level of proficiency, can bring samples of language that they encounter out of class into the classroom. These can be new words and phrases, samples of environmental print that they can capture on their cell phones, snippets of conversation, etc. More advanced learners can become communities of ethnographers, “collecting, interpreting, and building a data bank of information about language in their worlds” (Heath, 1992: 53). Although this can be challenging, it is also rewarding. By becoming ethnographers, students come to appreciate that communication, as well as learning, is negotiated.
1. Provide Opportunities for Learners to Reflect on Their Learning Processes
Reflective learning is fundamental to the whole concept of learner-centeredness. It is also a key component of experiential learning. In experiential learning, the learners’ immediate experiences form the point of departure for the learning process. They act and then reflect on their learning, and through the act of reflecting, their learning is transformed. Being reflective is not something that comes naturally to all learners, and they therefore need systematic opportunities to think critically about their learning.
2. Give Learners Opportunities to Contribute to Content, Learning Procedures, and Assessment
The teacher can plan in advance opportunities to make choices and decisions, or they can arise spontaneously in the course of a lesson. The choices and decisions can be made at different levels involving not just what and how to learn, but also who to work with.
3. Be Guided by Adult Learning Principles When Working with More Mature Learners
Andragogy, or the study of adult learning, had an important influence on proponents of learner-centered instruction. A study by Brundage and MacKeracher (1980), which sets out principles of adult learning, had a significant influence on my own thinking about learner-centeredness in the early 1980s. Their principles include the notion that adults learn best when they are involved in developing learning objectives for themselves that are congruent with their current and idealized self-concept. They also learn best when the content is personally relevant to past experience or present concerns and the learning process is relevant to life experiences.
4. Incorporate Learner Training into the Curriculum
This is an important point: so important that is devoted to it later in the book. I have already mentioned the importance of having twin sets of goals in your curriculum, one set devoted to language and the other set devoted to the learning process and learning how to learn. There are two ways of interpreting the concept of learner-centeredness. On the one hand, the concept relates to the involvement of learners in making decisions and choices about content and procedures. On the other hand, it relates to learners taking an active role in learning through doing. If learners are to make choices, about what they learn and how they learn, they need training in the skills and knowledge that are required to make such decisions. Without such knowledge, it is impossible to make informed decisions. Also, if learners are conditioned to classrooms in which the teacher makes all of the decisions, they may find it strange that they are being asked to make choices and decisions. There may be learner resistance to the idea from learners who believe that it’s the teacher’s job to make these decisions.
What Teachers Want to Know
The focus of this discussion thread is learner autonomy and its relationship to learner-centeredness, along with the related concepts of self-directed learning and individualization. Awareness-raising activities such as these can be incorporated into the course once it has begun. For example, in my work with young learners in Korea, at the end of a unit, I get the learners in small groups to evaluate the unit by looking through it and selecting the task that they most enjoyed and say why, and the task that they least enjoyed and say why. They are permitted to carry out this task in Korean, but the reporting back to the class must be in English. In one particular unit, the majority of groups selected a vocabulary task as the most enjoyable. When asked why, they said that vocabulary was essential for language learning. This led on to a discussion of what strategies they used to learn vocabulary. It was clear from their responses that these young learners were capable of thinking about the learning process and articulating their ideas and opinions.
Small Group Discussion
The teacher introduces this discussion thread by stressing the importance of making links between classroom language learning and activating language outside the classroom. She begins by getting the teachers to reflect on their own second language learning experiences outside of the classroom.
In this discussion thread, students talk about their own techniques for practicing their second language outside the classroom. The thread illustrates the rich contexts and opportunities for practicing languages in different parts of the world. One student used fairy tales for children. Another took part in an email tandem exchange. A third describes a conversation exchange technique, along with contact tasks with native speakers when on an exchange program.
Nunan, David. (2015). Teaching english to speakers of other languages. New York: Routledge.