Kicking the “Sage off the stage”: Post-secondary perspectives on student-centered learning
Is “student-centered learning” approached differently by k-12 educators and university instructors? If so, what are the differences (or commonalities) between our practices and concerns?
I’ve wondered this often through my years of observing and participating in academic culture. University teaching is often predicated on the “sage on the stage” model: the professor as a Great Orator, casting a spell over students with Exceptional Knowledge and Dazzling Rhetoric. Of course, the model rarely lives up to this hallowed ideal, as anyone who has sat through an excruciatingly bad lecture can attest.
Scrapping lectures all-together is often not possible (or even desirable), but professors are increasingly encouraged to infuse student-centered approaches into their classes: discussion, small-group activities, and using technology to increase engagement.
Because universities generally value research and grant-attainment over teaching, it is possible for professors to ignore this shift almost entirely. I imagine (though correct me if I’m wrong!) that university instructors can “opt out” of conversations about pedagogical innovation in ways that k-12 teachers cannot. However, even university instructors who are passionate about education feel some trepidation about what a “student-centered” class might look like.
I’d like to outline some of the more interesting sources of this trepidation – not to indict myself or any other academics, but to cast an honest eye on how university culture, and our own personal issues, can impede pedagogical innovation. I would be very interested in hearing how these issues compare to those encountered in k-12 educational settings.
1. Lack of trust in students
University culture is deeply hierarchical, as this PhD Comic does a lovely job of illustrating (click on the link for a larger picture):
As a fresh-faced MA student I laughed in recognition at this comic; now I wince at the implications. When hierarchy is so deeply ingrained, it is difficult for instructors to realize or acknowledge how much undergraduate students can contribute to a classroom. This is not about instructors assuming that undergrads are idiots; it’s about instructors assuming that they must uni-directionally “impart” their knowledge on students, rather than creating a more collaborative learning environment. Ultimately, this hierarchy results in a mis-trust of undergrads to participate actively and contribute to their own learning experience.
2. The problem of the “self selecting sample”
Academia is overflowing with professors and grad students who thrived on the “sage on the stage” model. I count myself within this group: as an undergrad, there was nothing I loved more than a stimulating lecture. The ability to retain information from lectures helped me get into grad school, where I met other students who learned well through this teaching method. Nestled in this chain of events is the assumption that the “best” students are those who a)learn through lectures, and b) have the particular battery of skills that make one suited for academia.
Here the academic culture begins to replicate itself: as young instructors, we are eager to give GREAT lectures that will engage students as much as we were once engaged! It is important for us, as grad students learning to teach, to look beyond our own experience appreciate the variety of learning styles that exist. Many students do not learn best aurally, and they are as deserving of an engaging educational experience as we once were.
3. The conflation of “teaching” and “lecturing”
“I’m off to teach”, “I’m off to lecture”: these two phrases are often used interchangeably. The vast majority of university instructors have never taken a pedagogy class, and are probably unaware of the variety of ways that students can learn. They lecture because “that’s just how it’s done”. This is closely related to a forth issue….
4. “The Lecture and the Ego”
Giving a great lecture is a heady, gratifying experience. The thrill of seeing 200 students engaged in your lecture at 8:30 AM can make any attention-loving person reconsider the “sage on the stage” model! There’s an element of performativity in a good lecture, and some instructors thrive on that.
I love to lecture, but I also love teaching. I love working one-on-one with a student to help her get a C- paper up to a B+. I love figuring out what exactly is tripping a student up on multiple choice exams, and helping him devise a strategy to solve the problem.
Many university instructors DO love to teach as well as to lecture. However, I suspect that some instructors are reluctant to give up the “high” of lecturing in order to make a truly student-centered (rather than lecturer-centered!) learning environment. I think it is important for us lecture-loving instructors to critically reflect on how we can make sure our lectures are educationally meaningful for students.
5. Lecturing and class control
Diminishing lecture time can also feel like the diminishment of control. While lecturing can be exhilarating, it can also be terrifying. I imagine that many instructors my fear “letting go” enough to invite in a more participatory learning environment.
6. The fear of irrelevancy
This is a terrifying time to be a new academic: fewer tenure-track positions are available, and more classes are being taught by contract instructors. Online courses and distance ed options are proliferating – a huge topic that reaches beyond the realm of this post.
I suspect that, for some instructors at least, this environment might make “student-centered learning” seem particularly threatening. Shifting away from the ubiquitous lecture model might seem like the further diminishment of our role as educators (see earlier comment re: “teaching” vs.”lecturing”). This is unfortunate, as student-centered approaches have the potential to contribute greatly to the quality of post-secondary education.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I believe it addresses many of the underlying concerns motivating university instructors who feel ambivalent about student-centered learning. I’d be curious to hear people’s opinions, their own experiences, and how this might compare to the issues talked about in k-12 educational circles.