Intent Blog

The Importance of Learner-Centred Education

I shall court controversy. Some teachers are manipulative exploiters of their learners’ natural energy and inquisitiveness, who prefer order, control, and decorum to explosive realization. However, such conduct does not result from malevolent intent, nor do I consider it to be the teachers’ fault. They are but the product of the theories of products of the very system they find themselves directing.

This incestuous cycle has normalized acts of tremendous oppression, such as making learners’ access to water or the bathroom dependent upon the discretion of their keeper, or evaluating the success of an entire hour/week/month/life by the number of red ticks on a page. Every teacher training course in the world contains a substantial ‘classroom management’ component, of which a celebrated text is facetiously (yet on reflection quite worryingly) titled ‘Getting the Buggers to Behave’.

The science of control, which historically has been enacted by breaking the will of young people until conformity is recognized as the most expedient option, continues to be presented and justified as being in the interest of learners, yet ultimately boils down to the perceived sanctity of institutional norms. It is extremely challenging to maintain establishments without clamping down on individuality or stressing protocols. Nowhere is this more visible than at the schoolhouse.

Etsko identifies intention as the distinguishing factor between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’. A manager concerns herself with results. She seeks to control the process in order to attain the product she desires, and will use anything in her power (whether influence, compulsion, manipulation, or status) to achieve her end. Those who are involved in the process are a means, and are entirely disposable and insignificant should they not contribute to her goal. Her intention is to take something away from the process and all those involved, as ultimately she is the beneficiary of all of her behaviour.

On the other hand, a leader is concerned with giving. She may well believe certain results are best, but her focus is far broader than just the end product. She relinquishes control over what is produced, preferring to focus her attention upon those engaged in the process. She seeks to facilitate the growth of her charges, and understands that this may not result in conformity to her own desires. Because she has the interests of others at heart, she is trustworthy, empowering, empathetic, light-hearted, and ultimately loved. She affords significance to her team, because they are her primary concern.

Sometimes, the conduct of both the manager and the leader are identical in their external appearance. Both may scream and shout, rant and rave, order and direct, yet their respective inner conditions (and as a result, the reactions of others to them) are profoundly different. The manager yells because her will must be done. The leaders’ howls are nurturing and benevolent.

The teacher must question himself as regards the identity or nature of the ‘means’ and the ‘end’ in his classroom. Does he consider himself a manager (as the universities and publishers would suggest), charged with getting a product from his learners, and therefore prepared to use any method regardless of how ruthless or exploitative it may be to achieve it?

Are the learners in his classroom foot-soldiers to be marched towards socially-acceptable-understanding/A grades/silence, or is the classroom structured and designed as a means for their growth?

Does he afford his learners significance, expending all of his attention upon their welfare and development, or are they only acknowledged when they conform to his expectations or contribute to his overall target?

The problem with ‘management’ is that it naturally results in compulsion, and human beings (even little ones) have never been fond of being chain-ganged. The level of opposition to obligation varies, from reluctant conformity, to mild resistance, and occasionally reaches open rebellion. And what is the traditional advice offered to teachers who face a low-level insurgency in the classroom? “Work on your classroom management.”

Could it be the fact that teachers are taught to consider themselves managers that stimulates many a classroom misdemeanor? Perhaps the age-old challenge of misbehaviour and demotivation is a product of the entirely inappropriate teacher-learner relationship that has always dominated institutional schooling? Maybe our children are reluctant to learn because they feel insignificant and nonessential, a side-show to those who are prepared to conform.

Learner-centred learning (in its numerous manifestations) has peeked out from the theoretical abyss numerous times in the cyclical history of approaches to education, but rather than having learners fill in a questionnaire regarding their perceptions of their teacher, or assigning the first half an hour of the day to ‘free reading’, genuinely focusing upon the learner means a shift in the mentality of educators, administrators, government, and society.

Education is not about getting what we want from young people. School is not a means to our ends, and should not be designed to create a sufficient number of engineers, doctors, bus drivers, and musicians. Education is an effulgent, exhilarating, potent, and often hazardous journey of self-exploration and pioneering discovery.

Teachers are privileged companions on that voyage, injecting their experience like an explosive and standing back to marvel at the results, free of expectations, assumptions, or desires, but ready to embrace their charges when the inevitable turbulence causes shudders.

Schools should exist for human growth, and must expose young people to experiences and knowledge that will germinate with their own perceptions to form strong, healthy trees. The teacher who (even subconsciously) considers the purpose of education to be anything but the uninterrupted growth of his learners  has done them and humanity a tremendous disservice.