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What is the Difference Between Teacher-Directed Learning and Student-Centered Learning?

Caitlin Frazier, MS

September 10, 2018

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Question

What is the difference between teacher-directed learning and student-centered learning?

Answer

We know that the teacher’s role in teacher-directed learning is to be the leader. The teacher is the authoritative figure and takes charge, leads, and chooses the lessons and content. The teacher chooses the groupings and settings and makes sure that he/she is the leader of the lesson. In a student-centered classroom or a student-centered experience, we know that the teacher’s role is not as the leader but rather as the facilitator. The teacher is following the student’s lead, making sure to support the students in their choices but not take over the experience. Similarly, the teacher’s role in a teacher-directed experience is really to be the lecturer. He/She has all of the knowledge and is imparting that knowledge to others. In the student-centered experience, it’s quite the opposite. The teacher is often not the lecturer but mostly a listener, listening for student understandings, content misunderstandings, and the student’s zone of proximal development. The teacher is an active listener in a student-centered classroom and takes the time to understand where a student is at as an individual and then plans from there to see how to support or challenge that student.

The student’s role in a teacher-directed classroom is to be instructed and become the taker of information. They are not really contributing to the learning experience. They are just being instructed as to what to do and what knowledge they will learn. In the student-centered classroom, it’s quite the opposite. They’re constructing their own learning. The ideas and the knowledge are their own and the teacher again is that facilitator who is able to add additional content, additional knowledge, support, and challenges in order to help the students grow.

Another aspect is student participation. In a teacher-directed classroom, the students are more passive. They just receive knowledge from the teacher and don’t take a very active role in constructing their own knowledge. On the other side, we have a student-centered classroom where the students are active learners. They are creating their own knowledge and constructing their own environment for learning. We know that this is rooted in the constructivist theory by Jean Piaget who in the mid-1900s said that children need to construct their own learning and they need to be actively involved in the knowledge construction process instead of passively receiving it.  This helps them to have the depth of understanding and depth of knowledge where all the information that they’re receiving is going to be something that's meaningful to them because they’ve constructed it. They’ve shown interest in the topics and the areas that they’re exploring so they are able to latch on to their own personal experiences. Real-life information will help them to more deeply understand and remember this content.

In a classroom with more student-centered learning, you’ll see fewer students at tables and more of an interactive setting where students are constructing their own knowledge and actively participating in this process of learning which, of course, looks a lot like play. We know that during play students can be incredibly engaged. This is why play is such a wonderful time to be able to integrate content. During play, when you look at student interactions you will see that students are very interested in what they’re doing. They are incredibly engaged and have a sustained, passionate commitment to their learning and they’re excited. You’ll hear it in their voices and see it in their interactions with their peers and with their teachers. They will call teachers across the room to come see what they are doing and call peers over to help them figure something out. There’s a sustained passionate commitment to play because it is something that they chose to do. Because of this sustained passionate commitment, you’ll find that during playtime there’s limited behavior management. Of course, there’s always the incident here and there, but in comparison to a whole group setting in a classroom, when you're observing a playtime period there’s limited behavior management in comparison because students are engaged. Students are content and are enjoying their time so there’s less opportunity for them to feel boredom sneaking in or pay attention to those negative emotions with a peer because they have too much to do. They're too busy with their play and actively engaged. There’s a lot less behavior management and therefore fewer distractions during play. Because of this sustained passionate commitment and because of the limited distractions and limited behavior management, playtime is a prime opportunity for teachers to really integrate content into play and to be able to use academic content in supplement to the play and in conjunction with what these students are doing in order to help them grow in academic areas as well.

This Ask the Expert is an edited excerpt from the course, Purposeful Play, by Caitlin Frazier, MS.


caitlin frazier

Caitlin Frazier, MS

​Caitlin Frazier has been a dedicated early learning advocate for over a decade. In addition to being a lifelong learner, Caitlin holds a Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Education & a Master of Science in Educational Administration. Caitlin has served young learners from New York to California as an administrator, teacher, researcher and consultant in university, public, and private school settings. These experiences have always motivated Caitlin to help high quality early learning become more modern, simple, and accessible. With this mission at the forefront, Caitlin deeply enjoys working with school staff of all levels in order to help them reach their greatest potential in supporting our littlest learners.


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