Learner-centred teaching (LCT) achieved best practice status in our field many years ago. Most of us have a sense of what LCT entails. We may characterize it as developing curriculum with the learners in mind; differentiating instruction to address learners’ varied proficiency levels, goals and interests; or simply providing more learner-talk than teacher-talk time. This article1 looks a little more deeply at LCT and some of the concepts underpinning its success in the 21st century English language classroom.
Marilyn Weimer (2012) defines LCT as follows:
Learner-centered teaching engages learners in the hard, messy work of learning.
It includes explicit skill instruction. It encourages learners to reflect on what, why and how they are learning. LCT also motivates students by giving them some control over learning processes. And it creates a community of learners who work towards a common goal. (p. 15)
Given our topic, it’s only right that we begin with the benefits that LCT affords our learners. Phyllis Blumberg writes that
students in learner-centered programs exhibit five valuable and distinguishing characteristics:
1) knowing why they need to learn the content;
2) understanding their learning abilities and how they acquire knowledge;
3) using knowledge for problem-solving;
4) engaging in life-long learning, and
5) communicating their knowledge outside the classroom. (p. 11)
Blumberg’s description gives us the outcomes of the learner-centred approach as well as a readiness rationale for its implementation: the characteristics listed are invaluable for learners tackling the complexities of 21st century workplaces, postsecondary settings, and their communities.
Now that we have the What and the Why of LCT, we need the How. Five elements of LCT: rigor, reflection, relevance, reciprocity, and responsibility make excellent lenses through which we can view a variety of ways to integrate learner-centredness into our instruction.
The ambiguous, complex, and evolving nature of our 21st century world necessitates challenging, rigorous instruction for the adult learner. Rigorous instruction creates a learning environment where all learners are expected to work at a high level and receive the support that will enable them to demonstrate their learning at that level (Blackburn, 2008). This type of rigorous instruction can only occur in an environment where learners’ needs, interests, and goals are known, that is in LCT. There are myriad ways to gather that data. Visual interest and goal inventories may work well for low-level classes, with less and less visual scaffolding as learners’ proficiency increases. Using a survey adds an element of rigor and digital literacy for learners responding on their phones or tablets (or on paper copies of the survey). Providing learners with sentence and paragraph frames allows them to make use of academic or professional language as they state their goals. This moves them towards that first, important learner-centred characteristic: knowing why they are learning.
A simple, but elegant no-tech way for learners to recognize their own goals and learn about their classmates’ is to provide the class with sticky notes and have them tab the pages in their text book that are of most interest to them. They can then compare their choices to their classmates’ and identify what made the pages important.
Rigor also plays a role in helping students identify their learning abilities. By providing tasks that are sufficiently challenging but scaffolded enough to avoid extreme frustration, students gain confidence in their skills. A sample task with a high level of challenge for all levels is called the one-question survey. Each member of a team surveys one section of the class with one question and then comes back together to look at the data, chart it, and report it out to the whole class. Team tasks emphasize the collaboration skills adults need to be successful in their communities, workplaces, and postsecondary classes.
Employing learners’ metacognition helps them retain and process key information from the learner-centred lesson. Reflection tools encourage learners to think more deeply about the knowledge they’re building and take stock of their thought process. One area where this type of thinking and reflecting is essential is in the acquisition of language strategies. Reading strategies, for example, need to be explicitly taught. When we teach previewing, predicting, scanning, focusing on text features, looking at words in context, etc., we provide the rationale and outcome for each strategy and demonstrate how the reader employs the strategy. But ownership of that strategy is much more likely when, following a reading task, learners are given time to reflect on which strategies they used and whether they were successful or unsuccessful. This type of reflection encourages divergent thinking: the more-than-one-approach-to-the-problem type of thinking, which the 21st century requires and the learner-centred class embraces.
Providing opportunities for reflection also means allowing learners to self-assess, giving them the chance to celebrate their strengths and determine the areas they want to improve. Rubrics, evaluation surveys and checklists are tools that transition seamlessly from classroom to workplace to community. Online versions of these tools are ubiquitous in our lives. One way to familiarize learners with rubrics is to have them consistently use one to assess their work as a team (see Appendix).
Because instruction in LCT has been built around learners’ needs, interests, and goals, the tasks are usually assured a level of relevance. The soft-skills language that learners develop through their teamwork are immediately relevant outside the classroom. Both the serendipitous and intentional problem solving that occurs in team work is also transferrable to our adult learners’ lives.
Providing tasks that increase digital literacy always adds an increased sense of relevance and often leads to higher levels of engagement. Task-based and project-based instruction often create a need for short-term research that learners can do using their hand-held devices or class computers. As learners develop their online research skills, they support each other (and often their teacher!) Kathy Harris points out, both “English language and digital literacy are essential for obtaining and keeping a family-sustaining job, supporting children in school, participating in community life, obtaining community services, and accessing further education and training.” (Harris, 2016, p. 2).
Reciprocity and Responsibility
When we look through our last two lenses we see how LCT reinforces learners’ sense of self-efficacy. Peer teaching or reciprocal learning is a mainstay of the learner-centred class. Learners may demonstrate their abilities as they assist a classmate or the teacher in one task and then just as easily receive assistance with another. Learners with a strong sense of efficacy are those who “set themselves challenging goals and maintain a strong commitment to them. They heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure” (Bandura, 1997). Learners with these attributes could also be said to have a growth (rather than a fixed) mindset (Dweck, 2007). Because there is more learner-talking time than teacher-talking time in the learner-centred class, there are more opportunities for learners to rehearse, take risks and fail, and support each other during a lesson. Mistakes, or “failures”, become a meaningful part of the learning process rather than a barrier. Examples of tasks that reinforce reciprocity in LCT include peer dictations, information gaps, jigsaws, paired readings, and team presentations.
Responsibility plays an equally important role in buoying learners’ belief in their abilities. The learner-centred class relies on each learner’s commitment to his or her growth. It asks learners to assume differentiated levels of responsibility during collaborative tasks and class discussions. There are numerous ways to acknowledge learners’ responsibility in the learning process, such as assigning specific roles for team tasks and class discussions, providing answer keys, rubrics or checklists to allow learners to self-assess and make their own choices about what to review. There are also cooperative learning structures such as or that require learners to take responsibility for reviewing information with classmates. The 21st century workplace requires self-direction, autonomy and collaboration—the learner-centred class does as well.
It’s no secret that our immigrant and refugee English language learners face numerous obstacles outside our classroom walls. Nor is it surprising that we would want to do everything in our power to ensure they acquire the English they need to overcome those obstacles. Our learners’ ability to persist in the struggle to learn does not reside in our power, however, but in theirs. Perhaps the most important outcome in the learner-centred environment is the agency that our learners can reclaim as they stand at the centre of rigorous, relevant instruction that requires them to reflect on, and take responsibility for, their learning.
Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998). Retrieved from
Blumberg, P. (2009). Developing learner-centered teaching: A practical guide for faculty, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books
Harris, K. (2016). Integrating digital literacy into English language instruction: Issue brief. Washington, D.C.: American Institutes for Research
TEAM TASK RUBRIC
Exceeds the criteria
Meets the criteria
We gave the task our full attention.
We took notes or used sticky notes to help us focus.
We gave the task our full attention.
We did not give the task our full attention.
SOFT SKILL PRACTICE
Everyone used the target soft skill effectively.
We all tried to use the target soft skill.
We did not use the soft skill.
Our team completed our task(s) on time.
Our team completed our task(s) on time or requested an extension.
Our team had difficulty meeting deadlines today.
All our written work for the task was accurate and/or the task exceeded the criteria.
Our written work for the task was accurate. The task met the criteria.
We had many errors in the written work and/or the task did not meet the criteria.
USE OF TARGET LANGUAGE
We used the target language to complete the task.
We tried to use the target language.
We did not use the target language.
TO THE TEACHER: Teach the vocabulary and concept of the rubric as part of language development and college and career readiness.
(Adapted from the rubric for Rigor and Reason- Right from the Start – J. Adelson-Goldstein.)
1. This article is based on Ms. Adelson-Goldstein’s keynote given at the TESL Ontario conference in Toronto, on November 24, 2016.