When I was in grade school in England in the 1970s and 80s, children were still mostly supposed to be seen but not heard. A swift punishment would often correct the errors in our ways, though the nicer teachers also rewarded our compliance. Teachers and textbooks were our source of knowledge, and their truths were rarely up for debate. This was a learning environment shaped by classical behaviorist learning theory. In 1969, the year before I was born, Postman & Weingartner published Teaching as a Subversive Activity. They envisioned an educational world where learners learned through asking questions (“Inquiry Learning”), with the goal of developing skills to solve real-world problems. Graduates would enter the world with a keenly developed “crap detector” in order to be engaged citizens, thriving in a world full of existential threats.
In Postman & Weingartner’s time, communism and nuclear war were high on the list of Western worries. In our post 9-11 world, these fears have changed to things like terrorism, climate change, and pandemics, but the case for learning to solve a good problem seems just as urgent. One seismic difference in today’s learning environment is how learners receive their information. I was always vexed about the risk of biased information coming from a mass media controlled by a few powerful men. Today, our learners have been liberated by the internet and its social media. Avalanches of information are delivered any time, any place, anywhere. Our new dilemmas are massive information overload, soundbite analysis, and polarization of viewpoints. In this new order, it strikes me that the need for one of those old “crap detectors” is more urgent than ever!
After high school, I began a lifelong habit of avoiding the real world as I went straight off to medical school. There, I literally received wisdom. Lecture upon lecture of wisdom. Looking back, drinking from that fire hose of knowledge largely prevented me from thinking for myself until well into the 1990s. At about that time, I got a scholarship to take a year out of medical school to complete a Bachelor’s degree. It was my first encounter with research, which led me next into a Ph.D. program. For the first time in my educational journey, I was confronted with the need to determine the direction of my own work, to ask questions, and to try to figure out the answers. I was finally doing some of that Inquiry Learning! It was a process that permanently changed who I am. I emerged with the confidence and ability to frame my own questions. I can find good information and assess its validity. I can draw evidence-based conclusions. I can usually work well with other people. Most importantly, I can passionately disagree with you and we can still be friends! Did I have to do a Ph.D. to experience these things? Today, I am a professor in a medical school. My roles have included being responsible for fostering Inquiry Learning, or what we now might call “student-centered learning.” This has been a pathway filled with both joy and pain—and a steady loss of hair!
So, what is student-centered learning? For me it is simply a philosophy that prioritizes the needs and interests of students. Compared to traditional programs, learning is more personalized. Students are allowed to set some of the learning agendas. They experience authentic learning activities, meaning that they get to tackle some real problems in real situations. Student-centered learning commonly includes a lot of social learning in teams. Faculty shape the process and spend more time giving feedback than lectures. The theoretical basis here has switched to social constructivism. Students build new learning on their prior learning. With the help of their teachers, learners internalize the knowledge and skills of their environment. Students take responsibility for their own learning and eventually gain autonomy. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?
For this piece, I was asked to comment on whether one can truly promote student-centered learning in a standards-based world. This gets at the idea of barriers, and one of them is certainly our conventional views on assessment and standards of achievement. My world is indeed constrained by externally imposed standards. Most of my learners are pre-clinical medical students who must get a great score on the United States Medical Licensure Exam (USMLE) Step 1 knowledge test to secure a good residency job later on. My other students are pre-med students who are taking the Medical College Admissions Test to enter medical school. All of these learners have their eyes firmly fixed on the prize of doing well on a standardized test. Doing wholesale student-centered learning in this environment is tough. There is a powerful informal curriculum that often drives the expectation that faculty should simply tell students what they need to know. Exposing these strategic learners to the sometimes messy and seemingly inefficient world of Inquiry Learning can place your teaching evaluations in peril! In this environment, my suggestion is to find the right dose of the medicine.
Much of the time we can easily align with the students’ most proximal goal of passing their external test. We can at least use active and engaging learning pedagogies to help them master the core of knowledge. Instead of just lectures or readings, we can infuse short videos, games, simulations, case problems, collaborative exercises, and the like. We can also use authentic experiences to foster learning of other key competencies that are not on The Test. For example, I can tap into a medical student’s emerging professional identity and have them work some of the time with real patients. Here, they may need to resolve an ethical dilemma, demonstrate reasoning skills to make a diagnosis, or master communication skills to give bad news. There is still good alignment with their ultimate goal of being a clinician, and there is engagement with a real-world problem. We can also reserve part of the overall curriculum footprint for project-based learning or research. In this part of the program, students can follow their own passion and be guided to experience the component parts of the discovery process. Even if you are teaching in a program where conventional knowledge standards are prominent external requirements, the curriculum can still prioritize lifelong learning skills by including inquiry and discovery.
Another challenge in our standards-based world is the narrow traditional viewpoint on how to fairly assess students. The notion of producing an “equal” assessment when we might have one hundred students all doing a different project is not as hard as it first seems. Rubrics that clearly describe the generic elements of hypothesis or question development, information gathering, study design, data collection, data analysis, and interpretation are readily available. After all, life is not a multiple-choice exam (though it is a cumulative one)! Speaking as someone who has given workshops on how to develop excellent multiple-choice exams, I am as much a fan of a good reliability coefficient as the next person, but a more creative mindset is needed to assess student-centered learning outcomes. To assess learners as they develop competencies, best practices include a shift to more frequent, low-stakes assessment with rich feedback about progress. Triangulating several measures over time allows us to determine when students have achieved competence.
This leads me to final thoughts about the challenges we face as faculty in delivering more meaningful learning. Another great prompt for this piece was, “will respecting an individual student’s autonomy as a learner still do justice to all other students, particularly in a world of limited resources?” Part of this we have already discussed—the need to create equitable assessments when students are each doing their own projects. My other thought relates to faculty resources, both in terms of faculty number as well as how we are deployed. There is no doubt that our ability to guide students through the inquiry process is more resource intensive than the traditional information-delivery mode of curriculum. A common issue is simply an adverse faculty-to-student ratio, which at some point does become limiting. These days, faculty spend a lot of time serving compliance systems such as accreditation, financial audit, effort reporting, research ethics, conflict of interest, grant reporting, and a growing list of metrics needed for knowledge managers to assure our excellence. While all of this is well intentioned, it takes us away from our primary missions of teaching and research, and it consumes a lot of human resources that are no longer available to deliver education. My advice is to stop filling out all those forms, as it only encourages them! More seriously, faculty need to be advocates for the education mission at every opportunity, from long range strategic planning to annual budget allocations.
It is not just about the number of faculty but also whether we and the institution both buy in to the idea of student-centered learning. Maybe you are strong enough to be a maverick who can swim against the tide. I did not know them, but I imagine that Postman & Weingartner and the late Del Hamish, who inspired this collection, probably fit this mold very well. Hopefully, you don’t need to be an outlier and your institution already values or even requires Inquiry Learning. Successful transition to student-centered approaches needs good faculty development. We were not raised as professional educators and many of us had those old behaviorists as our role models. We need help to rethink and redesign learning activities, to become better facilitators, to give effective feedback, to assess differently, and so on. Organizational buy-in has several other facets. Institutional values have to be apparent through actions like how we schedule classes, the facilities and resources provided, and the credits available for the work. This prevents a hidden curriculum from developing that pays lip service to, but undermines, student-centered learning efforts. Leadership needs to be supportive of the faculty engaged in this effort so that faculty are liberated to take some risks without the fear of risking their own career advancement, especially if student evaluations dip. We can do excellent student-centered education, even with limited resources, but alignment of philosophy from the curriculum committee, leadership, faculty, and students makes it so much easier.
Fifty years after Postman & Weingartner, we have made progress. In the intervening years, we have seen blue ribbon reports like Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action make specific recommendations for a shift to student-centered classrooms and for the inclusion of real-world research experiences into the curriculum. Have we fulfilled all of the vision yet? No. But it is no longer subversive to expect that all our learners will graduate with the ability to think and advocate for themselves in a complex world. Over the last 10-15 years, I have met many faculty with the necessary passion and skills to deliver such an educational outcome. In honor of Del Hamish, and the others that came before us, let’s keep moving onwards and upwards together!
Bauerle, C., DePass, A. & Lynn, D. ET AL. (2011) Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action. Final Report of a National Conference Organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, July 15–17, 2009, Washington, DC. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Postman, N. & Weingartner. (1969). Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY: Delta Publishing Co., Inc.