Unpacking the Learning – Part 9

Norman Rockwell teacher1

Teacher-centered Instruction

Let’s face it, most teachers are not shy. In fact, they enjoy being center stage and often like being in charge. Their stage presence commands attention and drives out dissension in all its forms. Their repertoire includes various facial expressions, voice intonations, and ability to hover over those trying to steal the stage.  This hasn’t changed much over the years.

Although advocates tout the benefits of self-directed learning, it is typically slow to take root in schools. Many believe that relinquishing the teacher’s reigns is a recipe doomed to failure.  It is supported by the notion that children can’t be trusted in these matters. Teachers have to direct the learning endeavor or it won’t happen. An unyielding school system just can’t seem to wrap its heads around any other way to educate young people.

Teachers were taught to stand and deliver. Teachers are told to make their classrooms inviting. Teachers are expected to maintain control at all times and to ensure that their students are indeed learning as evidenced on a test. Most of the time teachers are evaluated on these expectations.


Unfortunately, most classrooms are either too sterile or too stimulating. They are too sterile in the configuration and rigidity. They are too stimulating with every single wall space covered with posters and pictures.  These practices are not necessarily bad; they are just not necessary for learning. (Learning Unleashed Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools, pg. 108.)

Making a classroom look exciting and it actually being an exciting learning place can be two very different realities. (LU pg. 108) When teachers continue to do most of the talking and most of the work, the students will be less and less involved and invested in their own learning. They become consumers waiting for someone to tell them what they should buy.

Contrary to what we are led to believe, most children and young people don’t need a total reliance on a teacher. It is true that we have trained them in that manner, but given the opportunity, children can discover and learn without prompting. Self-directed learning requires a shift in thinking as well as a shift in hierarchy from the teacher being the most important person in the room to the student being the most important. (LU pg.109)

Young people learn best in an authentic setting where they find relevance and meaning for themselves. They learn best when they can choose topics to study, ask a variety of questions, make mistakes free from judgement or evaluation, work alone or choose to work with others, play with an idea and be creative. They learn at different rates in different ways.

Schools in their present form don’t often accommodate that kind of learning, nor are they really interested in doing so. It takes too much time away from the grade level curriculum which requires rigid pacing and reporting periods. It could dismantle the revered pecking order of grades. It would require a competent and energetic teacher who wasn’t afraid to color outside of the lines.

For just a moment, imagine a child teaming up with a teacher-coach to design a specific learning plan based on the student’s interests and talents. Imagine a teacher or set of teachers coaching and guiding students to reach their goals utilizing multiple resources; i.e. math, science, technology, engineering, geology, archaeology, botany, chemistry, literature, drama, music or art, field trips, community resources, etc. Imagine students demonstrating what they’ve learned through a performance, presentation, or a particular school or community problem solved?  Imagine this cycle of goal setting, inquiry, learning and demonstrating, occurring several times over the course of a few years.  What might be the outcome?

student eyes

We often hear folks say that schools prepare young people for college, careers and citizenship. However, communities, universities, and businesses frequently tell us a different story. From what I have observed, read, and experienced over the years, many of our K-12 schools fall short of this goal. They do produce a few great test takers, rule followers, and school dependent learners ready for a work world that may no longer exist.

When teachers become true learning coaches, whose primary focus is to come along side students as resource providers, we just might see student learning reach new heights. Teachers who step off the stage, give up the power and control, and truly know and respect each of their students are HERO material.

Coming in my next and last blog in this series: Teacher Tenure and Unions


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