Student-centred learning: a humanist perspective

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Chicago Library]On: 11 November 2014, At: 07:05Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Student-centred learning: a humanistperspectiveSue Tangneyaa Learning and Teaching Development Unit, Cardiff MetropolitanUniversity, Western Avenue, Cardiff CF5 2YB, UKPublished online: 21 Nov 2013.

    To cite this article: Sue Tangney (2014) Student-centred learning: a humanist perspective, Teachingin Higher Education, 19:3, 266-275, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2013.860099

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  • Student-centred learning: a humanist perspective

    Sue Tangney*

    Learning and Teaching Development Unit, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Western Avenue,Cardiff CF5 2YB, UK

    (Received 3 October 2012; final version received 11 September 2013)

    The notion of student-centred learning is often not defined; within the pedagogicliterature it is generally associated with constructivism or principles associated with aconstructivist environment such as building on prior knowledge, purposeful activelearning and sense-making. An informal enquiry into conceptions of university staffprior to this study revealed a variety of interpretations warranting greater clarificationand context. This interpretive study using a constructivist grounded approach focusedon academic staff in art and design. It revealed a broader, more holistic conception ofstudent-centred learning which is largely ignored in the literature and included ideassuch as personal growth, consciousness raising and empowerment. It raises thequestion of whether humanist interpretations of student-centred learning should bemore explicitly considered across the disciplines.

    Keywords: student-centred learning; humanist conceptions; art and design;constructivism

    Introduction

    The term student-centred learning is ubiquitous throughout the pedagogic literature (e.g.Trigwell, Prosser, and Taylor 1994; Kember 1997; Samuelowicz and Bain 2001; Gibbsand Coffey 2004; Akerlind 2008) and appears in many university strategic documents.Many writers (e.g. Cowan 2006; Burnard 1999; ONeill and McMahon 2005) cite Rogersas the origin of student-centred learning, and in particular Rogers and Freibergs Freedomto learn (1994), in which they suggest taking their client-centred approach to counsellinginto the education arena, and criticise the expert driven, transmission model of teaching.They talk about whole person learning (36) which they see as learning which ismeaningful, experiential and focused on the process rather than the product.

    Contemporaneous and subsequent empirical studies of teachers conceptions oflearning have paralleled some of these ideas. Several studies around that time (e.g. Gowand Kember 1990, 1993; Prosser, Trigwell, and Taylor 1994; Trigwell, Prosser, andTaylor 1994) also rejected transmission-oriented teaching in favour of learning-orientedconceptions, and have shown links between teachers conceptions and the quality ofstudents intellectual engagement. Kember (1997) carried out a meta-analysis of 10 suchstudies comparing their delineation of categories, and concluded that there was markedconsistency across the studies of arranging conceptions on a continuum from teacher-centred, content-oriented conceptions to student-centred, learning-oriented conceptions.

    *Email: stangney@cardiffmet.ac.uk

    Teaching in Higher Education, 2014Vol. 19, No. 3, 266275, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2013.860099

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    mailto:stangney@cardiffmet.ac.ukhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2013.860099

  • Rogers and Freibergs (1994) conception lies towards the student-centred, learning-oriented end of the spectrum, though there is less specificity with respect to highereducation; their book is concerned primarily with schools. What is explicit in Rogers andFreiberg (1994) is the notion of a holistic developmental process which underpins muchof their ideology, and this facet has been explicitly noted by Kember (1997) in his meta-analysis as distinct in some interpretations of a student-centred, learning-orientedconception.

    A second facet of a student-centred, learning-oriented conception identified byKember (1997) focuses on students intellectual development. Students are seen as activeparticipators rather than passive receivers. Rogers and Freiberg (1994) similarly contrastlearning environments as promoting learners to be either citizens or tourists (89):responsible learners and active knowledge creators, or visiting consumers to the learningenvironment.

    Whilst student-centred learning is often ill-defined, what is apparent in the literature issome similarity between the language associated with constructivism and that associatedwith writings on student-centred learning. Ideas around purposeful active engagement,discovery learning, creating ones own understanding, building on prior knowledge,reflection and creating dissonance all feature (e.g. Perkins 1999; Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick 2006; von Glasersfeld 1990; Poerksen 2004; Richardson 2003). The parallels areespecially drawn with the notion of deep learning, and so it is perhaps no surprise thatconstructivism and student-centred learning are often linked in the literature. However,the idea of a holistic approach, of ideas such as empowerment and emancipation that alsofeature in writing about student-centred learning are not generally discussed byconstructivists; these are more aligned with humanist conceptions of learning.

    This paper will focus specifically on humanist interpretations of student-centredlearning from data collected from interviews with academic staff in art and design. It willhighlight the significance of humanist approaches to those interviewed, and raise thequestion of whether humanist perspectives should have a higher profile in teaching andthe development of teachers.

    Humanists are generally concerned with the freedom, dignity and potential ofhumans (Brockett 1997, 2). Their focus as stated is holistic; learning is seen as akin topersonal growth, and these ideas have been influenced by two theorists in particular:Maslow (1970) and Rogers (1989) and Rogers and Freiberg (1994). In Maslows (1970)seminal work, he devised an ascending hierarchy of needs which ranged fromphysiological needs, safety, love and belonging to esteem, and finally self-actualisation,where needs at the lower levels have to be met before one can tackle the higher levelneeds. Rogers and Freibergs (1994) idea of client-centredness also encapsulates the ideaof the self-actualised person: that people will tend towards this state when exposed torelationships that are genuine, empathic and unconditionally accepting and trusting, asthey describe the ideal counselling relationship to be (Rogers and Freiberg 1994; Brockett1997). These central tenets of personal growth, consciousness raising and empowermentare reflected in others work too, for example, Freire (1974) and Mezirow (1990a, 1990b,2009) and in writing influenced by feminist pedagogies (e.g. Weiler 1991). Alsocommonly and explicitly addressed in humanist pedagogies is an underlying emphasis onself-belief (Rogers and Freiberg 1994) and linkages between pedagogy and civicresponsibility, democracy and social justice are also often explicit (e.g. Freire 1974;Rogers and Freiberg 1994; Mezirow 2000; Rogers 1961 cited in Blackie, Case, andJawitz 2010) as they are also in feminist pedagogies (e.g. Weiler 1991; Hooks 2003).

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  • Freires (1974) ideas of critical consciousness or conscientizao (37) (now oftencalled critical pedagogy, e.g. Weiler 1991; Mezirow 2009) stemmed from his concernabout the disenfranchisement and oppression of a significant proportion of the Brazilianpopulation because of illiteracy. Illiteracy led to what he called an adaptive (4) responseto societal pressures, rather than a sense of empowerment and a capacity to makeconscious choices and influence change. Freire, who was fundamentally interested insocial transformation, used the term massification (16) to describe this idea where alarge proportion of society is manipulated by the elite into an unthinking, manageableagglomeration (16). Engaging students in a process of enquiry raised the spectre of theiroppression; again the main emphasis or vehicle for learning, he emphasised, was thebuilding of self-belief and self-confidence leading to subsequent feelings of personalempowerment, and to active participation in change. The oppressed started seeingthemselves as participants in their own and others histories, and like Rogers and Freiberg(1994) as active knowledge creators.

    Mezirow (1990a, 1990b, 2009) has drawn on Freire and encapsulates similar ideas ofconsciousness raising and personal development in his writing on transformationallearning, which he describes as enabling learners:

    to recognize and reassess the structure of assumptions and expectations which frame ourthinking, feeling and acting. (Mezirow 2009, 90)

    Whilst he still essentially describes a constructivist process of reshaping prior under-standings through reflective practice, he sees the self as integral to learning or as Blackie,Case, and Jawitz (2010), state: being cannot be considered apart from knowing (640).Mezirow (2009) places greater emphasis on critically examining ones own priorunderstandings and the social and cultural frame of reference (92) which formed thatunderstanding, and this critical approach is not dissimilar to Freire.

    Feminist pedagogies (e.g. Weiler 1991; Hooks 2003) also arise from similar roots toFreire. Like Freire, they are essentially humanist, and are concerned with oppression andtransformatory social change. Feminist pedagogies also draw on consciousness raisingand enquiry to empower, to challenge underpinning conceptions of knowledge and toencourage liberatory social action.

    Some reasonably consistent ideas about student-centred learning environmentsemerge from the humanist literature:

    . That an underlying principle is that education should provide opportunities forempowerment (e.g. Freire 1974; Mezirow 2009; Rogers and Freiberg 1994).

    . That choice for students in what they do and how they do it (and subsequentresponsibilities of that choice) is a necessary component of a humanist educationalenvironment (though this is generally expressed within the confines of the localsituation, e.g. societal demands, a programme of study, etc.) (e.g. Rogers andFreiberg 1994; Cowan 2006; Freire 1974).

    . An underlying faith that students have the potential to make appropriate (to them)choices and maximise their potential (e.g. Rogers and Freiberg 1994; Freire 1974;Mezirow 2009; Brockett 1997).

    . That students are learning in an environment with little power differential, andwhere unconditional positive regard and attendance to feelings is central (e.g.Rogers and Freiberg 1994; Gage and Berliner 1991).

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  • . That emphasis is on the process of learning and developing metacognition ratherthan the product (e.g. Mezirow 1990a, 2009; Rogers and Freiberg 1994; Freire1974; Gage and Berliner 1991).

    . That creativity of approach is encouraged (e.g. Mezirow 2009; Gage andBerliner 1991).

    . That episodes of learning are part of a lifelong process and they are individual tothe learner (e.g. Rogers and Freiberg 1994; Mezirow 2009).

    . That students judgement of their own progress is the more important (e.g. Cowan2006; Rogers and Freiberg 1994; Gage and Berliner 1991).

    Many of these ideas will be discussed with respect to research participants views onstudent-centred learning later in the findings. Essentially though they emphasise student-centred learning as an individualised approach facilitated by a positive trustingrelationship with teaching staff which fosters empowerment.

    Method

    Because of the exploratory nature of the inquiry, an interpretivist approach was used, andin particular a constructivist grounded approach (as described by Charmaz 2001) usingqualitative data collected through interviews. A constructivist methodology was preferredbecause it not only acknowledges that knowledge is socially constructed, a viewdominant in the pedagogic literature, but also because it acknowledges that an interviewis an interaction, that the conversation is mutually constructed between the researcher andthe participant (Silverman 2006; Holstein and Gubrium 2004; Miller and Glassner 2004)and that it allows discussion. Because of the ambiguity in usage of many terms related tolearning, this offered the opportunity to tease out understandings of research participants.Also implicit in the methodology is that the research interview was formative for theresearch participant rather than the objectivist view that participants come to interviewswith already formed knowledge that they then share with the researcher.

    Semi-structured interviews using a pre-determined list of thematic prompt questionswere the primary data collection method. These were preceded by an initial questionWhat do you understand by student-centred learning? to which participants were asked torespond by email. This served as an initial response to this question which might havebeen difficult to do within an interview situation, and prompted further discussion andclarification during the interview.

    The discussion was framed around research participants teaching, something thatthey were familiar and comfortable with, rather than an unfamiliar discourse. I had accessto the learning outcomes of the programmes taught by participants, and used these to askparticipants for examples from their teaching to initiate discussions at different stages.Though the themes in the interview questions were structured in a linear fashion, startingfrom talking about learning generally, then ideas around student-centred learning, theconversation was less structured, as some conversations naturally led onto others in amore organic fashion.

    The research participants were purposively sampled from art and design courseswithin one university. Academic staff specifically were selected (as opposed to technicaldemonstrators for example) since they set the timbre of the course, and all were full-timeand tenured. Staff from three course groups (product design, textiles and ceramics) wereinvited by email to participate (total of 18 staff), and eight of these agreed to be

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  • interviewed, four female and four male. Further data relating to participants, e.g. race andethnicity was not collected.

    The three courses are in some ways similar and in others quite distinct. All are practice-oriented with studio space available for all students on campus. Creativity, innovation andexploration are significant drivers for course design, alongside high levels of technicalexpertise and knowledge of materials, and a significant proportion of students final gradesacross all courses is determined by their creative product. Graduates in ceramics are morelikely to take a fine art approach to their practice than the other two disciplines, but someceramics graduates also focus on commercial ceramics production. Both textiles andproduct design are user-focused: textiles students are expected to be aware of fashion trendsand commercial viability of products; product designers more oriented towards usability ofproducts and the ongoing demands of manufacturing for a changing world market. Thoughsome differences in focus exist, because they share principles of practice orientation,creativity and innovation, I have not differentiated between the three courses in the analysisand discussion, but have treated them as a group of lecturers in art and design.

    Initial coding of the transcripts was undertaken by hand using the constant comparativemethod (Charmaz 2000). Analysis software was not used; transcripts were reread oftenthroughout the analysis process and statements considered within the context of the wholeinterview. Kvale and Brinkmann (2009) differentiate between three different forms ofanalysis focused on meaning. The first meaning coding (201) aligns reasonably withCharmaz (2000) descriptions, and where the analysis in this project began. Kvale andBrinkmann (2009), however, also describe what they call meaning interpretation (207) inwhich they suggest the researcher go beyond what has been said to a more expansiveinterpretation to enable data to be considered within a wider frame of reference, and perhapsenable multiple interpretations. This process of meaning coding and then meaninginterpretation would best describe the analysis method used in this study.

    Ethics approval was sought from the university ethics committee for this study, andparticipants were provided with an information sheet and asked to sign a consent form.Names of research participants have been anonymised, though gender remains the same.

    Findings and discussion

    This paper, as stated, focuses on analysis from a humanist perspective of the datacollected by interview. Findings will be discussed around several themes: a holisticapproach; confidence, self-belief and building of trust; and empowerment.

    A holistic approach

    There was an evidence from the data that art and design lecturers, when asked aboutstudent-centred learning in their discipline, focused on more than just the cognitiveaspects of learning. There was a general feeling that it is difficult to create a piece ofartwork without an emotional investment or an emotional consequence. The piece ofcreated work is inevitably how the artist sees the world and their place in it, but as well,the artists state of mind can be very evident. Melanie, for example, stated:

    even if [the piece of work] is not autobiographical directly, its about how you perceive theworld,

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  • and Josie said:

    if someone is really troubled, and low self-esteem the colours they pick the way theyuse line, the way they use shape, you can see it

    and

    putting artwork in an exhibition, its like taking your clothes off in public.

    There appeared to be more visible evidence of students psychological state of mind thanwhat you might expect in some other disciplines such as science or engineering where thiswould be less obvious or even invisible to academic staff. Learning to create at least is morethan a cognitive function; it involves emotional involvement and emotional exposure.

    In contrast, staff were trying to unravel and take the mystery out of creativity as aconstruct, in many ways to encourage students to remove the emotive and consider it in amuch more cognitive way, so that they then could approach it more strategically(Melanies transcript). Mary, in talking about creativity stated:

    there is a fierce romanticism about the act of creating, and they feel that if they question it orchallenge it, the magic will disappear,

    and though she was not advocating removing the emotive aspect per se, she believed inencouraging students to reflect back on their emotional journey in the creation of a piece,with a view to better understand what they intend the viewer to see. So whilst some of thedata indicated a tendency to talk about learning in humanist terms, there were clearindicators that constructivism also underpinned lecturers conceptions of student-centredlearning.

    Confidence, self-belief and building of trust

    Issues of confidence and self-belief were mentioned numerous times when consideringstudent-centred environments, and staff appeared to both react to students lack ofconfidence and self-belief, but also to purposefully build and bolster self-belief and toenable students to positively respond themselves. Mary, for example, said:

    I want to push everyone out of their comfort zone so they actually have to come up with newand innovative things There is a bit of the placebo effect sometimes, if you make sure thatthe student knows that they are completely and utterly capable of doing it and you expect itof them, then they will Art education is full of criticism, the ability is actually to be able toaddress that always constructively. (Marys transcript)

    There is a sense here of unequivocal belief in students ability, which is one of thehallmarks of Rogers and Freibergs (1994) idea of student-centredness which they callprizing, acceptance [and] trust (156). However, Rogers and Freibergs thinking does notacknowledge the combination of both support and challenge inherent in Marysstatement. Barnett (2008 cited in Blackie, Case, and Jawitz 2010) claims that uncertaintyand risk are inevitable aspects of being a student, and that this needs purposefulconsideration by academic staff, and Daloz (1986 cited in Burgess and Butcher 1999, andin Butcher 2002), in discussing the mentoring relationship, talks about striking a balance

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  • between challenge and creating cognitive dissonance on the one hand, and a supportiveand trusting relationship on the other. This perhaps is the point of departure from Rogersand Freiberg (1994) who stress the support, but the discourse otherwise feels more self-exploratory and self-affirming rather than challenging.

    Mary gave other examples which she felt not only built self-belief and confidence, butalso countered setbacks that students may have. One approach she described was givingstudents:

    wild cards, when you know theyve made a mistake and you know theyre going to spendtoo much time looking backwards at it.

    She might, for example, surprise the students by suddenly changing plans for the day:

    what you find is that its the ones who may have been struggling suddenly see this as a bit ofa second chance, and they might begin to shine, on something quite small, and somethingquite flippant, and then youve got a way in, because theyre feeling a bit more confident,and then you can say ok, well what worked here that you can bring back into this?

    There is a real commitment here to find pathways for all students to excel, and to provideopportunities for students to overcome setbacks in a dignified way.

    Building trust also featured often in the transcripts, and this included building trustwithin the student group itself. For example, Melanie talked about activities where studentsdraw with their eyes closed to try to create a level playing field where over- and under-confidence are less apparent, and to develop a supportive environment in the studio.

    Empowerment

    Ideas of ownership, the individual journey and empowerment featured often inconversations with academic staff. Melanie talked of students finding a voice (Melaniestranscript) through their studio practice, and Robert talked about the sense of individualownership he tries to create:

    [what] Ive always felt so passionately about is peoples sense of ownership of theirpractice when they leave, that its not to do with the institution, its to do with them and theirwork their intellectual and skills-based activity isnt something thats anchored within theinstitution. (Roberts transcript)

    This notion that students do not take an institutional mark with them is echoed inseveral statements in the transcripts, and appeared to be a conscious move away fromatelier methods of teaching that many of the staff had experienced themselves asstudents. They worked towards students becoming artists in their own right, and thegroup consciously tried to maintain a culture of professional modesty amongst themselvesand build a sense of all working together within the programme:

    we dont have enormous egos in the department we try to maintain that nobodys egoeclipses the students experience. (Roberts interview)

    Again Rogers and Freibergs (1994) idea of a genuine and empowering relationship withstudents is evident.

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  • Conclusion

    Using a humanist lens to examine art and design staffs responses to interview questionsabout their teaching and about creating student-centred learning environments has madeapparent their view that learning in this environment is more than a cognitive function.Themes which appeared significant to lecturers teaching and which elicit specificresponses in their teaching approaches include seeing the student holistically, buildingself-confidence and self-belief and empowerment. These ideas are not necessarilyassociated with student-centred learning in the literature, which though disparate indefinition, nevertheless is often associated more closely with constructivism, or principlesassociated with a constructivist environment such as building on prior knowledge,purposeful active learning and sense-making (e.g. Hirumi 2002; Lea, Stephenson, andTroy 2003; Gilis et al. 2008). The data suggests that for this group at least, student-centred learning is a broader concept and embeds both constructivist and humanistelements, and that these ideas work together complementarily. It is also evident that someof these staff consider a holistic approach which includes providing emotional support tostudents as a central part of their role.

    It could be suggested that staff have developed what Skelton (2009) describes as theirown personal philosophy of teaching (109) which fits the environment within whichthey teach. What is evident is that there is a greater emphasis on values in these lecturersteaching. Fitzmaurice (2010) has suggested that we focus too much on teaching strategiesand tools, and context, ideology and values are not discussed (Malcolm and Zukas 2001cited in Fitzmaurice 2010, 53), and this perhaps is a point to consider in academicdevelopment activities which are often focused on methods.

    One might think that the art and design environment is particular in this aspectbecause emotions tend to be more apparent in the studio environment, and in the workthat is produced. However, it could be construed that this study provides evidence thatlearning itself is an emotional activity, and that perhaps we are not doing enough toempower, build confidence and self-belief in students across all disciplines, and this couldbe having a negative effect on retention and progression.

    There is scope for further research in this area. Observational studies of student-centred learning in the learning space and through other communication would enhanceunderstanding of teachers approaches and students responses, and this could bebroadened into other discipline fields. It would also be interesting to explore the degreeto which a holistic approach is offered in other ways, for example, through a personaltutoring system. A complementary study focused on students would also enhance the datacollected here.

    AcknowledgementsThe author wishes to thank the research participants who generously gave up time to be inter-viewed, and colleagues who read and commented on earlier drafts of this paper.

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    http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075070600572090http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01969720490443381http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01969720490443381http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0959-4752(94)90024-8http://dx.doi.org/10.1046/j.1467-9620.2003.00303.xhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1023/A:1004130031247http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562510802602723http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF01383761http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/749910

    AbstractIntroductionMethodFindings and discussionA holistic approachConfidence, self-belief and building of trustEmpowerment

    ConclusionAcknowledgementsReferences

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