How Far Should Student-Centered Learning Go?

By Liana Loewus — October 25, 2013 3 min read
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Perhaps you’ve heard some of the buzz about a recent Wired magazine article about a “radical new teaching method.” It tells the compelling story of a young girl in Mexico living near a trash dump whose brilliance was uncovered when her teacher stopped direct instructing and started posing problems for students to solve. The author, Joshua Davis, writes that “a new breed of educators” are working under this philosophy:

To them, knowledge isn’t a commodity that’s delivered from teacher to student but something that emerges from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration. Teachers provide prompts, not answers, and then they step aside so students can teach themselves and one another. They are creating ways for children to discover their passion—and uncovering a generation of geniuses in the process.

Math educator Dan Meyer, whom we interviewed in 2011, is among the believers in this “radical” way of teaching. He talks about making math “irresistible” by posing real-world problems and “delegating the sensemaking of math to students.”

But in the Wired piece, Davis takes this idea further, suggesting that computers can facilitate this kind of learning. And here’s where some educators are likely to take exception. He tells an anecdote about Sugata Mitra, an educational researcher and recent winner of a $1 million grant from TED, who left a computer loaded with science materials in a village in southern India and told a group of kids to take a look. Davis writes:

Over the next 75 days, the children worked out how to use the computer and began to learn. When Mitra returned, he administered a written test on molecular biology. The kids answered about one in four questions correctly. After another 75 days, with the encouragement of a friendly local, they were getting every other question right. “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.”

On the basis of his research, Mitra is now establishing schools in India and the United Kingdom in which “there will be no teachers, curriculum, or separation into age groups—just six or so computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety,” Davis writes. “His defining principle: ‘The children are completely in charge.’” (Teachers: Feeling defensive yet?)

Mitra’s ideas about student-led learning are certainly interesting and worth consideration. But they are hard to reconcile with much of what we hear from U.S. teachers.

We recently published a piece about the classroom-management struggles many teachers encounter when they introduce 1-to-1 computing devices in the classroom. They range from Internet-surfing issues to physical storage and space limitations to security concerns. Of course, in a school designed specifically for wired learning, some of those types of problems might be mitigated. But one teacher we featured in the article, Kyle Redford, said something in our reporting that did not make it into the story—but it’s certainly worth a mention here. “I keep hearing over and over ... just give the devices to the kids and they make magic. And maybe it’s because my kids are just 10 or 11 [years old] but there’s no magic,” she said. “The keyboarding is pathetic, and none of that is really playing out in reality for me. ... There are still skills they need to be taught. There’s not a lot of magic going on.”

And, although the circumstances may differ, it’s worth recalling that the American Civil Liberties Union recently filed suit against a Detroit-area school district for offering computer-only learning without “explicit instruction,” charging that many students were lacking basic literacy skills.

Please chime in below, as always.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.