Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks…or At Least Reminding Her

learner-centered teaching

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For teachers who have been in the field for some time, it is intimidating to think about transitioning from teacher centered to student centered learning. It is hard to stretch so far outside of ones comfort zone, but from teachers who have done this, it is well worth the initial discomfort. The differences in student centered versus teacher centered education are distinct, but for the educators that have made the leap, it is a complete game changer in (and out of) the classroom. A perfect example is the post below from Deborah Baldwin:

When I expressed interest in blogging on the subject of student-centered learning, I wasn’t sure if I even knew what it meant. What does it mean to be a learner-centered teacher?

You see, I am recently retired from the classroom. I taught theater classes to every grade level for thirty-eight years. Shouldn’t that be enough experience to know the definition of student-centered learning? Did I teach drama with a student-centered approach? Could I be considered a learner-centered teacher?

Quite frankly, teaching methods come and go, terminology changes, gets a new spin or maybe fluffed up to become the next innovative educational trend. After a while, if you have taught any number of years you have used several methodologies which are similar. This is not a weakness however, it is a strength. Education methods change with the times and our students living in those times.

I admit I was concerned that in the two years since I stepped out of the classroom, I was already out of the loop. I quickly researched the subject. Whew! My worries vanished in the first two minutes of perusing a few education websites.

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What Does it Mean to be a Learner-Centered Teacher

According to an article found here at EdTechReview.in, “In student-centered classrooms, students are the focus and they play the central role where they are actively engaged in their learning process in a collaborative nature along with their peers and under the guidance of their teacher.”

When I read this, I laughed at myself for my earlier befuddlement. Of course, drama class is student-centered! How could it not be? According to this, I was a learner-centered teacher. Yet, I was puzzled.

Isn’t all learning focused on the student? The answer is a polite, “ no.”

In my opinion, what makes student-centered learning a cut above traditional learning is the collaborative nature of the process, accountable talk between students and independent learning centers.

Sometimes life hands you an experience you don’t understand until many years later. This is one of them in my life.

Making the Transition to Student-Centered Teaching

Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to become a director of the youth theater at the same time that I became a teacher. I would teach junior high English classes during the week and direct plays on the weekend.

When I began my teaching career, there were very few drama teacher jobs open and the job market was bleak. It was the late 1970’s and a glut of teachers sought employment. In college, I trained to become a professional actor. The professional acting gigs were limited too and Broadway was on a downswing. I’m glad I listened to my father. He advised me to attain my teaching certificate so I would have something to fall back on if the acting profession didn’t work out. Over time, I found the professional theater world wasn’t my cup of tea anyway and teaching better suited me.

I taught English for three years. I never student taught the class and English was one of my minors in college. Like most beginning teachers, I was excited but overwhelmed and intimidated by my responsibility. Those years were some of the most difficult in my life for various reasons, both personal and professional, yet I gained insight in a way I never have again.

For a creative person like me, the day-to-day teaching of grammar and sentence structure was drudgery. I never admitted it to anyone, however.

 Almost out of desperation on my part, I began to change my teaching methods to ones that I thought were more fun and exciting. If we had to learn where to put a semicolon in a sentence and how to use commas, by darn, we could make it more interesting. This would be the beginning of my learner-centered teacher experience, but I certainly didn’t realize it at the time. I just wanted the class to be more interesting for everyone!

I noticed the students enjoyed working in groups on just about anything I put in front of them. When they entered class, they seemed happier and enthusiastic, something which wasn’t occurring before my desperate move.

More than anything, I knew if they were like me, they learned best if they were engaged. I began to allow students to learn together certain subjects in the curriculum—creating comic books about a science fiction book by studying both, for example. It did my heart good to see students who otherwise might have been lost in a regular class become engaged in their learning because they were discovered with their peers rather than alone.

The classroom was always noisy. A teacher friend of mine said my classroom was, “organized chaos.” She was correct! I liked it that way until I retired.

On Saturdays, I would do the same thing with acting students on a stage. One of my first productions to direct was a play version of Pinocchio (ad). I remember having the students look at photos of marionettes and come up with the physicality of the puppet characters. (Remember, we didn’t have VCR’s yet or Netflix. Maybe that was better?)

Twelve years later after staying home with our young daughters, I returned to the classroom (now a drama teacher). I noticed other educators were using a student-centered approach and I wasn’t alone in being a learner-centered teacher. This relieved me not only for my own sake but for that of the students.

Obviously, it wasn’t my doing which made this magically occur for other teachers. My guess is other beginning teachers were doing the same in their classrooms. We were part of education reform in our high school years when teachers were attempting to make their subjects more engaging and allow us to take semester-length classes in certain subjects. I took a semester course in the study of Russia, for example.

A drama classroom is always student-centered. Humans are creative beings and require the need to make choices. It is not uncommon in a drama classroom to see several groups of students researching theater history in a variety of ways—one group is building a small Elizabethan stage, while another is acting out a Realism play, and another is creating Greek masks.

By collaborating with another, the students must discuss and concede and acquiesce to their peers. If for no other reason than the aforementioned ones, student-centered learning is vital for our students as they enter the job force. As long as the teacher gives clear instructions and expectations, it is very acceptable to me for students to educate themselves on the subject by which they are inspired. It is not difficult to be a learner-centered teacher…it just takes a mindset change.

Another part of the student-centered learning environment is helping students to become accountable for their learning and conversations. When I taught sixth graders about the origin of theater, the students discussed its possible beginnings by quoting the information they learned from studying it with a partner. Sometimes their conversations were as thought-provoking as any college theater appreciation class I taught.

For several years, students used software that created a play with comic book characters. It was sensational! Not only did the students learn how to craft a play, create characters, and design a set, they learned new computer skills. There is very little more freeing for a student than to learn something new with very little help from a teacher. Independent learning is a top priority in student-centered learning, in my opinion.

The moral of the story is this—even an old dog can learn new tricks. Or maybe she thought she forgot she knew the trick. Or maybe she thought she forgot and then remembered she knew the trick but forgot it again…that happens, you know.

However, any way you look at it it is easy to remember the precious moments of my teaching career by reflecting on the many student-centered aha moments of my own and my successful shift to becoming a learner-centered teacher.

seasoned teacher
seasoned teacher

About the Author:

Deborah Baldwin is a recently retired award-winning drama teacher having taught drama for thirty-eight years both for the public and private sector. In addition, she has directed over 250 plays and musicals with children and adults alike. She is a rock star grandma to her granddaughters, happily married wife and mother to two grown daughters and one stepson. Her cat, Lala would like it mentioned Deborah is her handmaiden and serves her every whim. You can learn more about Deborah at her blog,  Dramamommaspeaks, her TeachersPayTeachers store Dramamommaspeaks or her Facebook page for her award-winning middle-grade book, Bumbling Bea (ad).

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