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Myth: Teacher-led instruction and student-centred learning are opposites. 

The blog is a copy of my essay in Education Myths edited by Craig Barton for ResearchEd, published by John Catt Ltd, reproduced here with permission. 

Teacher-led instruction and student-centred learning are opposites. 

Is it a myth or a straw man?  

I think this is an important question to ask at the outset.  There’s not much value in making a case for a set of ideas representing a myth if hardly anyone holds those views.  But what level of evidence is needed to support the assertion that something is a myth? Does it have to be a widely held set of ideas?  Do a few examples provide enough proof? It seems to me that we could expend a lot of energy seeking to prove that something is a myth rather than exploring the more interesting and important ideas that emerge from examining the myth itself. 

For this chapter, I am simply going to satisfy myself – and hopefully the majority of readers – that, based on my experience of engaging with the education world, this myth is real enough, reasonably common and is, therefore, worthy of exploration: 

teacher-led instruction and student-centred learning are opposites; they are in opposition; this has implications for the way teachers teach and the way they enact the curriculum. 

It’s also my view that there are plenty of people on both sides of this opposition; it’s not all coming from one side.   Examples are easy to find. Exhibit A – perhaps the purest expression of the myth I have found – is a poster produced by a US company called Epiphany Learning.  Their evangelism is embedded in the ‘epiphany’ branding; these are not just ideas to share – they represent some kind of revelation; an awakening.    The poster I have in mind is readily available online; it sets out the difference between observations of Teacher-led and Student-led learning environments.   

On the Teacher-led side, we have the subheading:  Command and Control. On the Student-led side we have: Engage and Empower.  Already, this is the myth writ large and their stand-point is clear. This is then followed by a set of opposing descriptions such as:

Teacher-led Student-led
Classrooms are quiet and controlled Classrooms may appear busy and chaotic
Teacher are responsible for what students need Learners are self-aware and can advocate for their own needs. 
Teachers focus on subject level content Teachers lead, coach and inspire learners to find passion on subject matter
Failure is perceived as bad Failure is recognised as a powerful teaching moment
Learning is shallow and memorised Learning is deep and passionate.

In this poster, the opposition is explicit; unequivocal. And utterly ludicrous.  I don’t know about you, but if you’ve ever worked in a regular comprehensive school and you want students to learn something really well, ‘quiet and controlled’ sounds pretty good!  And yes, I am largely responsible for what students need. That’s my job. And, of course, as someone who believes that my subjects (physics, science, maths) have inherent value, I’m not going to accept for a second that my passionate teacher-led instruction is anything less than straight-out awe-inspiring and secures deep learning that students will remember. 

Of course, this poster is an extreme case bordering on self-parody.  But it’s not the only example by a long way; student-centred ‘engage and empower’ language crops up all the time.  A quick browse through the output of Edutopia.com would reinforce the view that this side of the myth is prevalent. 

On the other side, it is not difficult to find strong advocates of teacher-led instruction as a superior form of teaching to student-led processes that are variously called discovery learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning and inquiry learning.  Different people will be at pains to define these things as distinct modes of learning where others will lump them all together. Some opponents of student-centred approaches are so absolute in their position, they appear not to be able to countenance the notion that students can reasonably be said to lead their learning at all. In this case, I don’t have one neat example but I would argue that it’s reasonably common to encounter arguments made in blogs and on social media such as: 

  • Students don’t know enough about the curriculum to make good choices about what to learn
  • Inquiry Learning and Problem-Based Learning should have no place in the curriculum because direct instruction will always work better so the opportunity cost can’t be justified. 
  • Student agency is not necessary or relevant in the classroom. 
  • Groupwork, projects and forms of discovery learning are inherently low-level and/or ineffective and lead to low standards. 

So, on the surface at least, I’d say that this myth is certainly ‘out there’.  But why is it a myth? My contention is that the opposition is largely misplaced, with the true level of disagreement exaggerated by poorly defined concepts and de-contextualised generalisations.  In reality, in a school curriculum that is rich and broad, leading to deep learning, both teacher-led learning and student-centeredness will we woven together; blended and sequenced; integrated in a proportionate manner. 

I’ll address this through three different lines of argument: 

1.The ‘Minimally guided instruction’ debate. 

Aspects of this discussion are played out in a fascinating manner in the publication of and responses to the famous 2006 paper by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark: Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based TeachingFor some people, this paper represents the cornerstone for their staunch support for teacher-led instruction.  

In their conclusion, Kirschner et al suggest that: 

In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners. Even for students with considerable prior knowledge, strong guidance while learning is most often found to be equally effective as un-guided approaches. Not only is unguided instruction normally less effective; there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge. 

However, in their 2007 response to this paper, Hmelo-Silver et al argue that Kirschner et al have wrongly blurred the lines between discovery learning and the more structured approaches of problem-based learning (PBL) and inquiry learning (IL). They argue that: 

It is clear that the claim that PBL and IL “does not work” is not well supported, and, in fact, there is support for the alternative. 

As a non-expert in the field of education research – along with most teachers – it can be confusing and frustrating to be presented with opposing cases that include catch-all statements like ‘it is clear that….’  or ‘the evidence….almost uniformly supports’ as if both sets of researchers are claiming victory in a right-wrong debate. I have met a teacher who argues that Kirschner et al ‘demolish discovery learning’ and another very recently who suggested the Hmelo-Silver paper represents a ‘total take-down of the ludicrous Kirschner paper’.  Surely both of these people can’t be right? 

However, on closer reading, the arguments are much more subtle.  Kirschner et al present their case most strongly for novice and intermediate learners but they appear to concede that for students approaching a more expert position, the different approaches are at least ‘equally effective’ which means the debate is more about sequencing approaches appropriately in the learning journey; students will reach a point where these approaches represent a genuine choice.   Hmelo-Silver et al seem to agree: 

We would argue that “Does it work?” is the wrong question. The more important questions to ask are under what circumstances do these guided inquiry approaches work, what are the kinds of outcomes for which they are effective, what kinds of valued practices do they promote, and what kinds of support and scaffolding are needed for different populations and learning goals?

They suggest that, rather than a crude advocacy for IL and PBL as effective strategies, a different line of reasoning is needed: 

While we are not arguing against various forms of direct and more heavily guided instruction, of the sort that Kirschner et al advocate, it is still unclear how to balance IL and PBL (which are more constructivist and experiential) with direct instructional guidance. We believe that more directed guidance needs to build on student thinking. As a field we need to develop deeper and more detailed understandings of the interrelationships between the various instructional approaches and their impact on learning outcomes in different contexts. 

Here is a welcome acknowledgement of a grey area; a lack of clarity and the need for more detailed understanding.  Hmelo-Silver et al are not actually supporting the myth of opposition; it’s more that they are protesting at the mischaracterisation of student-centred approaches as being ‘minimally guided’ and are at pains to stress the extent to which teacher instruction plays a role.  Seizing this as an opportunity to reinforce their argument and its basis in cognitive load theory, in a response to the response, Kirschner et al argue the following: 

In many ways, both Schmidt et al. (2007) and Hmelo-Silver et al. (2007) support our argument that direct instructional guidance is of the ultimate importance. Both papers stress that modern PBL/IL are very structured with strong scaffolding and as we understand their argument, that the more structured they are, the better they work. If there is a disagreement, it is that both commentaries stop short of what we see as the ultimate conclusion, namely, a need for the major instructional emphasis to be on direct, explicit instruction such as worked examples, case studies as modeling examples, or just tuition. Weak guidance forces learners to rely on weak problem-solving strategies and for at least two decades, weak problem-solving strategies have been known to impose a heavy, extraneous cognitive load. 

My take on this, taking the research debate and referencing my own experience, is that we would most certainly be unwise to down-grade teacher-led instruction.  It is the bedrock of ensuring that learning happens successfully. However, that does not mean that we can’t conceive of more expansive long-term processes such that teacher-led instruction is part and parcel of a wider approach; an approach where, over time, students begin learning in problem-based contexts or use the knowledge they acquire to pursue a form of inquiry. 

2. Successful learning is inherently student-centred even if teacher-led: 

After reading  and distilling the key findings from the research cited in Graham Nuthall’s Hidden Lives of Learners, Dan Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School,  Dylan Wiliam’s Embedding Formative Assessment, Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, or Arthur Shimamura’s MARGE, I would argue that teacher-led instruction cannot reasonably be framed in opposition to student-centred learning because successful learning is always inherently student-centred.   Teachers cannot be said to have undertaken successful instruction unless their students, as individuals, have secured successful learning – and this requires their active involvement, their mental engagement, their conscious effort and active schema-building.  

Let me give some specific examples: 

  • Both Wiliam in his ideas about responsive teaching and Rosenshine, with his strong emphasis on checking for understanding, suggest that, in order to conduct effective instructional interactions, the teaching needs to be highly interactive.  In order to plan the next steps in the process, teachers need feedback from their students that indicates the level of confidence, fluency, accuracy individuals are developing.  Essentially, effective instruction depends on teachers being guided by their students’ responses; they will adapt, adjust, push on, re-teach, provide more supports, take scaffolds away, give more or less feedback, follow different lines of reasoning – all driven by the students.  How can we ensure our students are forming secure schema for the ideas in hand if we do not engage them in processes that reveal how their learning is progressing? To me, this is what student-centredness is about: it puts the emphasis on the learning that is taking place, not the activities or tasks teachers are engaging in. 
  • In the five strategies for effective formative assessment developed by Wiliam and colleagues, two of them explicitly place students at the centre of the process: Activate students as owners of their learning Activate students are resources for each other. 

Not only is it more time efficient for teachers to harness students to check the quality or accuracy of their own responses – magnifying the frequency and quantity of feedback they receive – it can also lead to a much stronger impact on outcomes. If students generate their own feedback, comparing their work to exemplars or seeing correct solutions, they can often internalise and respond to the feedback more successfully than with teacher-generated feedback.   In this context, responsive teaching that generates effective feedback, is likely to be highly student-centred in the approaches used. 

  • It’s been identified in various broad analyses of learning approaches including by John Hattie and the Education Endowment Foundation, that metacognitive strategies have a strong relative effect suggesting metacognition plays an important role in successful learning.  Nuthall describes how students engage in self-talk, narrating their thinking, with important positive effects. Whilst teachers play an important role in modelling these metacognitive strategies, ultimately, students must learn to use them themselves.  This extends to the wider notion of self-regulation, where students plan, monitor and evaluate their progress through a given task. This can only be enacted by students themselves so, where instruction has been successful, it can only be so if teachers have succeeded in developing students’ capacity to lead their own learning at various levels, from problem-solving to longer-term task completion.   Students have to make sense of any set of ideas for themselves; they have to write, speak and perform themselves; they have to form successful study habits and pass exams themselves. Unless teachers are consciously fostering these strongly student-centred elements of the learning process, sometimes referred to as independent learning, they’re much less likely to happen.  

The myth is that these student-centred elements of successful learning can be fostered without being teacher-led; that they somehow come into being.  However, whilst some students might develop these characteristics more independently, our goals as teachers are for everyone to succeed and we cannot simply leave this to chance.  Supporting students to be successful as independent learners is part and parcel of instructional teaching. They are not opposites; they’re actually inseparable. 

I find Clark et al’s American Educator article incredibly helpful in this area as they explain the confusion over the meaning and implications of ‘constructivism’. Citing Mayer, they suggest that people have confused the sound theory of constructivism, whereby learning occurs through the construction of knowledge, with ‘a prescription for how to teach’.  They argue that knowledge construction happens through reading, listening to a lecture, watching a teacher demonstration; the students don’t need to enact a process of constructing the knowledge first hand; it’s a mental process; not a behavioural process. In the context of this myth-busting chapter, I’m arguing that student-centredness is inherent in the need for students to construct knowledge themselves but this is about how they think; not about how they are required to behave in a lesson.  Teacher-led instruction, formulated with student thinking at its core, is vital to the process; not exclusively – but often, predominantly.  

3. Education is always a blend of values and evidence. The case for mode B

My final line of reasoning is that a great education is not purely about the knowledge content that is accumulated; it is also about the enacted experience; the process of learning.  In my view, there are many aspects of student activity and teacher-student engagement that are desirable simply because we value them as social constructs or because they enable teachers to be more expansive in the range of knowledge and experiences students encounter.  I think is what Hmelo-Silver et al. refer to as valued practices.  In my book The Learning Rainforest, I refer to this set of learning activities as Mode B teaching, contrasting it with the mainstay of teacher-led instruction that I call Mode A teaching.  

Over time, within a sequence of learning spanning weeks or even a whole school year, it’s entirely legitimate to suggest that there is a balance to be found between Mode A and Mode B activities in order to provide the optimum curriculum diet, informed both by ideas about effective evidence-informed teaching and our values system.  What might this include? 

  • Collaborative learning: 

As described by Robert Slavin and others, collaborative learning that is structured appropriately can yield significant learning gains. The gains can be explained in terms of the goal-setting aspect of the process whereby participants are motivated to ensure everyone in a collaborative group gains the knowledge needed to succeed in the task. They can also be explained in terms of cognitive load theory where, in some situations, cognitive load for individuals can be reduced because it is shared between those involved.  

If we’re clear to include pair-work under the umbrella of collaborative learning, then I would suggest that it’s hard to separate from instructional teaching because engaging students in paired discussions – airing their ideas, testing out hypotheses, engaging in peer assessment – is a highly valuable element in the repertoire of questioning techniques teachers can deploy during instruction.  

This is before we consider the social dimension and the broader dynamics of school life.  It seems entirely uncontroversial that, as social beings, we should be setting up opportunities for students to work together in the pursuit of learning.  Of course this will vary across different subject disciplines but it is surely more a question of how often and how well we harness cooperative learning and for what purpose – rather than whether we do it or not? 

Kirschner et al acknowledge this in their 2012 American Educator article:  “[Explicit guidance] does not mean direct expository instruction all day every day. Small group  and independent problems and projects can be effective – not as vehicles for making discoveries , but as a means of practicing recently learned content and skills.”  

  • Open-ended tasks and projects

There are numerous ways in which students can benefit from undertaking extended learning tasks where the form of response or the precise content is not predetermined; where students learn to make good choices about their learning.  At a small scale this can start with the goal-free problem-solving approach described by John Sweller within his cognitive load theory.  Goal-free problems invite students to explore a scenario in a range of ways until various solutions are found and conceptual connections reinforced. 

Going beyond this, the act of producing any form of extended writing involves making numerous decisions – form, content, line of argument, use of language.  This can lead into much larger-scale projects where students engage in research, inquiry or investigative processes leading to them acquiring knowledge that they can then express in a range of forms.  In completing a successful project to a high standard, students will be making lots of choices; the entire process is highly student-centred. However, at the same time, through modelling certain elements, determining the success criteria and giving feedback, teacher instruction is also close at hand.  Across a year, a student may only engage in a handful of these activities but I have always found that, if expectations are set high, the outcomes can be phenomenal across a range of subjects.  

  • Co-construction. 

It is my experience that, given the right conditions, students can contribute valuable and valid ideas about their learning.  When I hear teachers suggest that students can’t really guide their learning – because how could they know enough? – I almost feel sorry for them because it suggests they’ve never met the kind of students that I have who most certainly could.   You only have to reflect on your own education to consider when, as a teenager growing up, you started to form legitimate academic interests and preferences; you started asking questions that you wanted answers to; you felt ready to make choices about what to study.  Of course there are risks here – students left to their own devices might make terrible choices that cut off whole areas of study or lead to soft low quality comes and shallow thinking. But, with teacher guidance – setting standards, guiding, nudging, directing – surely we have to concede that involving students in shaping their learning is not only possible but is desirable.  This is the essence of co-construction.  

Of course, this isn’t going to be relevant when students are in a novice phase – it might not be appropriate or be very extensive until much later in a student’s school life.  However, they will never learn to make good learning choices if they’re never given the chance to make them. It’s not something you can suddenly switch on; it has to be nurtured over time.  

  • Education for citizenship

The final example I’ll offer is around the idea that citizenship is something you do; it’s not just something you learn about.  How do we educate children to become engaged citizens? For sure, there will be the need for teacher-led instruction to ensure that key concepts are understood and remembered.  However, if we’re committed to teaching for citizenship, surely we need to include elements of the curriculum where students are required to gain knowledge and experience through more student-centred activities:  debating; expressing opinions; organising themselves and others to present ideas. If students don’t develop the sense that their voice matters at school, how are they going to find their voice as citizens in the wider world where the stakes are much higher? Citizenship isn’t hypothetical, emanating from a knowledge base derived from instruction; it’s lived; experienced. Student-centredness needs to be woven in. 

Conclusion

My sense is that many people will read this and conclude that the myth isn’t really a myth; that sensible teachers have always understood the value of teacher instruction and how this blends with notions of student-centredness.  As ever, a myth isn’t a myth to those who don’t believe it. However, I am sure that out there in the world of education there are plenty of people advocating strongly for student-centredness almost as the antidote to the ‘command and control’ of teacher-led instruction.  Similarly there are people who readily dismiss out of hand ideas about group work, projects and other expressions of student-centredness.  

My view is that the opposition is false and I have presented the case via three lines of argument: 

  • The debate around minimally guided instruction, gives prime importance to the need for teacher guidance, whist acknowledging that for more expert learners and as a form of practice, elements of small group and independent work can play a valuable role. 
  • Successful responsive teaching is inherently student-centred if teachers are checking for understanding sufficiently, are ensuring that all students are constructing knowledge securely, and that they are engaged in metacognitive thinking.  
  • Alongside Mode A instructional teaching, there is a world of valued possibilities in Mode B teaching that, when woven together, create a curriculum and a learning experience over time that is deeper, richer than we’d achieve through instructional teaching alone.  

References

Clark, R. ,Kirschner, P., & Sweller, J. (2012). Putting students on the path to learning: The case for fully guided instruction. American Educator. 36. 6-11.

Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R. G., & Chinn, C. A. (2007). Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: A response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42, 99– 107. 

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of construc- tivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41, 75–86. 

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. ( 2008)  Why Minimally Guided Teaching Techniques Do Not Work: A Reply to Commentaries Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 115–121 

Kirschner, Paul & Sweller, John & Kirschner, Femke & Zambrano R., Jimmy. (2018). From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning. 13. 10.1007/s11412-018-9277-y.

Nuthall, G (2007) The Hidden Lives of Learners, NZCER Press, Wellington NZ 

Rosenshine, B. (2012) ‘Principles of Instruction: Research-based Strategies that all Teachers Should Know’, American Educator Spring. 2012 

Sherrington, T.  (2017) The Learning Rainforest: Great Teaching in Real Classroom.  John Catt Ltd. 

Shimamura, A. (2018) MARGE A Whole-Brain Learning Approach for Students and Teachers. PDF available from http://www.bit.ly/2UEi1IB 

Slavin, R. (2010), “Co-operative learning: what makes group-work work?”, in Dumont, H., D. Istance and F. Benavides (eds.), The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice, OECD Publishing, Paris

Sweller, J., Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285 (1988)

Wiliam, D. (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment Solution Tree Press 

Willingham, D. (2009) Why don’t students like school? Jossey-Bass 

Discussion

3 thoughts on “Myth: Teacher-led instruction and student-centred learning are opposites. 

  1. Hi Tom, having worked in contexts where both myths are presented as facts, I couldn’t agree with you more! Leila

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Leila Mactavish | December 8, 2019, 10:27 am
  2. Wow! This is something refreshing in the debate. I personally love using eduScrum in my lessons, because it gives the teacher flexibility as regards the amount of direct instruction needed. But students seem to have difficulties confirming whether their approach and effort are effective in terms of reaching pre-set goals. Perhaps this part should be more teacher driven

    Like

    Posted by Marcin | December 8, 2019, 10:52 pm

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