Educators are (or at least were traditionally) assigned the responsibility of determining what students ought to know and how that information should be delivered (i.e., they are assigned the task of teaching). “Student-centred” learning shifts that responsibility to the student. In this student-centred model, there is explicit consideration of the student’s interests, her preferred approach to learning, and what sort of feedback she finds valuable. Students are not always in the best position to know what they should know in order to meet their learning goals, hence the purpose of formal education. These opposing frameworks present the challenge of balancing what the teacher believes the student ought to know to obtain the desired education (or achieve the stated learning goal) and what the student, in fact, wants to know (which may or may not be comprehensive or relevant to their desired goal). Anyone who has taught a statistics course has likely encountered this challenge! Thus, there is inherent tension between the roles of teacher and student.
A possible solution may lie in Bertrand Russell’s suggestion of how learning can be optimized by building lesson plans around the individual student’s interests. For example, a student’s interest in aviation offers several opportunities for tailored education—physics and mathematics lessons can focus on examples related to engine design and the dynamics of flight, and writing and language skills can be explored through an examination of the history of aviation. This is a strategy we often use in teaching graduate statistics, whereby the student applies statistical concepts to her own projects that will make up a dissertation as part of the assessment and evaluation. Russell had the opportunity to put his views on education into practice with the opening of the Beacon Hill School. The story goes that when a local Rector visited the school at Telegraph House, he was greeted by a naked little girl. When the Rector cried, “Good God!” the child replied, “There is no God!” and shut the door. Maybe that is a bit too student-centred!
The story of the Rector and the little girl is most certainly a myth. However, the idea that a student’s learning can benefit from considering that student’s interest in devising a curriculum is not. Russell was responding to an environment where education was decidedly not-student centred, where education was delivered predominantly through didactic lecture and assigned reading of classic texts—the instructor decided what the student should learn and how. Today, the idea that learning is enhanced through tailored assignments and readings is intuitive to both educators and students alike, and yet, such tailoring often does not occur, often due to a lack of resources and/or a lack of imagination (or other reasons, including disinterest of either the teacher or student, or both).
Whereas in the past it was assumed that students sought higher learning as a means of personal growth (perhaps in a moral sense, i.e., growth through hardship), the students of today more often view a university education as an investment in improving the opportunity for increasing future earnings. Such an environment reconceives students as consumers, and, as the saying goes, the customer is always right. Education positioned as a transaction may require that it be student-centred. In that case, it may be that the role of the teacher will inevitably shift to that of a facilitator, thus relieving the tension. Why one would object to this shift in roles is odd to me. I learn nothing from my own lectures, and I find repeating myself year after year a bore. What is the point if the students feel the same way? I have found that, where I have tailored assignments to my students’ interests (e.g., in my undergraduate course on healthcare, the topic of the research protocol they need to design is not restricted to a problem in healthcare), I often learn something new from my students. If we are to encourage lifelong learning, which is something I hear is of value to most professors and is coincidentally a feature of a student-centred model, then it should not be problematic for us to lead by example.