Snake Oil Student-Centred Learning

Welcome to the iHub, the nucleus of student innovation at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). If you haven’t already guessed from the hip, iGeneration-flattering name, this is a space where students can get together, away from their fuddy-duddy lecturers and professors, and let the creative juices flow. As the blurb on the UTS website explains, “The iHub is a place for FEIT students to brainstorm, to ideate, to collaborate and to bring ideas to life. The iHub is a space where students have the freedom to explore ideas with no constraints and to innovate with their peers.” While the iHub’s promotional blurb generates a sense of cutting-edge progressivism, graduates of education schools will note, with concern, the presence of decades-old edu-speak.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Brainstorming. Freedom to explore ideas. Student collaboration. These are the buzzwords of the student-centred education movement (also known as learner-centredness), which was already long in the tooth when I was an undergraduate in the 1990s. Their presence on the iHub webpage is not accidental, for UTS, like the rest of the progressive-dominated education establishment, recognises student-centredness as its lodestar. Indeed, its website asserts that student-centred learning not only instils a “deeper understanding” in students but also generates miraculous outcomes such as “higher levels of self-confidence” and “a greater sense of satisfaction”. These dogmatic assertions are supported by nothing more substantial than unnamed “studies”:

One advantage of a student-centred approach to teaching is its effectiveness. Simply put, it works. Studies have shown that employees, students and trainees retain information better when taught using a learner-centred approach.

One person who certainly got the memo about learner-centredness is Christina Luzi, a UTS graduate and Head of School at St John XXIII Catholic College. In a recent profile on the UTS website, Luzi explained that she

…aims to redefine the role schools play in our society by breaking down hierarchical structures, putting autonomy at the forefront—and empowering students to take charge of their own learning.

Breaking down hierarchy. Developing autonomy. Empowering students. UTS thinks all of this is going to “change the status quo”. However, as the UTS website reveals, there is nothing remotely new about student-centredness. At Ms Luzi’s alma mater, student-centred learning is the status quo. Moreover, it has been the dominant paradigm in Australian education since at least the heyday of the Keating government. Unfortunately, flogging the dead horse of student-centred learning is one of the favourite games of progressive educators. As Professor Karl Maton from the University of Sydney says:

Advocates of this approach [student-centred learning] … are insulated from the paucity of evidence for and considerable evidence against claims made for the approach. Among advocates, student-centred learning (SCL) is akin to a faith-based religion: belief is everything, including belief there must be evidence supporting the belief … Rather than conjectures to be tested, claims are made with little evidential support and repeated unquestioningly as if proven facts. 

In other words, SCL advocates believe it works not because of its firm evidentiary basis (in fact, it is on very shaky ground empirically) but because it has garnered so many citations from progressive academics. Indeed, SCL is an approach which keeps failing upwards. Over the past decade, having first done incalculable damage to primary and secondary education, SCL has rapidly conquered the tertiary sector, as the websites of Australian universities will attest. Therefore, it is worth looking at the history and tenets of this faith-based religion and ask if UTS’s breezy confidence (“Simply put, it works”) is supported by the evidence. I will also touch on the relationship between SCL, constructivist education theory and the long and chequered history of Romantic idealism in education.

The first thing to say is that there is nothing remotely new about SCL. It has existed in a recognisable form since the start of the twentieth century, when many of its foundational ideas were promulgated by the American educator John Dewey. Dewey espoused the view that education should be based on the experiences and interests of the child, which remains one of the major tenets of SCL. He was also an adherent of the constructivist theory of education, which holds that students construct their own understandings of subjects based on real-world experience. Furthermore, he emphasised the social and communal aspects of learning, with students creating their own knowledge through “social discourse”. For Dewey, the child, not the teacher or the institution, was the centre of everything, as he explained in his 1902 treatise The Child and the Curriculum: “The child is the starting-point, the center, and the end. His development, his growth, is the ideal. It alone furnishes the standard. To the growth of the child all studies are subservient.”

Dewey’s ideas about progressive education were enormously influential in the early twentieth century. His adherents trained generations of teachers, helping SCL ideology become pervasive in American public schools. Many of his ideas about student-centredness and developmentally appropriate pedagogy remain gospel in schools of education. Yet however influential he has been, the true progenitor of child-centred education is the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose 1762 book Emile, or On Education laid the groundwork for the Romantic idealist approach. Like the SCL movement that he influenced, Rousseau was extremely wary of adult attempts to control or direct students, especially with rules and other “unnatural” constraints. He admonishes his readers, “Attention ought always to be produced by pleasure or desire, never by constraint.” Rousseau abhorred rote learning of any kind, an attitude maintained by SCL advocates today. 

A 2009 paper from Irmhild Horn, a South African professor of teacher education, unpacks the debt of SCL to Rousseau’s ideas. As Horn explains, these ideas were an indirect expression of the “pantheistic spirit” of the Romantic movement, which saw nature as the product of God and was thus unerringly benevolent and wholesome. This assumption underpins many injunctions in Emile, such as, “Give your pupil no lesson in words; he must learn only from experience,” and insistence that formal instruction should be avoided because it “harms children and their natural propensities”. We can trace a direct line from Rousseau’s ideas to twentieth-century developmentalist theories of education, but before leaving Rousseau behind, we should acknowledge his dismal record of child-rearing. The philosopher offloaded all five of his own children to the Paris Foundling Hospital, even though few of its charges survived to adulthood. (None of Rousseau’s children did.) You might think that such an outcome would undermine Rousseau’s authority on child-rearing, but you would be mistaken. It has really come into its own since the liberal, free-wheeling 1960s.

The 1950s saw the arrival of evolutionary developmentalists like Jean Piaget, who breathed new life into child-centred educational theories. As J.E. Stone, an American education professor, puts it,  “Developmentalism is the uncontested assumption that the ‘natural’ course of development, however conceived in theory, is the optimal possibility.” Where Rousseau believed in “natural course development” because God ordained it, Piaget believed it was best because it had resulted from Darwinian pressures of natural selection. He developed a theory of cognitive development in which children progressed through four main stages: 1. The sensorimotor stage: birth to two years; 2. The preoperational stage: ages two to seven; 3. The concrete operational stage: ages seven to eleven; 4. The formal operational stage: ages twelve and up.

For current purposes, what matters more than the accuracy of these categorisations is their reception by educators. Rousseau and Dewey were theorists and philosophers, so their work lacked scientific clout. In contrast, Piaget was a biologist. Therefore, his support for a “natural course of development” lent the progressivist theories of Dewey and Rousseau a scientific gloss. By the 1960s, education academics were already using Piaget’s ideas about the stages of cognitive development to defend their pre-existing attachment to radical forms of learner-centredness. Bigge and Hunt were typical, boldly asserting, “A young person is ready to learn something when he has achieved sufficient physiological maturation and experiential background so that he not only can learn but wants to.”

It is one thing to talk about developmentally appropriate learning but quite another to insist that learning should only happen when the child wants to learn. The assumption seems to be that students are innately curious, so if the time is ripe, the child will surely blossom. By implication, teachers should merely play a waiting game, confident that students will learn when they are good and ready. In effect, this philosophy pushes teachers and parents to the margins with a faith in natural processes filling the gap left behind. This mirrors practice at the uber-progressive A.S. Neill Summerhill School in London, where students are not required to attend classes unless they feel like it, and progress through the course material at a pace of their choosing. When it was founded in the 1920s, Summerhill was a radical experiment, but by the 1960s, educational and political elites were ready to embrace its underlying tenets (if not its permissive attitudes to poolside nudity).

With the release of the Plowden Report in 1967, SCL became the new orthodoxy in the United Kingdom. As the report boldly proclaimed, “At the heart of the educational process lies the child.” In justifying the switch from explicit, teacher-led instruction to discovery and learner-centredness, the report leant heavily on the developmentalist theories of Piaget. As a corollary of its embrace of SCL, Plowden advocated for a hyper-individualised approach to teaching, in which every student needs to be taught in a different manner. As the report asserted, “Any class, however homogeneous it seems, must always be treated as a body of children needing individual and different attention.”

The sheer impracticality of teaching each of twenty-five or more students differently never seems to have registered with its authors. In the present day, teachers are pressured to “differentiate” their lesson plans to accommodate the individual learning preferences of every student they teach, an expectation which drastically over-complicates lesson planning, driving many teachers from the profession. The roots of these demands lie in the Plowden Report’s uncritical acceptance of SCL dogma and its neo-Romantic belief in the child as the final arbiter of best teaching practice. 

In Australia, SCL was slower to gain the upper hand. Its final victory did not come until the Keating government’s embrace of outcomes-based education (OBE), which sounds completely different to the layperson, but is best conceived as one of several sub-species of SCL (including the disastrous “whole language” approach) which gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. As Professor Kevin Donnelly explains:

OBE is based on a developmental and constructivist philosophy of education and, as a result, more formal methods of teaching, competitive assessment and placing the disciplines centre stage give way to a situation where teachers “facilitate”, students are described as “knowledge navigators”, and dispositions and attitudes take priority over received knowledge.

It is worth noting that OBE was implemented in Australia and forty-two US states with very little evidence that it was preferable to teacher-directed classrooms, a lamentable situation which was facilitated by the strong progressive bias of education bureaucrats. There is simply not enough viewpoint diversity among education elites, which means that progressive fads like OBE, the whole-language movement, and the self-esteem movement (three prominent disasters under the SCL umbrella) are implemented in schools without a strong evidentiary basis of their efficacy. Tellingly, OBE was largely abandoned in US schools by the early 2000s, though it took a teacher revolt to stop it being forced on West Australian teachers as late as 2006. What has society learned from this failure? Precious little, it seems, for in the eyes of academics, the demise of OBE did no serious damage to the student-centred teaching philosophy.

Indeed, in 2013 the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership produced a forty-six-page report for Australian teachers called Literature Review: Student-Centred Schools Make the Difference, which is more noteworthy for its SCL boosterism than academic rigour. In fact, this alleged “literature review” does not include a single critique of SCL, merely cheerleading the approach with the blinkered enthusiasm of a religious adherent. By 2013, the SCL-dominated schools of Australia were producing worse and worse results in terms of student engagement, classroom behaviour and academic results. Yet the report blithely assured teachers that students in SCL schools displayed “greater confidence, more on-task learning behaviours, improved group dynamics and a greater ability to respond to a challenging curriculum”. It is only possible to reach such a conclusion by cherry-picking studies that support your beliefs and ignoring informed critique. The truth be told, there are many reasons to doubt the claims of SCL boosters.

Perhaps the biggest problem with SCL is its unfounded confidence in “natural processes”. Child-centred educators believe that all intellectual powers develop automatically in accordance with a natural trajectory, a belief that they rarely stop to question. However, as Horn points out, there is a difference between primary and secondary cognitive abilities. While children develop certain skills—speech, movement and spatial awareness—without explicit instruction, this simply does not apply to higher-order cognitive abilities. For example, students need to be explicitly taught how to read and write. Without formal instruction, they will never learn these fundamental skills. 

The failure to distinguish between primary and secondary cognitive abilities played a key role in enabling the “whole language” movement, which was adopted by most American elementary schools despite overwhelming empirical evidence that it was inferior to phonics-based approaches. As Education Week opined in 2020, “One reason whole language became so popular among teachers was because … it was also one of the clearest expressions of longstanding progressive education thinking in its embrace of the idea that learning should be student-centered rather than teacher-directed.” The whole-language approach, which drew heavily on SCL luminaries like Dewey and Vygotsky, argued that students can learn to read from “context cueing”, seeing phonics as an unnatural process forced on children by authoritarian teachers. Even after whole language was repeatedly debunked, it maintained popularity with many teachers, who had fallen for the fallacy that all cognitive abilities can, and should, be mastered naturally.

Yet the shortcomings of this approach could only be a surprise to someone who had studiously ignored extensive longitudinal studies which proved that reading is not “a natural process”. The evidence for this was in by the 1980s, and the failure of educational elites to absorb this fact has resulted in millions of people today suffering from poor literacy skills. As Professor Keith Stanovich wrote in 1994:

That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well-established conclusions in all of behavioral science … The idea that learning to read is just like learning to speak is accepted by no responsible linguist, psychologist, or cognitive scientist in the research community.

The importance of this point can hardly be overestimated, because if reading and writing are not natural processes but rather secondary abilities, there is no natural trajectory guiding the student. The same applies for arithmetical operations as well as the whole of geometry, algebra and calculus. In researching this article, I encountered articles about geometry lessons in student-centred classrooms, but “student-centred geometry” is just another absurdity in a progressive school system already overflowing with them. Unlike speech and psychomotor skills, acquiring geometry or essay-writing skills is not a primary cognitive ability, so there is no natural way to acquire it. The whole philosophy collapses in on itself.

This helps to explain the second major strike against SCL: its disastrous history in the developing world. In 2011 Professor Michelle Schweisfurth, a leading expert on SCL, reviewed seventy-two articles on learner-centred education (LCE) and said, “almost every one carried the same strong message: LCE isn’t working”. She characterises the results of SCL in the developing world as “a history of failures great and small”. Similarly, Ian Clifford of the British Council reports how decades of SCL efforts in Myanmar have not lived up to the hype, resulting in a scathing article in the Myanmar Times in 2015 calling the whole approach a failure. Similarly, Horn reports how the introduction of “learner-centred self-discovery learning” in South Africa in 1998 proved so unsuccessful that the policy was revised after just three years, though teachers remained “mediators of learning” instead of instructors. By 2005 the poor results were so pronounced that the government reverted to the concept that teachers should teach rather than facilitate.

It is here that the sharp elbows of SCL come clearly into focus, because development agencies have often made aid projects conditional on replacing teacher-directed lessons with the progressive hobby-horse of SCL. Indeed, Botswana researcher Richard Tabulawa has gone so far as to denounce SCL in the developing world as Western neo-colonialism. My only cavil with Tabulawa’s view would be to rename it “progressive neo-colonialism” because it certainly wasn’t conservatives who were insisting on open classrooms, learner-directed curricula and project work instead of formal instruction.

The third major objection to SCL is that the Western countries where SCL has been pushed hardest have seen plummeting academic achievement and student engagement. Though SCL advocates point to surveys in which students describe SCL as more fun and engaging than teacher-directed lessons, the long-term picture in SCL schools is of chronic student disengagement. Consider a Gallup poll from 2020 which found that only 47 per cent of American secondary students said they were engaged at school; 29 per cent said they were not engaged and 24 per cent said they were “actively disengaged”. The picture is the same in Australia where 50,000 students have “disappeared” from the system entirely and a 2017 Grattan Institute report found that 40 per cent were disengaged from learning. While, in the short term, students might find it fun to make posters in groups, they are probably not learning much, so in the long term, they understandably become bored. 

Yet typically, progressive educational elites will see the figures on school refusal and student disengagement, and then suggest more student-centred snake oil as the solution. Typical of this is an article from The Conversation in 2016 which suggested three fixes for student disengagement—individualised learning plans, culturally-relevant lessons which pander to the interests of students, and “emotional and social wellbeing”. The first two of these suggestions are just rehashes of the Plowden Report from fifty years before and the third is just the latest variant of Rousseau’s Romantic idealism, with its focus on feelings and “the whole child”. But student-centredness is the problem, not the solution, and if progressive educators cannot see it after decades of disasters, major and minor, they never will. For conservatives, SCL has to be one of their main targets of critique, and the solution to the problem is a return to teacher-directed instruction and a renewed focus on content, traditional disciplines and the domain-specific skills which can be developed from them.

Raymond Burns is the pseudonym of a teacher with many years experience teaching in Australian high schools. A number of his articles have appeared in Quadrant, including “The Democracy Deficit in Our Schools” in the January-February issue


12 thoughts on “Snake Oil Student-Centred Learning

  • Alan Lee says:

    The history of child-centred education is of interest, but of limited relevance. The real concern is: what sustains the educational practices that you so rightly criticise? (My argument in my recent Quadrant article is that truly EXTERNAL assessment is needed.) I make one observation about what surprised and puzzled me on returning to secondary school classrooms (after an absence of 30 years). Students everywhere were then, and still are, purportedly involved in doing ‘research’—a term never used to describe our work in my school days. Undergraduates at university are not involved in research, properly so called. When I look into the work that these research projects/ assignments/ investigations involve it is invariably trivial stuff—work of a kind that once would have been condemned as mere ‘busywork’. And when the work is finished the teacher must assess the different topics student have chosen to develop. Such student ‘research’ cannot be reliably or quickly assessed, and the teacher’s assessment cannot be effectively moderated by any ‘departmental expert’. The external marker can’t know what went on under the teacher’s nose (or behind her back). Secondary school ‘research’ is little more than disguised plagiarism.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    “Yet the shortcomings of this approach could only be a surprise to someone who had studiously ignored extensive longitudinal studies which proved that reading is not “a natural process”. ”

    The best empirical evidence for this is that our much vaunted ‘oldest continuous culture’ failed to develop writing or reading. Didn’t need an ‘extensive longitudinal study’.

    • Geoff Freer says:

      Peter our oldest continuous culture had nothing, nor any reason to read as we know it. If someone had placed a few books in front of them at a very early age then things would have been very different indeed. Nothing has changed in that regard.. A current household devoid of books for their young children in all probability will produce non-readers.

  • vickisanderson says:

    As someone whose learning experience was inspired by outstanding teachers at secondary and tertiary levels I have been dismayed to watch the attack on the efficacy of teaching as an art form in the past 20-30 years. I think it was a former Vice Chancellor of Wollongong University (somebody correct me if I am wrong) who likened great teaching to handing on a torch which in turn caused the “spark” of understanding in students.

    Today, one walks into little classrooms of small children, all of them on the cusp of understanding the world around them, only to find them sitting around in little groups, assisting each other, while the “teacher” walks around directing the “learning”. In the groups I have observed such “learning” is often confined to short bursts before groups are interchanged. “Where are the textbooks?” I asked one primary school teacher. “Oh, we don’t use those anymore” she answered. On the other hand, around the room were, what I would call “slogans”, pinned to the walls……mostly references to climate change and other “issues”.

    Little changes in methodology as these students advance to secondary school. Critical thinking skills, in particular, appear to have lost their primacy in teaching methodology. The weighing of evidence, the understanding of propaganda and of subjective or objective opinion, seems sadly lacking in the education of our teenagers. Not that most contemporary teachers understand the shift in methodology – most having been taught by the early practitioners of “student oriented” teaching.

    There are still repositories of higher levels of learning in our universities, but they are increasingly under attack by ideologues. If we are looking for the cancer that is affecting so many aspects of western society, look no further than the schools and universities.

    • profspurr says:

      Re your last sentence – exactly right. What is astonishing is how little people realise this, including conservative commentators, prattling on about everything under the sun that is wrong with the society but failing to notice the primary source of it all – the meltdown of our education systems. I describe one aspect of this in my forthcoming article, ‘The Betrayal of the Intellectuals’ in the June Quadrant.
      And ongoing thanks to Raymond Burns for exposing the many corruptions of the school system.

  • Watchman Williams says:

    Socrates once wrote that “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
    People who have been trained in the modern University to become school teachers are the least likely to be kindlers of a flame. They are taught that their job is to fill the vessels assembled in the classroom with the conventional wisdoms of Marxism, so as to ensure compliance to Deep State ideology. In other words, their task is brainwashing.
    The natural, and ideal, form of student centred learning is that which is meant to be provided by parents. It is they who can identify the gifts of each child and tailor an educational programme that meets their specific need, as well as equip them to take their place as responsible citizens in the future.
    Morally, education of children has nothing to do with the state; it is the duty of parents. The victims of state education programmes might agree with Mark Twain, who wrote;
    “I was educated once; it took me years to get over it”.

    • KemperWA says:

      I will always harbour bitterness against my high school for my poor grade in English during my final two years of school. I never rose above a low C. I am disappointed because I was an avid reader of books often until very late at night. Reading hundreds of science books per year. Even reading the dictionary from front to back for fun. My father allowed myself and late sister the purchase of a book each week from Angus & Robertson. We had no toys, Barbies, or video games. This instilled a love of books. I also studied Italian from grade 8 to grade 10 as my paternal grandparents were Italian (my grandmother spoke no English). My Italian grade was always an A. I could write it. I could speak it. In my English classroom my perfect spelling, clear enunciation and wide diction, correct paragraph composition, and essay structure couldn’t save me. I was marked so poorly for an essay relating to the documentary film ‘Bowling for Columbine’ that I never recovered from it. Did the teacher not agree with my opinion? Did I not argue my opinion well enough? The irony of excelling in Italian and almost failing in my native English haunts me to this day! All of that early childhood and teenage reading, and second language skills, for nothing. Look at online spelling by the young folk these days! It seems schools put more emphasis not on correct spelling, grammar and paragraph structure, but having the ‘right narrative’.

      • KemperWA says:

        My mistake, my maternal, not paternal, grandparents.
        May I also add, I attended university as a mature aged student recently. I found the constant group work and group learning at university utterly frustrating. Does one know how difficult it is to convince a 19 year old teenager that she is mistaken?

  • Surftilidie says:

    Bertrand coined the adage “Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education”

    Over here in WA, at the turn of this century, we suffered a sustained attempt by the State Government to bring in OBE to secondary schooling. I, and another teacher, despairing at what was happening to our careers, took on the government and led a protest against the attempt. It took 4 years of very hard work, given we were both full time teachers at the time, but eventually the government saw the light and abandoned the attempt. However, this sort of nonsense is like a cancer metastasising. It just keeps on coming back. Twenty years on from our fight, I am finally pulling the pin and retiring at the end of this year, after 54 years of teaching. One of my chief gripes as I leave is that the curriculum and standards authority over here in WA insists on the maths students undertaking ridiculous investigations requiring the kids to write up a semi thesis on some obscure and slightly maths related problem. Kids with tutors or kids with family with a strong maths background get help and then get good results. But it is all totally wasted time, and more an exercise in showing the teacher how good they are with technology rather than any maths skills. It’s one of my major reasons for deciding to discontinue teaching.

    • KemperWA says:

      Thank you for your service Surftilidie. When I pay with cash at the grocery cashier, I am alarmed at the inability of many young women to count notes and coins, and also at their inability to count and dispense the correct change from the register.

  • Surftilidie says:

    That should be Bertrand Russell.

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