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15 December 2020 / Category : School

Student Centred Education – Juliet Collins

Art class with Kate Rivers

A major conversation is currently happening in education around whether schools, teaching and the curriculum should be about knowledge or personal agency. A teacher-centered versus child-centered model. The conversation is largely argued from the position of one standpoint having more merit than the other. Like all good arguments, the ideal probably lies somewhere in-between or on a continuum between these positions; certainly this is the case for us at Rangi Ruru.

Student-centred education does not mean handing over responsibility for learning to the individual students themselves. At one extreme end of the spectrum this may be a definition. However, on the continuum between this position and the other – which is an an entirely state or teacher directed content, delivery and assessed methodology – lie reason and common sense.

Students learn best when they feel safe, cared for and are interested. A passionate facilitator (the teacher) is a factor. There is a balance to be found between the acquisition of knowledge in a traditional manner and allowing students active participation and ownership in this process. Surveying classes is part of our constant process of reflection at Rangi Ruru. A senior student commented in a reflective performance interview recently that to her surprise, English has been a favourite subject this year. Why? ‘…..In the writing portfolio I have ownership of the topics that I write about’. The writing portfolio is one topic in the Year 12 English programme to which the student referred. Obviously, she needs the skills and knowledge to write, construct and communicate her voice. In addition, she needs to understand the level at which the writing needs to be pitched and may be assessed. Active participation of both student and teacher is crucial in the success of this practice.

Encouraging student agency is a process. Prioritising students’ interests does not undermine knowledge contained in subjects. Making the knowledge that students need (the essence of that which defines subjects) available, interesting and contextualised allows students’ access to the vital skills and knowledge to succeed in learning. Direct teaching, reciprocal teaching where teachers scaffold and support learning, feedback, meta-cognition strategies which empower students to think about their own thinking and learning, all build agency and increase autonomy. Using a portfolio of teaching and learning strategies and tools allows students to experience a range of ways of learning and to uncover which strategies work best for them. This differentiated model is our goal.

A narrowing or defining of what is taught and what constitutes the curriculum will not encourage these opportunities. Neither will allowing or expecting students to decide what they need to learn. Our curriculum document, the New Zealand Curriculum (to visit scan the QR code in this article) positions competencies and values alongside subjects. The development of these competencies – the ability to think critically, to communicate effectively, to be creative – requires the student to have a solid understanding of the subject matter or topic on which to enact these competencies. Creativity is thinking of new ways of doing things. It is not something that belongs in any one subject or discipline. It often involves thinking of new things to do with existing knowledge, and it is new to the learner, not necessarily new to the world. In Mathematics, creativity does not require two plus two equalling something that is not four. Four is the answer. When the student in Mathematics is encouraged to focus on learning something new to them, exploring different methods to find a solution, for example, rather than obsessing with the right or wrong answer, their creativity is extended. Teachers who understand how students learn are a crucial factor in this. We have to extract what is right for our girls from the multitude of educational narratives. We must be flexible and creative ourselves about the learning in our classrooms, letting students lead their learning and decision making at the right time. We need to model this by taking risks ourselves and thus teach our students about risk, albeit in a safe environment.
Being flexible around teacher and learner roles will enable us to develop individualised learning and pathways for our girls. Alongside this, we want to acknowledge a range of aspirations for our students recognising the diversity of all our learners.

Above all, we need to be cautious about assuming that knowledge, particularly the fundamentals of subjects, can only be acquired in one way. Standardised testing will not improve learning. Defining curriculum content will not improve learning. Changing NCEA will not improve learning. How learning happens is different for everyone. Learning is an alchemic process. A bit science, a bit magic, a bit hard work and a lot of passion and commitment.