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Learner-Centered Education Models
Learner-centered education, based on the ideals of student choice and individual meaning-making, has grown in popularity since the beginnings of the progressive movement in education. There have been a wide range of interpretations and models for the best way to pursue these ideals, and new models are always being formed. This page will describe the major learner-centered curriculum models that exist today.
Begun in Rome in 1907 by Dr. Maria Montessori, the Montessori method was originally created as a way to teach students with severe learning disabilities. Soon the method was extended to children of all sorts, and was found to be very effective. The Montessori method is learner-centered, allowing students of widely varying interests and abilities to benefit from the model.
The Montessori method emphasizes independence over all else. The classroom is organized into curriculum areas, with related materials available for student use. These areas are mathematics, language, the arts, the sciences, and practical life. Students are encouraged to choose which areas and which materials they would like to work with at any given time.
Montessori materials are ingeniously designed to allow students to learn just by using them. The teacher guides students to show how the materials are used. After this initial teaching, students are able to work with the materials independently. Since most of the materials are self-correcting, students can easily determine what works and what doesn’t, and can problem-solve on their own. The pink tower is a classic early-childhood Montessori material. Students must stack the blocks by size. If a mistake is made, it is obvious to the student and can be corrected without any adult intervention.
Most Montessori materials are sequenced by increasing complexity. When a student has mastered the use of a material, they are introduced to the next material in sequence which builds upon the skills and knowledge developed through the use of the last material. With only a brief introduction to the new material, students are once again able to learn independently through the material’s use.
The Montessori method is truly a learner-centered approach because of its dedication to the ideals of independence and student choice. The teacher is only a guide and a support for students as they pursue their own learning through making choices based upon their interests and passions. In Montessori education, the materials facilitate independent student learning, so that each child can teach themselves, and in so doing, learn to be a lifelong learner.
Rudolph Steiner wrote his first book of educational philosophy,
The Education of the Child
, in 1907. In 1919 he opened his first school based upon his philosophy, a school created to teach the children of workers at the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company in Stuttgart, Germany. This is the origin of the name Waldorf Education. Waldorf education has grown ever since, and Waldorf schools can be found all over the world.
Waldorf education has a strong kinship to the theory of multiple intelligences. It is believed that different students demonstrate stronger intelligences in different areas, such as oral, visual, musical, and other forms of understanding and expression. Waldorf schools respond to this by basing their program strongly in the arts and forms of self-expression. Students are taught subject lessons by teachers, but it is expected that they will learn at their own pace. Students generally have a wide variety of options in how they will express their learning, whether it be through writing, music, drama, art, etc.
With a strong emphasis on imagination and self-expression throughout the Waldorf K-12 school, it is easy to understand why Waldorf education is considered to be learner-centered. The school does teach specific curriculum, but it is taught in a variety of ways, always with an emphasis on individual meaning-making. Since students are encouraged to express themselves and respond to their learning in their own unique way, students are motivated and enthusiastic. When students feel that they can control their own learning and make their own choices, learner-centered education shows its strength. Waldorf education is one great example.
Based upon the Sudbury Valley School, formed in 1968 in Sudbury, Massachusetts, Sudbury Schools have popped up around the United States and the world. Sudbury schools are an extreme example of learner-centered education, because ALL decisions are made by the students themselves! In Sudbury Schools there are no classes, no assignments, no grades, indeed no pre-planned curriculum at all! It is entirely up to students how they spend their time at school, what they learn, how they learn, and how they demonstrate or respond to their learning.
Independence is the key to a Sudbury education. The school is often organized into resource areas which contain stimulating resources for students to explore. These areas may be organized by subject, such as math, language, science, etc. Students can choose which areas to visit and what to learn about while there. There is no separation into classes by age, ability, or any other criteria. Teachers are there to help students with whatever their chosen task may be, not to teach any specific material or to assign requirements to students.
Decision-making in Sudbury Schools is undertaken by a town hall style meeting in which all students and staff have an equal vote regardless of age or any other factor. Student discipline is undertaken by a judiciary committee comprised of students and staff. Just as students make all decisions for themselves, a democracy of students makes all group decisions.
Through individual choice in learning pursuits, self-evaluation, independent time management, and democratic decision making, Sudbury Schools allow students the maximum amount of independence and choice, making Sudbury Schools completely learner-centered.
Summerhill School was founded in 1921 in the town of Hellerau, outside of Dresden, Germany, by Alexander Sutherland Neill. The school moved several times until it came to its present location in Leiston, Suffolk, England in 1927. Summerhill School was essentially the prototype for Sudbury Schools which formed in the late 1960s in the United States. Like Sudbury Schools described above, Summerhill School’s curriculum is based entirely upon student choice. Though students are organized into classes, these classes are based upon ability and interest rather than age. There are also several ‘drop-in’ classes that students can choose to participate in.
As in Sudbury Schools, students are free to pursue any interest and express their learning in any way they see fit. Teachers are simply guides to help students along the way, and may offer optional instruction in a number of subject areas. Also like Sudbury Schools, Summerhill School is run democratically by students and staff alike. The only restriction on student freedom at Summerhill is when their choices interfere with the freedom of other students, as in an ideal democracy. Summerhill School has been an inspiration to educators who aim to provide a learner-centered education for their students, and has been to subject of many books, films, and studies over the course of the last century.
Reggio Emilia Education
Reggio Emilia education, founded by Loris Malaguzzi, has developed over the last century in the town of Reggio Emilia, Italy, a wealthy town that has put a great deal of funding and research into creating the best possible education system for the children of the town. Reggio Emilia is an early childhood curriculum model, for children under the age of six years.
Reggio Emilia education is learner-centered in that it does not have a set curriculum. Instead, decisions about what subjects to pursue are based upon student interest. Reggio Emilia focuses less on the individual than other learner-centered models, and more on the group. Small group work is the heart of the Reggio Emilia curriculum, and relationships between students and between students and staff are highly emphasized. To appeal to the interests of the whole group, teachers use their intimate knowledge of their students to decide on areas of study that interest the whole class. This ensures that student interest is maintained, and that group work can be pursued with all students interested and participating.
Students are free to express their learning in a wide variety of ways based upon their abilities and interests, much like Waldorf Schools. They may write, create works of art, express themselves through music or drama, etc. Assessment is based upon teacher observations, student comments, work samples, pictures and documentation of the process of student learning, etc.
It is clear that Reggio Emilia Schools are learner-centered, adapted for very young students and emphasizing group work and relationships.
Exploratory Experiences Curriculum for Elementary Schools (EECES)
Perhaps the most familiar and widely used learner-centered curriculum approach in early childhood and early elementary school, Exploratory Experiences Curriculum for Elementary Schools can be found in adapted form in most schools working with young children. EECES is the "learning centers" approach to education. In EECES, areas of the classroom are set up to reflect different subjects in school, such as mathematics, reading, science, art, etc. At each of these centers are a number of pre-established activities and materials that students can choose to use or participate in. This allows students to make choices based upon their interests and work independently, while still allowing teacher direction, as it is teachers who decide upon the materials and activities. Essentially, the EECES approach allows teachers to give students a range of good educational options, from which they are free to choose. This is not a complete, comprehensive, truly learner-centered model of curriculum as in the examples above which base their entire school on learner-centered approaches. It is, however, the closest to true learner-centered curriculum that many teachers, confined in essentialist public schools, can come to offering.
An important advantage of using the EECES approach is that teachers find time to observe and interact with individual students or small groups, while the rest of the class is involved in independent work. This allows teachers to establish relationships, get to know the students and their interests and abilities very well, and provide one-on-one guidance that is otherwise impossible with teacher-directed whole-group lessons. EECES has become very popular because it is a very adaptable, and is a way for teachers to incorporate learner-centered curriculum into the classroom, even for just an hour of the day. Since most public schools are basically essentialist, and have a prescribed curriculum that must be followed, teachers are able to teach what they are required to teach during most of the day, and use an EECES centers time to reinforce concepts and allow students an element of choice to balance the school experience. EECES is perhaps the most accessible of all the models here presented, and can be done in any classroom without the need for a specialized school with a particular philosophy.
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