Is learner-centred education ‘best practice’?

Blue banner with the words Think Education: Facing the learning crisis in eastern and Southern Africa

Learner-centred education (LCE) and related specific methods such as activity-based, inquiry-based and problem-based learning are widely promoted internationally as examples of ‘best practice’ pedagogy. In 2011, I synthesised the findings from every relevant article on LCE published in the International Journal of Educational Development.

Almost all of the 72 articles on this theme carried the same strong message: Learner-centred education isn’t working

In a few cases, a multi-pronged approach to implementation, which supported teachers in a range of ways over a long period, did bring about some changes, but the prevailing story was what different researchers called ‘implementation failure’, or, metaphorically, ‘tissue rejection’ (as in when a transplanted heart is rejected by the body). In some cases, there was little, if any, lasting change to the education practice. In some worrying cases, the intervention made things worse (eg in contexts where group work was being advocated, teachers sometimes put learners physically into groups but continued to teach from the front resulting in fewer learners seeing or hearing what was going on).

Pupils with raised hands in a school classroom
© UNICEF/UN0236403/NakibuukaPupils attend class in Moroto Demonstration school. The school receives support from UNICEF and financial assistance from Irish Aid, VSO, towards improving the school environment, learning out comes of the pupils and effective teaching.

The list of barriers to LCE is a long and convincing one, some examples being: large classes and poor facilities, poor teacher preparation, limited teaching and learning materials and misaligned accountability of schools. This demonstrates that there are factors beyond teachers that can affect whether LCE can be sustainably implemented.

However, it is not my intention to wholesale reject learner-centred education as it is premised on two strong foundations: a child’s right to quality and relevant education and teaching and learning practices that promote learning. Thus, if we combine the rights basis of LCE with the evidence concerning teaching that stimulates learning, we can create a flexible set of principles (rather than prescriptions) that might be helpful in improving practice everywhere. Using such a set of principles would help to ensure that the best promise of learner-centredness does not get lost because of the problems with previous attempts to implement it. The seven principles to make current teacher practice more learning-oriented are:

  1. Lessons should be engaging to students, motivating them to learn. There is considerable evidence that engagement does enhance learning, even though what constitutes engagement may vary between contexts.
  2. Atmosphere and conduct reflect mutual respect between teachers and learners. Interactions and punishments must not violate rights, and so corporal punishment or humiliation have no place. UNICEF’s Child-friendly Schools Framework is an excellent basis for the realisation of this principle.
  3. Learning challenges build realistically on learners’ prior knowledge. Many syllabi are too demanding for many learners and accountability to higher authorities means that teachers’ first priority is to get through the syllabus. This means learners cannot keep up. Interventions that provide learners with additional support (eg remedial classes) can help bridge this gap
A teacher writes on a blackboard as students look on in a school classroom.
© UNICEF/UN051616/RichDauara Laurenciana, 34, writes on a blackboard as she teaches a class at the first and second grade school in Matchabe Mozambique. As of June 2016, El Niño conditions have resulted in Mozambique experiencing the worst drought in 30 years, severely impacting food security and agricultural production across the country. UNICEF supports the Food Security Cluster in the area of emergency school feeding, education, health and child protection.
  1. Authentic dialogue is used, including open questions. Drills and whole-class chanting serve purposes in reinforcing some learning and pulling the class together. However, dialogic teaching has been shown to have a greater impact on learning. Teacher education should model it, as interventions in South Africa have demonstrated, since teachers who have not personally experienced dialogic pedagogy cannot simply be told how to do it.
  2. Curriculum is relevant to learners’ lives and perceived future needs, in a language accessible to them (home language preferred). This is not always possible in multilingual contexts, but dialogic teaching will be facilitated by this and teachers will be more confident to respond to learners and be flexible in their teaching. Where teachers have no choice regarding the main language of instruction, code switching should not be seen as poor practice.
  3. Curriculum is based on skills and attitudes but does not ignore content. These should include skills of critical and creative thinking and attitudes related to national and global citizenship. It is difficult for teachers who have not personally experienced such teaching in their own education to know how to approach it.
  4. Assessment follows these principles by testing a wide range of thinking skills. Where systems are driven by high-stakes examinations that are largely based on knowledge, policymakers need to consider whether these reflect the kind of citizens the country needs, and also to note that these examinations will have a powerful impact on teaching practice.

Learner-centred education has rarely improved learning and had little lasting impact. This is largely to do with poor implementation, but with a focus on these core principles, the best of LCE can improve teaching and learning everywhere.


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Professor Michele Schweisfurth is Chair in International and Comparative Education and Director of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow. After 10 years working as a teacher in a range of countries, for the past 20 years, she has been actively researching pedagogy in lower-income and traditional countries.


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