Foundations and Assessment of Education/Edition 1/Foundations Table of Contents/Chapter 2/2.6.2

Teacher-Centered vs. Student-Centered Philosophies
by Daysha Clark



After completing this lesson the learner should:

  • Understand the basic differences between teacher-centered and studen-centered education
  • Be able to describe characteristics of each teaching method as they relate to the teacher, the student, the nature of knowledge, and the classroom environment
  • Have an understanding of the support for each philosophy
  • Have an understanding of the drawbacks for each philosophy

As prospective educators, it's important to understand how you and your future classroom will incorporate the crowd of theories and ideas that currently influence education and learning. It's very easy to get lost in the swirl of educational theories and 'isms' that crop up in discussions of educational practices. Despite the rich variety of ideas about learning, most teaching approaches fall into one court or the other ' teacher centered, or student centered. These two very different views can themselves be further subdivided in to wildly different ideas about the role of the teacher, the potential of the child, and the nature of knowledge. Rather than getting bogged down in semantics that not necessarily helpful, what will be discussed here is the underlying philosophies of these two views, and how they impact the teacher, the student, and the classroom environment.



Teacher centered philosophies represent a more traditional approach to knowledge and learning. The philosophical underpinnings of this school of thought are best illustrated by the following logic: 'Education implies teaching, teaching implies knowledge, knowledge is truth, truth is the same everywhere, therefore, education everywhere should be the same' (Jacobson 1999)

Core Ideas


With origins in Renaissance philosophies, traditional views primarily seek to wrap the student around a fixed bundle knowledge. Knowledge, within this framework, is the set of skills and information considered necessary to meet the expectations of 'real world' environments. (Darling 2003)

Holt (1969) offers and excellent encapsulation of the tradition perspective of the nature of knowledge:

'Of the vast body of human knowledge, there are certain bits and pieces that can be called essential, that everyone should know. The extent to which a person can be considered educated, qualified to live intelligently in today's world and be a useful member of society, depends on the amount of this essential knowledge that he carries about with him. It is the duty of schools, therefore, to get as much of this essential knowledge as possible into the minds of children' (as cited in Blake et al., 2003)

The Classroom Environment


'Instruction takes place in a somewhat passive environment in which the student spends the majority of in-class time at a desk; the only sensory interface with the subject matter is auditory, and perhaps marginally tactile in the case of note taking. Lectures and readings are used in information delivery, making the students predominantly recipients of information. Rote memorization and repetitive practice are used for reinforcement, and subjects are highly compartmentalized with little crossover from subject to subject or even beyond the classroom. The information to be learned takes priority over the learner. (Diseth 2003).

The Role of the Teacher


The teacher's role is that of information distributor and performance evaluator. They will use drills, memorization, and lectures to disperse information to the students. Instruction is almost strictly a monolog, with the student body addressed as a collective unit during instruction. The teacher relates the set goals that each student must attain to be considered adequate. The teacher possess all of the knowledge that the student must learn, and is responsible for maintaining a well ordered and structured environment; as a result, the teacher has absolute authority when instructing and assessing (Smith 2003).



Assessment consists largely of testing and assignments which rely on correctly recalling and reproducing the expected information. Exams are often in a form-like format that features short answer, multiple-choice, or essay questions that require students recall course material and coordinate answers with questions. Successful learning consists of the student's accurate recollection of the information that is required, and is normally given a grade that represents a raw measure of the ratio of correct to incorrect responses.

The Debate


A key defense of this method relies on the field of developmental psychology. The human mind's ability to accept and retain new information is at its peak during childhood, while reasoning and problem-solving skills are at their lifetime low. This means that while young children have a vast potential to memorize information, their abilities to extrapolate any further meaning from that information is very limited. (Feldman 2006) Information is being presented in a way that is compatible with their development. Furthermore, it is argued that younger students in particular lack self-discipline and the reasoning skills to self-direct, and so require a rigid and absolute framework is a must in order to facilitate learning at all. (Mayer 2004)

One of the many critiques of this approach hinges on the same developmental realities: children have difficulty understanding the importance of the body of information they are expected to learn my heart, and so become frustrated, bored with, or even hostile toward the process. (Darling 2003) They are simply exposed to information and then held accountable for it with no valuable context as to why. John Dewey, influential philosopher and educational reformer, compared a student in such a learning environment to a spectator, simply collecting information for later use rather using it to learn to produce and manipulate knowledge themselves. (as cited in Husen and Postlethwaite 1985)

Assessment methods are also seen as problematic, as they focus almost exclusively on reproducing the information previously received; not only does this require no original thought (critical thinking) it can result in a failure to learn on a deeper, more permanent level, and establish within the learner a fear of failure and a need to conform to expectations as predominant motivators for learning. (Diseth 2007)

The variance in cognitive and rational development from child to child also raises issues and gives rise to the argument that children who develop more quickly will be held back by the fixed pace of learning, and that children who lag developmentally will fall through the cracks of a rigid system, and eventually be identified as unmotivated or unteachable by evaluation methods designed to measure all students against and arbitrary fixed standard. (Meyer 2004)



Core Ideas

Ideologies that stem from the concept of student oriented education are many and varied. Despite a myriad of distinct schools that fit in the category there are a few overarching themes that define each as student-centered, and are largely an amalgam of ideas originally put forth by John Locke and Jean-Jacque Rouseau:
  • Structured learning environments impose arbitrary limits on a student's natural intellectual ability
  • Sensory input is essential to for cognitive development
  • The value of the learner is greater than that of the learning itself.
  • Truly functional knowledge can be integrated into applications beyond the subject itself, and permits the learner to apply subject material to new situations and synthesize new ideas.
  • Universal standards of learning imposed on every student stifles the individual and promotes conformity
  • Students are social and cultural being, therefore utilizing socio-cultural element is crucial to worthwhile learning.
(Bertrand 1995; Jacobson 1999)

Definition of Knowledge


Without a heavy curriculum focus, knowledge becomes a framework of information and ideas that is organic and dynamic. Students should gain not only information about a subject, but the ability to cross-apply those ideas into other area both academic and otherwise. (Bertrand 1995) Learning how to learn is an important element of knowledge itself. Information in and of itself is not considered knowledge ' education of this type seeks to develop wisdom in the student as well. Teaching the student how to effectively gain and use knowledge holds value equal to the knowledge itself.

The Classroom


Course subject matter is actively explored by the learner for use as a tool for further learning and achievement and done in a way that is best suited to each individual student. Activities involve group discussion, dialog with the instructor, field trips, and hand-on projects that require critical thinking and creativity in addition to familiarity with the subject matter. The class room should afford opportunities to use what they have gained in the classroom to synthesize original ideas.

Socialization is also an important classroom element ' because of the emphasis on individuality, as well as application skills, it follows that a group of students will have access to broader collective viewpoint than a solitary student. (Jacobsen 2007)

In some cases, a discovery learning approach may be used, in which students are given problems to solve or projects to complete, but little specific instruction. They are free to discover, by their own methods and ideas, how to solve the problem. The teacher only involvement is to affirm correct solutions, and encourage the student to try again for incorrect solutions. (Mayer 2004) The theory is that this facilitates a deeper level of learning, and gives the student a practical knowledge in addition to acquiring new information.

The Teacher's Role


The teacher's role in a child centered classroom environment is often described as that of a guide, providing direction and leadership and organizing activities and projects designed to immerse the student in the course material. They are responsible for creating an environment that provides opporotunity for discovery and interaction.

There is also a sharp focus on supporting the success and psycho-emotional well being of their students. Teachers must be attuned to each student and their strengths and abilities, and have access to a broad set of skills and strategies in order to provide appropriate guidance to each student as an individual, rather than simply master classroom management and information delivery skills to be applied to the class as a whole.



Assessment in a student centered environment should be 'proof of learning, rather that forcing the student to prove what they have learned (Bertrand 1995).' Assessment methods should measure progress without placing emphasis on a pass/fail scenario, which can produce a sense of rejection or failure leading to discouragement (Bertrand 1995)

As opposed to a curriculum focused method of reproducing the course content, they will be given assignments that require them to 'comprehend, synthesize, apply, and evaluate the course content' (LaLopa 2005); It is not unusual for the student to play a role in their own assessment; peer reviewing and grading is often utilized, and students are frequently given the opportunity to assess their instructor and their classroom, as well as help to determine how they themselves should be evaluated.

The Debate


A collection of studies compiled by Diseth (2007) indicates the extent of student's direct involvement in their education experience is directly proportional to their level of interest and commitment, which is in turn directly proportional to their overall performance.

One of the counter arguments against the student-focused classroon is the danger of 'methods that promote hands-on activity or group discussions [becoming] ends in themselves' (Meyer 2004); the concern is that the exploratory nature of progressive learning too easily loses its focus and entertains rather that educates, leaving children innappropriately prepared.

There is also concern that learning based on student exploration wastes times with trial-and-error activities that do not produce sufficient benefits. Studies reported by Mayer (2004) suggests that discovery learners actually scored lower on math and language evaluations that their traditional classroom counterparts.

A summary of key learning theories and the individuals and ideas behind them. Can you decide which are student-centered, and which are teacher-centered? all chart info from Wikipedia articles "Constructivism", "Learning Theories", and "Essentialism in Education"



Discovering what philosophy (or philosophies) will govern your future classroom is an important journey for any prospective educator. Too often, it is one that is oversimplified to 'What kind of teacher are you' questionnaires and dizzying breakdowns of the varieties of 'isms' for you to shop from. But the true starting point for establishing and earnest philosophy of education lies in discerning which of these schools of thought ' student-centered or teacher-centered ' best represents your philosophical outlook in general, and your attitudes and ideals toward yourself as an instructor, the purpose and goal of the classroom, and the growth and success of your future students.



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image file containing quiz is original work by Daysha Clark.


Bertrand, Y. (1995). Contemporary Theories and Practice in Education. (R. Mangan, Ed., & A. d'ARC, Trans.) Madison, WI: Magna Publications.

Darling, J., & Norbendo, S. E. (2003). Progressivism. In N. Blake, P. Smeyers, R. Smith, & P. Standish (Eds.), The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education (pp. 288–308). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Delopa, M. (2005-2006). Using Student Centered Assessment to Enhance Learning. Essays on Teaching Excellence , 17 (8).

Diseth, A. (2007). Approaches to learning, course experience and examination grade among undergraduate phsychology students: testing of mediator effects and construct validity. Studies in Higher Education , 32 (3), 373-388.

Feldman, R. S. (2006). Development Across the Lifespan (Fourth ed.). (J. Riker, Ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall/Pearson.

Husen, T., & Postlethwaite, T. N. (Eds.). (1985). The International Encyclopedia of Education (First ed., Vol. 7). Elmsford, New York: Pergamon Press.

Jacobson, D. A. (1999). Philosophy in Classroom Teaching. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning? The Case for Guided Methods of Instruction. American Psychologist , 59 (1), 14-19.

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