3 Shifting our Value System: Using Student-Centred Learning to Battle the Standards-Based World – by Joshua Koenig and Ashley Marshall

Joshua Koenig and Ashley Marshall

“There have been plenty of days when I have spent the working hours with scientists and then gone off at night with some literary colleagues. I mean that literally. I have had, of course, intimate friends among both scientists and writers. It was through living among these groups and much more, I think, through moving regularly from one to the other and back again that I got occupied with the problem of what, long before I put it on paper, I christened to myself as the ‘two cultures’. For constantly I felt I was moving among two groups—comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning about the same incomes, who had almost ceased to communicate at all, who in intellectual, moral and psychological climate had so little in common…”. C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures, 1959 [1]

Authors’ Positionality

Joshua Koenig is a doctoral candidate studying at the McMaster Immunology Research Centre. He instructs courses in the Bachelor of Health Sciences program including: Introductory Immunology, Cell Biology, and Child Health. Josh sees the enduring fjord between science and the humanities and aspires to embody what C.P. Snow described as the bridge between “two cultures.” Josh’s expertise comes from his experience as a student and educator at an Ontario university.

Ashley Marshall is a professor of communications at Durham College, who obtained both a B.A. and M.A. from McMaster University. With the mentorship of Henry Giroux, Ashley’s research is rooted in public intellectualism and public pedagogy. Ashley’s humanities expertise widens the conversation about student-centric learning by conceptualizing intersectionality, neoliberalism, and equity. Ashley’s analysis comes from her position as a faculty member in the Ontario community college system.

Can one truly promote student-centred learning in a standards-based world?


In this essay, we will define what we call student-centred learning, some of the key standards used to evaluate education, and who benefits from them. Lastly, we will explore how education perpetuates the standards-based world and discuss the potential that true student-centred education has moving forward.

What is student-centred learning?

In 1993, Alison King, then associate professor of education in the College of Education at California State University in San Marcos, gave a polemical review of where the focus should lie in teaching and learning, claiming that instructors should be less of a “sage on the stage” and more of a “guide on the side [2].” Since then, this conversation about the role of the instructor has continued and been reframed. Student-centred learning is the opposite of “teacher-centred learning,” where the instructor is the “sage on the stage” who harbours information and is entrusted to disseminate their wisdom to a (usually large) classroom of students. In contrast, student-centred approaches shift the focus of education from the instructor to the students. In student-centred models, instructors are viewed as facilitators who encourage and empower students to gain skills in self-directed and peer-to-peer learning. Student-centred approaches value hard and soft skill development and allow students to pursue their interests (not the instructor’s), and generally oppose learning to strict curricula or standardized evaluation criteria—adaptations of the Socratic teaching method. The 20th century ushered in pedagogical theorists who sought to re-integrate the Socratic method into the educational system and laid the foundation for what we know as constructivism, or specifically, “student-centred learning.” This movement had many forerunners (bell hooks, Maria Montessori, Paulo Freire, Neil Postman, John Dewey, etc.), and was primarily inspired by a need to assuage power imbalances, autocracy, and oppression within the learning environment. So, when attempting to define student-centred learning, we must also acknowledge an important tenant of its origin: these forerunners prioritized injection of democracy, equality, and subjectivity—inherently radical social objectives. Therefore, it is pertinent to label student-centred learning as borne from social justice.

What are the standards/metrics and what do they represent?

Please note, we use standards and metrics synonymously throughout the text below.

Institutional Metrics

In April 2019, the incumbent Ontario government handed down their expectations for Ontario higher education funding. According to The Globe and Mail, “Ontario’s new performance-based funding model for colleges and universities will focus on 10 metrics that include employment and graduation rates, the amount of research and industry funding the institutions receive and the demonstrated skills of their students [3].” These metrics are loosely defined and still quite young—their impact in the classroom is yet to be seen—and therefore they will not be a focus of critique here. However, what we can glean from this change to higher education metrics is the ideology which led to their introduction: according to Minister Merrilee Fullerton, there is a “need to have performance-based funding and outcomes funding in order to keep the economy going the way it needs to go, allowing students to find jobs2.” This “outcomes” deliverable is what makes the college system attractive to some students and to some employers: there is an applied learning and a hands-on methodology that aids students who learn best this way. Meanwhile, the university system is often characterized as being “too theoretical,” or “too abstract” for the “real world,” which is echoed in the ideology behind these changes to funding.

As educators, which we would define as lifelong students, supporting the economy and ushering students toward finding jobs is a gross devaluation of higher education. For education to come even remotely close to being student-centred, the endgame cannot be employment, or employment alone. If education that “keep[s] the economy going the way it needs to go” is needed, then as a society we must also realize, explicitly, that we are workers first and people second. Is such a Manichean [4] divide even possible? Because we are analyzing “metrics,” the humanity of the students drops out of the equation: they are regarded as tuition dollars first, instead of curious, passionate, embodied people with real experiences and with material engagement with economic structures such as capitalism, racism, precarity, poverty, disability, and myriad oppression. So, with that, we assert that students are also people. We assert that Ontario’s “performance-based” metrics do not account for the human-aspects of the student experience.

Looking at the equation more closely, we realize that under today’s market logics, at the level of the institution, profit margins are the main tool used to evaluate educational programs. At the university level, students pay tuition, tuition goes to administration, administration pays the instructors, instructors teach the students. Sage-on-the-stage education delivered to large classes is, therefore, financially valuable to the institution (and prioritized above humanism, dialogue, intellectualism, or social transgression). The instructor salary for a single course can accumulate profit through many hundreds of heads of tuition dollars. In contrast, student-centred education is typically delivered in small classes and therefore is a less viable educational structure from a profit perspective. Charting a student’s progression takes time and energy from instructors. Establishing goals with students and evaluating their progress requires one-on-one time with students that is not possible as class sizes grow. Evaluations are typically not as simple as massified multiple choice questionnaires—creativity and curricular development are required. Constant re-evaluation of courses to match students’ needs requires dedication and legwork. All these activities require time and are therefore expensive, and again, deprioritized. Efforts to massify student-centred learning are presently a focus of educational research but, ultimately, most of these efforts fail. From our view, this failure occurs because student-centred learning is not meant to be massified. By this metric, student-centred education fails the standards-based world.

There is a complicated argument to be made: sage-on-the-stage education can produce profits that can be used to offer other very important social services to students, like hiring support workers for mental health services, hiring academic advisors to guide students, or even to support smaller student-centred programs that may not be as lucrative on their own. Further, in Canada, profits are used to hire scientists who generate societally valuable research. Nonetheless, the institutional and government metrics applied to education today are capitalist metrics that are used as an argument to provide a lower quality of education and to dissuade students from pursuing interests that motivate them in favour of those perceived to be economically beneficial.

Individual Metrics

The standards that students strive for are generally 1) grades, 2) a degree/diploma, and 3) employment. Grades are utilized as a “sorting” mechanism, in which an employer, scholarship granting agency, professional school, etc. can presumably judge the value of a person (or as some would impassively put it, the “quality of a candidate”) based on their grade scores. To this day, grades are used as a “realistic” metric for student success. And yet, grades are a relatively poor predictor of job success [5]. Our own institutions, which utilize grade-based evaluation, mistrust the output of grades from high schools and are reported to assign multipliers to “correct” student grades to ensure students from schools are “equally competitive” for acceptance to their premier programs [6], which raises the question: why do we think this is a valuable metric at all?

A lesser discussed issue is the social side of grading. From various perspectives, the education system perpetuates oppression against many demographics. For example, a prevalent notion remains that students who experience disability are not meant for the university environment. We have heard stories like the following, told numerous different ways and many times over: a colleague of ours likened a student with disabilities to a short basketball player. From their view, a short basketball player stands no chance of making it to the NBA. This colleague’s worldview dictates that some people are born for basketball, others are not, and that is how it should be. Students with alternative learning needs, in this analogy, should not have equal access to education—something that is their legal right in Canada (see AODA [7]).

Contrary to our colleagues’ assertions, short players continue to have integral roles in the NBA. Muggsy Bogues, Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry—all players well below the league average of 6’7’’ and often considered “too short for basketball”—have had stellar careers in the NBA. They have succeeded in spite of their “limitation,” for example, through their ability to shoot the ball and set up plays. Further, they succeed because of being short through the additional benefits of being quick, agile, and able to move in ways that their taller peers cannot. Similarly, students with disabilities are present and, in fact, many excel in higher education. These students have found ways to succeed despite their disabilities, and sometimes despite lapses and barriers in institutional support. However, the institution has done little, if anything, to consider the added value these students have because of their disability; students with disabilities offer unique perspectives and desirable skill sets that should be represented in academia and professional spheres. Present models of evaluation are not equipped to deal with this nuance, especially considering that for many instructors, we are still at the stage of othering marginalized perspectives as “unfit for the institution.” Addressing these concerns is increasingly pressing as the number of students with alternative needs is increasing at an exponential rate in higher education (Figure 1).


Graph showing the increase of Number of students registered with McMaster University’s Student Accessibility Services over time

Figure 1: Number of students registered with McMaster University’s Student Accessibility Services over time. These data could have many explanations including: increasing support for students with alternative needs in high school, increased awareness for diagnosis, or potential increases in mental health disorders. Data collated from Ministry Reports [Available at: https://sas.mcmaster.ca/ministry-reports/].


A very similar story could be told about people of colour, queer folk, members of minority religions, women-identified individuals, and low-income populations, all of whom are still subject to systemic oppression that limit their engagement in higher education. As an example, the class of medical students accepted in 2016 at the University of Toronto had only one Black student in a class of 259 (0.4%) despite nearly 9% of Torontonians self-identifying as Black [8]. These are oppressed communities who have useful skill sets and experiences but live an existence outside of what the institution is designed for, who need accommodation, and yet must compete for the same metric: grades. Despite the adversity that these individuals face, the A+ they receive is valued as equal to any other A+, context largely ignored. Conventional wisdom dictates that students who do not achieve high grades are not as intelligent as their peers and are not as deserving of scholarships, coveted co-operative education placements, nor jobs. But we assert, through our experience, that the students who achieve an A+ are not always smarter, more deserving, more dedicated, or better members of society. Those who have a privileged place in society, those who don’t need to work while being in school, aren’t at risk of sexual abuse, who can move freely without discrimination, who do not have to dedicate significant mental faculties to their social position, are oriented to excel in higher education. They achieve high grades, and continue their social ascent, having already started with an advantage. Grades, as a metric, do not work for everyone. Grades fail hard-working students.

As educators we have relegated experiences to a “personal” sphere, which is expected to remain compartmentalized and distant from “learning.” This model ignores the thoughts, emotions, experiences, traumas, and successes of the student—the very essence of what engages them in humanity. Rejecting this model, forerunners of student-centred education have argued that the individual as a whole, not just as a student, should be at the centre of their (life-long) educational experience. This is where student-centred education fails, again, in a world of fetishized metrics. How do we reasonably evaluate a student’s experiences? What is an A+ in working through trauma? What grade do we give someone when they incorporate new content into their existence? What is the grade value of developing a new, intangible skill such as compassion? We advocate for broader conversations about “alternative assessments,” with the hope that these nuanced and intersectional approaches, which are largely rooted in Indigenous practices, become more mainstream and more respected. Instead of “alternative,” our ambition is that collaborative evaluation, discussion circles, inquiry (asking questions perhaps without finding answers), recognizing “traditional knowledge keepers” (Elders) as experts, and other forms of authentic assessment become part of faculty development.

In summary, we have discussed how standards/metrics are systematically valued, and then used to evaluate both educational programs and their students. We have also pointed out, from a theoretical and social perspective, how these metrics continue to fail students. We think, therefore, that the question should shift from “can we promote student-centred learning in a standards-based world?” to “what are we presently doing to promote the standards-based world?” and “how might a revolution of values impact institutions?”

What are we doing to promote the standards-based world?

Marshall MacLuhen famously wrote “the medium is the message” to explain how the “character” of a medium can have a greater impact on the individual than the content conveyed through the medium [9]. While MacLuhen applied this primarily to post-modernism and its media, such as newspapers, radio, and television, Postman and Weingartner expanded the theory to include the classroom as a medium. They deduced “…that the critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs [10].” When we consider the current process of higher education, it is quite clear how standards remain at the forefront of society. No matter what educators tell students about taking their classes seriously, getting out what they put in, and encouraging students towards deep, interest-based learning, the output of most (if not all) higher education programs is some form of metric: institutional profit, employability, grades, and diplomas/degrees. The process of learning is largely ignored, students are expected to be proficient in the same material, to demonstrate that they can regurgitate that material, but with no real follow up that they have truly learned that material. The system, especially in teacher-centred education, tells these individuals to maximize effort on achieving standards and minimize effort into any other aspect, especially in actually “doing work.” The institution outlines the rules of engagement, the terms of success, and the conditions of a student’s exit. The students have minimal (if any) say in these matters.

Our institutions host students during important, formative years in their intellectual development and, even in the most student-centred of programs, instil in them a confining ruleset. The medium has told them that their agency for change is low and that conformity is ideal. These students, alienated [11], relegate into the periphery any need to critique everyday life and renew humanity with critical thought. They become absorbed into a system which dictates what is acceptable; a machine, from the outset, governed by standards. Standards become normalized, even expected. These same students go out into the world, vote, perpetuate the importance of “employability” and “performance-based funding,” without critically evaluating who wins in these systems and who continues to be left out (or, in more blunt terms, oppressed). They become the citizenry incapable of seeing themselves as either part of a larger problem or having the potential to be a part of a solution. After all, they are workers, not people. Our educational institutions are a fundamental reason that the standards-based world exists.

What can we do about it?

To challenge the “standards-based world” requires a revolution in values, difficult critical thought, and dialogue at the level of the institutions who, as they have historically done, should guide the intellectual revolution. The academy—every faculty member, every staff member, administrator, teaching assistant, and student—are members of society. If these individuals continue to believe that the present standards are static, that there is no alternative, then it will continue to be so.

As we have argued, this metrics-based world actively excludes, devalues, and hinders its populace and therefore must be changed. The answer, we propose, is a shift in the medium. By engaging in student-centred, non-compartmentalized, feeling, thinking, experiencing education, we are telling students, through the medium, that they are not simply workers but instead are individuals whose experiences are valuable. It tells individuals that they are an integral part of society who can enact change, and that a part of that change can be to shift value away from broken metrics. As Henri Lefebvre has said, “Our age is, in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit. Religion through its sanctity, and law-giving through its majesty, may seek to exempt themselves from it. But they then awaken suspicion, and cannot claim the sincere respect which reason accords only to that which has been able to sustain the test of free and open examination [12].” The free and open examination that Lefebvre seeks of institutions which hold influence is the same free and open examination we desire both of and in academies of higher learning. A belief in the status quo is a powerful mysticism that allows for these metrics and standards to remain inert. However, it is through Othered knowledge that the academy is becoming increasingly critiqued, and it is from the labour of these marginalized students and their allies that a reform of what students learn, and how they learn it, is on the horizon.

We will reiterate the first word of this essay: No, true student-centred learning cannot exist in a standards-based world. This is by design; it was never meant to. We propose this world is not desirable and suggest the use of student-centred learning as a radical tool to promote a shift in values towards dismantling the standards-based world.

AM would like to acknowledge Russell Means, who taught her that “Marxism is as alien to [her] culture as capitalism” too, and showed her how to be an ally to the Indigenous peoples. In honour of Means’s memory and in observance of Othered knowledges and what we can learn from them, what we can teach, AM champions Black oral traditions while also echoing Means: “…I detest writing. The process itself epitomizes the European concept of ‘legitimate’ thinking; what is written has an importance that is denied the spoken. My culture, the Lakota culture, has an oral tradition, so I ordinarily reject writing. It is one of the white world’s ways of destroying the cultures of non-European peoples, the imposing of an abstraction over the spoken relationship of a people.” AM also thanks her tireless team, The Rhizome Project: Kristen Shaw, Julia Theberge, Natasha Kowalskyj, Kevin Taghabon, and Tyler Pollard.

We would like to acknowledge Claudia Spadafora for critically editing this essay.

JK would like to thank P.K. Rangachari, Stacey Ritz, Margaret Secord, Stelios Georgiades, and Manel Jordana for endless opportunities, guidance, conversation, and support. JK also thanks AM, from whom he has learned more than he could ever repay. JK was fortunate to study and engage in projects under the supervision of Del Harnish, and hopes he picked up enough of Del’s mischief in the time he spent with him.



[1] Snow, C. P. (Charles Percy), 1905-1980. (1959). The two cultures and the scientific revolution. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[2] King, A. (1993). From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College teaching41(1), 30-35.

[3] Friesen, J. (2019, April 19). New metrics for Ontario university and college funding include employment and graduation rates. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-new-metrics-for-ontario-university-and-college-funding-include/

[4] Referring to Manichean religious beliefs about duality. Typically, about a good, spiritual world of light and an evil, material world of darkness. Read as “is such a black and white divide even possible?”

[5] Roth, P. L., BeVier, C. A., Switzer III, F. S., & Schippmann, J. S. (1996). Meta-analyzing the relationship between grades and job performance. Journal of applied psychology, 81(5), 548.

[6] Cain, P. (2018, September 13). One university’s secret list to judge applicants by their high schools – not just their marks. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/4405495/waterloo-engineering-grade-inflation-list/

[7] Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act, 2005, SO 2005, c 11, <http://canlii.ca/t/52pzh> retrieved on 2019-11-28

[8] Statistics Canada. 2016. Census Profile, 2016. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-316-X2016001. Ottawa. Version updated June 2019. Ottawa. https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/index.cfm?Lang=E, Nov 28, 2019.

[9] McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

[10] Postman, N. & Weingartner. (1969). Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY: Delta Publishing Co., Inc.

[11] “By making alienation ‘the key concept in the analysis of human situations since Marx’, Lefebve was opening philosophy to action: taken in its Kantian sense, critique was not simply knowledge of everyday life, but knowledge of the means to transform it” (Critique of Everyday Life, 6).

[12] Kanapa, J. (1947) Henri Lefebvre ou la philosophie vivante. La Pensee, no. 15.

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