Resolve in 2014: cut back on teacher-centered instruction and focus on a student-centered learning paradigm

2013 has been a tough year in the educational community. The City of Chicago shuttered 49 schools and a fair number of gifted programs are on the chopping block or being pared down. But this post brings good tidings. This post is about a school that’s optimistic about learning--learning through dialogue, inquiry, and critical and creative thinking. In it’s own words, Shimer College,* a Great Books College, has been “dangerously optimistic since 1853.”

It’s dangerously optimistic for good reason: Shimer College does what it promises to do: engages learners, challenges them, gives them a strong voice in learning, and prepares them to face personal and community challenges. These days, that’s a welcome sea change in the field of education. Shimer is also a great model for educators, students (early entry is an option), and parents.  Visitors can see the benefits of a student-centered learning paradigm.

Those who attend Shimer refer to themselves as Shimerian. Shimer protocol for visitors: do not sit at the octagonal table—that’s for the students and the teacher/facilitator. And, do not interrupt the learning process. Class runs for ninety minutes, with no break. I recently had the privilege of attending one of these classes.

After a bit of banter among peers and then with “Adam” (the teacher/facilitator), the Shimerians quickly became a community of learners. They were reading the works of Ovid, as part of the first class in a Humanities sequence. Discussion began with why Ovid was exiled by Caesar and then moved on to Ovid's stories. Setting the interdisciplinary tone of the class, Adam noted how those stories expressed movement, just like art “moves” in its various dimensions, from paintings to statues to opera to stories.  Students were hooked.

Consider the movement theme. It’s central to the student-centered learning paradigm. When the teacher is more like a facilitator, the momentum of the classroom shifts and the following takes place:
• Students begin to synthesize concepts rather than simply receiving information:
• Learning becomes active, not passive.
• The focus is directed towards identifying “enduring” issues and themes
• Assessment and learning become related and connected, in both diagnostic and motivational measures
• Students raise more questions than answers
• Teacher and students learn, debate, yet collaborate (and have a little fun) with one another.

What I heard early on: questions and dialogue about tragic flaws, metamorphoses, agency, outliers, and gender.

What broke out in the middle: pensiveness as one student pondered the fate of Io (a woman turned into a bull) and then laughter while another imagined a Cyclops singing. When needed, Adam would propose a key strategy: look for patterns, visualize, identify multiple perspectives, reflect on poetic style, and make connections. I was so impressed with how closely students had read the material and the way in which they voiced their impressions and connections.

And during the final 30 minutes of class, there was another shift. Students discussed and debated some major themes and “the big ideas:” vengeance, jealousy, the fine line between love and hate, and “just desserts (Arachne’s tragic fate).” To me, the most perplexing piece of the debate was whether: everything has a bit of humanity v. whether everything is inherently human.”

Bottom line: not only is Shimer’s method (based on the student-centered learning paradigm) best practice in education, it models respect and the importance of making contributions to the learning community. This in turn, serves as a model for making contributions to the “real community.” Aren’t these the critical purposes of education? So, let’s loosen the teacher ‘reigns” in 2014. Let’s resolve to adopt a student-centered learning paradigm, like the folks at Shimer. Let’s be dangerously optimistic!

*You can learn more about Shimer at www.shimer.edu

CHICAGO TRIBUNE VIDEO

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  • I value and applaud what you are writing about here. However, as a World Language Teacher I have some problems with implementing this in levels one and two. It seems to me that skill based instruction will always be a bit more teacher centered. Or at least I've never seen a model that shows a day to day way to implement this for Spanish or French 1 and 2.
    Nice post.

  • Thanks so much. I agree that the degree to which this will be implemented will depend on what is being taught. Still, I think teachers can find ways for more student-centered instruction (and/or active learning).

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    Rhonda, I'm so glad you had the opportunity to experience the Shimer learning community in action and that you have so eloquently shared that experience here. I'm sorry that I didn't get to meet you when you visited. We are always eager for other educators (and their students) to have the opportunity to observe the Shimer method. If any of your readers would like to experience one of our classes first hand, I would be happy to arrange that. Classes resume January 15, and I can be contacted at j.bowers@shimer.edu to arrange a classroom visit.

  • In reply to James Bowers:

    Thanks for that generous offer. I will pass on your offer and contact information. Hope to meet you soon!

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