Examples from a Science classroom show how learner-centred teaching can simply be about asking the right questions.
The learner-centred model is a teaching approach that emphasises the guiding and supporting of students in the learning process (Brown et al., 1993). The teacher serves as an anchor and makes learning meaningful and purposeful.
Unfortunately, while learner-centred lessons have been touted for their benefits, the reality is that this is not always easy to achieve.
Although teachers may wish to go beyond the lecture-style of lesson delivery, there is often not enough time to finish the lesson. This is especially true in the Singapore context where teachers must teach a specified number of topics.
Given these limitations, does this mean that the learner-centred approach cannot be applied in Singapore?
The answer is NO. In the research project Classroom Interaction in Science, researchers analysed audio recordings from more than 25 secondary Science classrooms. They discovered that a number of teachers actually achieved a degree of learner-centredness through their questioning strategies and classroom interactions.
This article describes how one Science teacher designed and taught a lesson on the concept of compounds and mixtures which was learner-centred.
This teacher begins the lesson by presenting a time frame and a list of learning points expected of his students. He then provides a list of substances and asks his students to classify them into the categories of elements, compounds and mixtures. When his students give mixed answers, he corrects them by elaborating on each concept’s scientific definition.
The teacher then shows a video clip of a chemical change. Below is an excerpt of his exchange with the class after viewing the video.
Teacher: From this video, what’s the observation? What do you mean by chemical change?
Student: Changing chemicals.
Teacher: There is more than that.
Teacher: No. What happened after there is a chemical change?
This brainstorming session helps students understand the crux of what a chemical change is. At the same time, the teacher is also able to explain how chemical properties change when compounds are formed.
When some students raise questions related to electrolysis (a method of breaking down compounds into constituent elements), the teacher responds with a video showing the electrolysis of copper chloride. He decides to discuss this topic even though it is meant for another part of the syllabus.
Teacher: You are assuming that all the copper chloride will decompose. Do you think it’s possible to decompose everything?
Teacher: It’s quite impossible. This means you must decompose until the last drop. Another characteristic of compounds that you should note is that they [elements] must be joined together by fixed proportion.
For example in the case of water there must be fixed proportion of mass, grams of hydrogen and grams of oxygen. It must be a fixed ratio! You cannot say I want more oxygen, so I put more oxygen. It doesn’t work this way. I am using the word fixed proportion by mass. I am talking about the ratio of mass.
Student 1: Water is made up of two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen. So how do you find mass?
Student 2: What happens if you have more than necessary?
The students’ responses show that they have not really understood the concept of fixed proportion by mass. To deal with this, the teacher creates a hypothetical example and leads his students through it by asking a series of questions.
Next, the teacher shows a video clip of a jar filled with chlorine gas and heats some table salt. Knowing that table salt is also known as sodium chloride, one student raises a question which allows the teacher to clarify how a compound is different from its constituents:
Student: Are we eating poison?
Teacher: Eating poison? No, you are not eating poison. The chemical properties change. I know chlorine is poisonous but that doesn’t mean anything that has chlorine in it is poisonous. There is chemical change so you cannot say that you are eating poison!
The teacher also welcomes other questions from students – even questions which he does not have an answer to. He offers to find the answers to these questions and is open about his lack of knowledge regarding these issues.
How is this lesson learner-centred?
This teacher demonstrates several learning points about how to conduct a learner-centred lesson.
While the teacher had a curriculum to teach, he made sure to involve his students through presentations and video clips as well as to provide plenty opportunities for them to ask questions. Research has shown that questions can be used as a tool for teaching and as a way to develop thinking skills (Lemke, 1990). In this lesson, students posed 23 questions within a time frame of 35 minutes.
He also created hypothetical examples and used multimodal representations of information. Thus, although the class began with the teacher stating the objectives of the day, most of the lesson comprised video clips and was led by the students’ participation.
The teacher was also flexible and willing to change his teaching strategies. During an informal discussion after the lesson, he said that he deviated from his lesson plan when he noticed that the students were not interested in the discussion.
The teacher did not reprimand his students and maintained a friendly manner throughout the lesson. In fact, he carried out multiple tasks while responding to questions—such as providing direct instruction, giving feedback, questioning and preparing video clips. He also allowed the students’ questions to lead the discussion and shape his instructional strategy, which showed his ability and readiness to achieve an element of learner-centredness in his class.
I would like to thank Professor Allan Luke, former Dean of the Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice, for granting permission to use the data.
About the author
Dr Suneeta Pathak was a researcher with the Centre for Research on Pedagogy and Practice.
American Psychological Association. (1993). Learner-centered psychological principles: Guidelines for school reform and restructuring. Washington, DC: Author and the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory.
Brown, A. L., Ash, D., Rutherford, M., Nakagawa, K., Gordon, A., & Campioni, J. C. (1993). Distributed expertise in the classroom. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (pp. 188–228). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lemke, J. L. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. New Jersey: Ablex.