It’s Time to Move Beyond Student-Centered Approaches

I would venture to offer that people who advocate for a more student-centered approach to education—grossly simplified as one based on students having choice and voice in what to learn, how to learn it, and how to demonstrate understanding—do so as a form of rejection of the traditional curriculum based on some combination of the three following beliefs: 1) the traditional curriculum is no longer relevant or necessary to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century; 2) there is injustice, presumption, and some level of cruelty in imposing standardized content and outcomes that stress extrinsic motivations and compliance over joy and curiosity; and 3) learning is deepest when the individual perceives value in applying the learning in their lives and has the opportunity to do so later on (i.e. experience a change in behavior as a result of the learning). When we have instant access in our pockets to almost all the information we will ever need, learning how to learn becomes more important than what to learn.

Advocates of student-centered approaches posit that COVID has made millions of people realize that school wasn’t so great before the pandemic. Rather than focus how students perform on tests that largely measure the ability to recall content or answer superficial and close-ended questions, advocates of more student-centered approaches prefer architecting learning through relationships, curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, and other such skills and dispositions. Physical time away from school has brought to the forefront that learning happens outside the classroom, in ways that are often deeper and more meaningful than what happens inside the classroom. Kids want to learn, just not always what’s on offer in the curriculum.

The message comes through loud, clear, and repeatedly: The world is VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) and we cannot prepare our students for the future because we don’t know what it will look like. Children who started school in 2020 will enter the workforce in roughly 15 years, which is close to the event horizon of how far ahead in time our imagination can see (and that event horizon may be much closer). Since we don’t know which jobs will exist in 5 or 10 years, how can we deliver a curriculum that pretends to equip young adults for what awaits lurking behind this event horizon?

There are, however, a few issues we can predict with a high level of confidence that will persist beyond the event horizon of our imaginations: climate disruption, socio-economic injustice, and the precariousness of relationships with others. I will call these my Big Three, but you may substitute your own transversal time-bombs.

This will be a contentious claim, and I believe it will be so because it implicates most of us and challenges our confirmation bias and sense of self. That doesn’t make it less defensible in light of the evidence: Each of the Big Three is rooted in an anthropocentric worldview. To solve these issues, we may need to alter our ways of thinking and acting (living) and embrace biocentrism.

(Anthropocentrism is the idea that humans are the central and most important being in the world, while biocentrism places an equal value on all life.) 

While I am catastrophizing here to make my point, student-centered approaches to education risk perpetuating the very singularity (as opposed to plurality or being a connected part of the whole) that is the cause of so many of the world’s problems. Individualizing learning experiences creates a tension between the needs of the learner and the needs of society. Even if we design experiences that facilitate and deepen relationships (after all, learning happens within a social context), those relationships will often be based on the individual’s needs within a certain period of time, unbounded otherwise and not guaranteed to go beyond these needs. By placing the student at the center, we risk atomization of the whole.

Coming at it from this angle, student-centered approaches may very well perpetuate the anthropocentric worldviews that have created and hinder us from solving the Big Three. In order to tackle the issues that we know future generations will face (their very survival may depend on it), we need to question our anthropocentric values and behaviors and adopt the biocentric approaches that may equip us better to get to where we need to go, to tackle the Big Three. We need to resolve the tension that exists between individualized learning and the need to come together to resolve the world’s pressing problems.

I am not suggesting we abandon agency, only that we move beyond the approaches that have learning experiences stop at  student-centered, as if this were the Shangri-La where the world will be made right. We need to go beyond student-centered approaches. By providing choice and voice, student-centered approaches ideally break free of the externally-imposed constructs of education that often reward compliance over creativity. Student-centered approaches encourage divergent thinking by encouraging and nurturing curiosity, exploration, self-pacing, discover, and creation. This is all great, but we need more.

Student-centered structures and approaches often come short in systematically providing a purpose to the learning and creating network inefficiencies that block the confluence toward solving the Big Three. Now, you could argue that one doesn’t always need a purpose and that discovery and creation are valuable in themselves and provide experiences that may lead to even richer experiences in the future. You could even make the case that if we guide kids to learn how to learn, they will be able to handle the macro, micro, and personal challenges of the future as and when they come. I would agree with you, but I would ask how this gets us closer to solving the problems we face as a not as a species, but as one of the billions of living species on the planet.

We need to think in terms of the bio-collective—the whole of all living beings on earth (and eventually beyond) who share a common interest in the healthfulness of the planet (more below).

The Big Three are the reasons why we need to move beyond student-centered approaches, which do not take us beyond the human. The future requires us to take the next step and embrace a biocentric approach to learning in order to move beyond the individual. Nothing else will bring us together with a common and consistent purpose to face the world’s problems. In order to transition toward biocentrism, we need to find purpose in our learning and our actions and this purpose should be our positive contribution to the welfare of the bio-collective.

Let’s take the next step, beyond student-centered approaches (retaining the agency they provide). What if we designed learning experiences to take place inside and outside of school based on authenticity, agency, and impact (on the welfare of the bio-collective)? 

Authenticity: We should ask ourselves why are we teaching X, or better yet, why is X worth learning? If it does not have value in the world outside the classroom, it is probably not worth learning*. 

Agency: This is where students have a choice and voice in what they’re learning and how they’re demonstrating their learning**.

Impact (on the welfare of the bio-collective): This is the purpose. This is the next step in authentic assessment, in ensuring that action aligns with purpose, in thinking about the welfare of all living being. Impact represents the reason why we do things, focusing on the benefit of our actions on a third party (user) rather than keeping our learning in our heads†.

I propose that in order to solve the (known and unknown) problems of the future, learning should find purpose in the impact on the self, others, and the world—which in this case signifies all living beings—toward the welfare of the bio-collective. Impact is what transforms learning from potential to kinetic energy. It is how we apply and focus learning so that it becomes productive and in order to solve the Big Three we need to move beyond humanism, beyond the anthropocentrism that had created these problems.

This new model, where thinking of impact on the self, others, and the world, represents the convergence of learning and action toward biocentrism through a shared purpose, the welfare of the bio-collective. It is a new moral paradigm. It is the driver of why we learn and how we apply the learning. It is the guide for choices that may save the world. It is the convergent thinking toward biocentrism.   

If we shift our morality to guide our actions to have maximize positive impact on the welfare of the bio-collective, we are simply doing good in the world, for the world, for all living beings, not just humans, who are the source of the Big Three. Doing good is in line with cutting edge pedagogy, recent work in philosophy, and, need I add, the fundamental basis of all major religions.

This doesn’t mean that all we abandon curiosity, choice, exploration, or agency. This means that we focus learning on other things, things that benefit all living beings. This means that we find a common purpose in our learning even though the learning itself provides opportunities for agency.

If a student wants to learn to play the guitar, that music contributes to the welfare of the bio-collective by touching humans (and animals?) emotionally. If a young woman wants to write a poem, that also enhances our common experience. If a teenager wants to build an app, then let it serve all living things. If a child wants to learn everything about spiders, then those experiences should be channeled to value the lives of spiders and other living beings, large or small, sentient or not. It doesn’t all have to be about plastic oceans, but focus on sustainability, justice, and kindness should play a significant part.

This is not a case of the teacher or the system imposing its values or moralizing to the masses. This is finding a common purpose to value all living beings in order to overcome or solve the Big Three issues that will exist in the short- and medium-future, issues that have even caused by our attitudes that place humans (and often our selves or our kind) at the center of the world.  

Few would argue that we should not teach the evils of racism or sexism. Few would oppose inculcating values such as freedom or democracy. Is recycling not taught explicitly in almost every school? Eschewing anthropocentrism in favor of biocentrism, finding a guide and purpose for our learning and action through the moral compass of the welfare of the bio-collective is the bold—and critical—step to tackle the earth’s biggest problems. It makes student agency more meaningful by providing a shared purpose while not restricting possibilities.  Biocentrism connects us all; it goes beyond internationalism whilst retaining local and immediate relevance for all life. Finding purpose and converging action toward the welfare of the bio-collective is the guide to doing good, together, connected to all living things.

This is where creativity—the production of ideas that are original and have value—leads to innovation—converting those ideas into actions that have impact. This is where we act and produce for the good of all living things, for the welfare of the bio-collective.

* I have written blogs on framing why teach/learn?  here and here.

** There are countless books, articles, podcasts, and so on on agency. There are a few contributions on our blog

† I have written on impact as the final step in authentic assessment here and here. There is no point in having competencies, skills, or abilities if they’re not put to use. This is the difference between having potential energy and kinetic energy. If a seven year old reads at a grade 9 level, what does that matter if she doesn’t put the ideas she is reading to use by synthesizing these ideas and creating new ones? Her abilities may as well not exist if she does nothing with them. Impact takes us further, by thinking about and learning from how our ideas and products affect the other person. I have presented ideas about this concept here

3 thoughts on “It’s Time to Move Beyond Student-Centered Approaches

  1. I enjoyed this article. Perhaps you have a different experience to mine and I am going to read more of what you write because I am interested in the themes you address. I say this as a proponent of choice for children. When I give free choice to children I am not suggesting that they define the curriculum. We create a school that is an appropriate habitat for children to learn in with resources we provide- with our experience, professional judgment and personal interests. The formal curriculum is not proposed by either children or teachers. There is, after all, a structure of knowledge and it would be a foolish teacher who abandoned that structure to whimsy.
    Freedom of choice of action in a school like ours is rooted in the idea that children can discover their own passions and interests, create and sustain their own projects. When that discovery is set in a community where they have to resolve problems and teachers are trained to step back and allow them to do so, they build up a sense of their own ability to live as responsible, social beings. This works even better when the school is set in Nature with core values that point towards custodianship of the environment.
    It is certainly the case that we do not know what will happen in the next fifteen years. I liked your insistence on that point. And I agree with you that uncertainty faced with change does not mean that we should chuck out everything that is good for children in our received curriculum models. All the same, I vote for schools that work positively and energetically with the technology available to us; schools that have a clear set of values to be explored and developed by all members of the community, including teachers, families and children.
    Perhaps it is not child-centered as you define it?

    Liked by 1 person

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