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Moving Beyond the Dichotomy: Implementing a Balanced Approach to Teaching and Learning

balance approach to teaching

The literature provides a wealth of research studies that sharply contrast student-centered and teacher-centered approaches and portray these learning environments as opposite poles. This argument constructs a polarity often seen in false dichotomy debates characterized by “either this or that”, even when a range of feasible alternatives indeed exists. 

It is reasonable to presume that if we want students to learn and apply critical thinking skills, they should be provided with student-centered opportunities to achieve higher cognitive outcomes. For example, in group discussions, students can collaborate to formulate hypotheses, examine the evidence, and evaluate conclusions to achieve the desired cognitive goals, with the teacher playing an indirect role in the process. In a student-centered classroom, group interaction is encouraged, and a major part of the class time is spent on activities such as developing and discussing questions, solving a problem, brainstorming, and group work, among others. 

The choice of teacher-centered versus student-centered learning depends on the learning goals for a given lesson. Higher-order thinking skills cannot be applied in vacuum using activities, projects, and problem-based approaches that are devoid of, at the very least, a basic understanding of the content. If one of the objectives of today’s lesson is knowledge acquisition, then an interactive teacher-centered approach might be preferred. A student-centered approach would better support student learning if the learning objective extends beyond knowledge acquisition. 

It is therefore imperative here to distinguish between student-centered elements of instruction and a student-centered learning environment. A teacher-centered approach to teaching might include student-centered instructional strategies. Alternatively, evidence of student-centered activities does not necessarily result in a student-centered learning environment. Spending class time on discussions and hands-on activities, both of which are student-centered activities, might not result in learning or in students constructing a solid understanding of a given concept. A high rate of student participation in classroom discussions is not necessarily indicative of student engagement. A happy activity and busy-looking students do not necessarily translate into conceptual understanding or deep learning. Group work does not equate with active learning and many group activities can be meaningless and even boring to students. Alternatively, explicit teaching does not mean that active learning is not taking place. 

The call for a balanced approach provides teachers with the tools to create authentic student-centered learning environments while incorporating teacher-centered and student-centered instructional strategies. We should advocate for moving beyond contrasting direct instruction with constructivism and build instead on the strengths of each approach to support students in what they need to learn (knowledge) and be able to do (skills). The balanced, structured approach integrates teacher-centered and student-centered pedagogies and proposes a combination of direct instruction, guided practice, scaffolded activities, and independent and collaborative learning. It allows teachers to organize learning and maintain focus on academic rigor and in-depth exploration of a topic by providing students with opportunities to be cognitively engaged in their learning in the constructivist view of building an understanding of a given concept based on prior knowledge and experiences. 

An essential teacher lecturing to disengaged students in a didactic learning environment for most of the class time represents an overwhelming minority of teachers in most educational systems. On the contrary, many teachers might already be applying a balanced approach. Educators invariably endorse constructivism, focusing on student learning as the central tenet of instruction. Teacher-centered instruction may emphasize defining key concepts, giving examples, demonstrating skills, and explicit teaching if needed, to prepare students to apply concepts to solve real-world problems, practice their skills, and apply their learning to new contexts. In such an environment, students play an active role as they cooperate, negotiate, and construct their knowledge, with the teacher providing direct support, guidance, and scaffolding. In other words, a balanced approach focuses on learning the content and on the learning process. 

Strictly applying student-centered learning approaches without providing students with the necessary background knowledge (content) and multiple learning opportunities to practice constructing their understanding may undermine the benefits of student-centered learning. Expecting students to act like experts in ‘discovering’ may hinder their learning. Students might indeed ‘discover’ and construct their learning. However, unfortunately, their discoveries might simply be incorrect which, unless immediately addressed by the teacher, would lead to misconceptions that are difficult to rectify. Thereby, students need sufficient opportunities to develop the background knowledge they need through interactive, scaffolded teacher-centered strategies to be able to engage as ‘experts’ in their learning. Factual knowledge is not to be contrasted with higher-order thinking skills. Rather, content is a necessary precondition for students to develop higher-order thinking skills and apply their learning to novel experiences.

The assumption that students can independently develop a conceptual understanding of a given topic with the teacher acting as a facilitator underestimates the complexity involved in the learning process. Discovery learning, a common student-centered approach, is successful if students have developed a solid understanding of the background content related to the topic. A balanced approach to the learning environment regards teachers and students to be mutually responsible for the learning process. Teachers should consider the learning goals before selecting the appropriate instructional method. The teacher addresses the problems students might experience as they monitor the learning process, particularly the students’ ability to regulate their own learning. Students are challenged to work independently with critical safeguards set by the teacher to provide support. 

Teacher-driven classroom environments should not be vilified, and constructivism should be grounded in context. The balanced approach demonstrates that student-centeredness and teacher-centeredness can mutually contribute to the quality of learning, rather than one approach dominating the other.

Written by Elissar Gerges, EdD - Education World Contributing Writer

Elissar has more than 10 years of experience as an AP and IBDP Biology teacher and Biology head of department. She holds a Master of Science in Education from Walden University, a Master of Education in Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development from the University of Toronto, and a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership, K-12 from Western University, Canada.

Elissar’s research focus is on learning communities, team leadership, instructional leadership, and integrating citizenship in science education. She is a strong advocate of science media literacy to enable all students, as active citizens, to critically evaluate science in the media to make informed decisions.

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