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).

    Teaching in Higher Education 267

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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).

    268 S. Tangney

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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 metho...

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