Voices in Education

The Case for Student-Centered Teaching and Learning
Please join me in a little thought experiment.

Think back to your K-12 schooling experience. Identify a couple of teachers who stand out as really good teachers. What’s the name of the first one you recalled? What made her (or him) a good teacher?

I use this exercise to begin conversations about student-centered teaching and learning. When I invite my conversation partners to verbalize what made the teachers they named particularly good, their responses inevitably define student-centered teaching – teaching that met them exactly where they were, and that inspired, engaged, and motivated them to learn. This was true even for one person who said the two teachers he called to mind were good because they were tough disciplinarians. This is because he was at the time living on the street and taking care of himself, and lacked many of the supports a healthy family environment provide.

I’ve wondered for a while why people usually can remember only a small handful of teachers they can describe as really good. A few people I talked with cannot name even one. As I reflect on some recent conversations I have had with educators, I’m wondering if I’m beginning to see some hints.

The keynote speaker at a teacher leadership conference held at Colby College in Maine a few weeks ago described some intriguing research. It takes a minimum of 10 years for someone to become an expert. She noted that she knew of one exception – Bobby Fischer became an expert chess player in just 9 years. Being a prodigy gave him a year up on the 10-year norm. And then she said this: half of new teachers leave the profession by the end of their fifth year. They are only halfway to becoming experts in their field.

This may explain why most us can name only a handful of really good teachers in our K-12 experience.

And just last week I was talking with the chairman of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at a prestigious New England university, and I raised this question with him. He responded by sharing his strategy for managing his department and the substantial number of professors he oversees. He described how he nurtures and mentors all the junior faculty members because they are the future of the department, and it’s important that they stick with it and see that they are on a professional growth path. Then he said, “And just like what I hear on the news that some are saying we need to find a way to get rid of bad teachers, I have one or two faculty members who should have retired some time ago. But does it make any sense to worry about the few when I can spend my time nurturing the future?”

Many teachers don’t get the chance to develop student-centered approaches. These experiences make me wonder whether new teachers would remain in the profession if they received the kind of mentoring and nurturing that the department chair was providing for his junior faculty. And if so, what would that look like organizationally, and what would it feel like to the new teachers?

I wonder.

About the Author: Bill Nave is a program evaluation and research consultant based in Maine. From 1968–1993 he taught sixth- through twelfth-grade science to students in New York and Maine and created programs for at-risk students and high school dropouts. He was selected as Maine’s 1990 Teacher of the Year, and was a finalist for National Teacher of the Year. He is the editor of Student-Centered Learning: Nine Classrooms in Action (Harvard Education Press, 2015).