Thursday, July 7, 2011

Student-Centered Education - Good for the Jews?

(This post is a semi-continuation from this post)

One of the most important terms in education today is the notion of student-centered education. As opposed to teacher-centered education, where the topics to be studied, the sources of knowledge, and the pace of learning are all determined by the all-wise and all-knowing oracle at the front of the room, student-centered learning aims to shift the locus of control of all three of those elements to the student as much as possible.

As I discussed in my previous post, this is already being done at higher levels of education. College students get to choose their classes (although the professor often guides things from there), and more and more those students can choose when they learn, as many professors are putting material online. The notion of an independent study allows the student to choose a topic, find his or her own source material, and decide when each stage of the work will be done, with the professor contributing some necessary guidance and advice (and a dissertation is basically an independent study on steroids). High school elective courses provide students with a chance to choose their topics of study, but, again, the teachers tend to maintain control over the other elements of the learning experience.

Online and blended learning at ever-lower levels of education represents an attempt to shift significant amounts of control to the student and an even-younger age. Obviously, one challenge is to make sure that we are not giving students too much choice, too soon. Even in the rosiest vision of a blended learning environment, trained educators will still have a role in terms of defining and delimiting the parameters of what sources should be studied, where and how to find those sources, what to do with those sources, how to analyze material, and on and on. But those challenges are for a different post (and, trust me, I will get there).

My current concern - and, remember, I am in favor of this type of learning - is whether or not the notion of student-centered learning is in fact consistent with Jewish values. We place a tremendous amount of importance on the authority of our tradition and our elders, an idea which seems increasingly out of place in a society that emphasizes the "new new thing" - and especially when the divide between digital natives and digital immigrants (Prensky, 2001) accentuates that divide to a perhaps unprecendented degree. As Yossi Prager of the Avi Chai Foundation said in his remarks to the graduates of the Azrieli Graduate School this year:

"Traditional religion, and Judaism especially, is countercultural; it can only flourish by forging an alternative to the culture around us. Freedom is freedom to stand apart from the tyranny of the present [secular] consensus; it is the freedom to transform ourselves into something faithful yet new, disciplined yet unprecedented..."

Respect for authority may indeed be part of our countercultural nature, and it is a backbone of what has kept us who we are. Blended and online learning present amazing possibilities with the opportunity to transform so many aspects of education in so many ways. However, it is important that we understand and anticipate some of the collateral issues that can develop, and work to construct an educational approach that can keep our students in the center without having them think that the world revolves around them.


MLaster said...

"My current concern - and, remember, I am in favor of this type of learning - is whether or not the notion of student-centered learning is in fact consistent with Jewish values."

I have discussed a certain chakira with some friends in the past, which I believe reflects the distinction between student-centered vs. teacher centered learning: What exactly is the role of the teacher? Is it to relay knowledge to the students (teacher-centered) or to foster the learning process (student-centered)?

When put this way, it seem that on the surface Jewish tradition seems to emphasize more of the first. The teachers' job is to "pass down" what he already has learned from his teachers. Perhaps that is why there is such a requirement for kavod of a Talmid Chacham.

However, I think that one can argue that some shift might have occurred over the years with the proliferation of seforim. (Similar to R' Chaim Volozhiner's position that the prohibition of forgetting Torah does not apply after seforim are mass-produced since the mesorah is still maintained). Since, after all, much of the ideas to be conveyed are written down, there is room to argue that the role of the teacher as "transmitting" information has also changed.
Nevertheless, the attitudes toward learning are things that cannot merely be written down and must be conveyed experientially. When it comes to these things, it is crucial to be teacher-centered in outlook.

Aaron Ross said...

Thank you for the thoughtful reflection. At the heart of my concern is that school is about so much more than consuming knowledge (although our grade-based system focuses only or mainly on that). Personally, my first question to my kids' teachers at conferences is always about their middot and such - and those are things that are best conveyed experientially and not by books. Of course parents teach those things as well, but given how much time students spend in school, teachers also play a role.
The same thought goes for intangibles such as religious feeling and identity and an infinite number of smaller behaviors.
Even within the academic side of things, it remains to be seen how well computers can teach the more abstract abilities and skills. Time and experience will tell.