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2013 December 9 - 12:00 am

POV: A Time for Learning-Centered Institutions

Ted Maier,
Professor, Danville Community College, Danville, Va.

Ours is an astonishing time to be involved with education. The rampant permutations of informational technologies, the ebb and flow of economics, societies, and markets, the multiplicity of personal choices and chances — all have conspired to alter dramatically the terrain of education; more so, perhaps for community colleges that are on the front lines of these changes. In response to these turbulent and stressful times, learning-centered theory has emerged as a response to the contemporaneous needs and demands of community college students.

While theorists may contend as to the origins of learning-centered education, few can doubt its powerful impact upon the current pedagogical landscape. Roughly mirroring several major paradigm shifts in culture encompassing the last decade and a half, learning-centered theory mirrors, according to College Quarterly, “fundamental shifts in our economy…changing the nature of work, jobs and career,” which has created “new student needs and expectations”; a significant reduction “in government funding available for post-secondary education”; new educational research which has “expanded our understanding of how individuals learn”; and, finally, advanced information technologies, “affecting learning and our roles as learners as much as any other aspect of our lives.”

Learning-centered teaching begins with the assumption that the student is at the central nexus of education. Accordingly, an understanding of the educational contexts from which a student comes is both central and crucial to this philosophy. Once contexts are established and clarified, learning objectives are established in order to evaluate the learner’s baseline skills and progress. Ultimately, the goal is to help students acquire the basic skills necessary for learning throughout a lifetime. One consequence of this approach is that the old, hierarchical paradigm of teacher-students (i.e., master/slave) is altered to place the responsibility of learning on to the student. The teacher is seen as less than a content-provider (i.e., “sage on the stage”) and more as a facilitator of the student’s learning. This approach, therefore, strives to be “individualistic, flexible, competency-based, varied in methodology and not always constrained by time or place.”

While the focus of learning-centered education is squarely on the student, the ideal environment is the one that supports the “whole” person, sensitive to their preferred learning needs.

Because learning styles are a major part of learning-centered education, pace and variety become central. The many styles of learning include:

  • Small and large group work, both inside and outside the classroom

  • Asynchronous and synchronous distance learning

  • Experiential and service learning

  • Field experience

  • Hands-on experience

  • Self-paced learning

Many of these learning styles and contexts may be addressed by classroom contact, but a significant number of them will require a variety of support services, such as advising, counseling and tutorial services. In essence, the “whole” student is served by the “whole” institution.

In terms of assessment, many of the traditional elements of education remain the same. Students continue to take tests, write papers, compile portfolios and various group and individual reports. Evaluation still retains traditional education rigor and standards. The difference, though, is that the assessment is competency-based in context of academic and professional pursuits. The learner is required to solve real or simulated problems related to his or her discipline. Assessment, then, has
“real-world” applications, and is not seen as “another hoop” to jump, but, rather, is “authentic,” which is to say, the assessment is contextualized in site and architectonic specific.

This is truly an exciting time to be involved in education at any level. Educators such as me eagerly await and react to this groundswell, this tectonic shift in philosophy and perspective.

But unlike the dinosaurs, we hope our visionary perspective of the future portends our ultimate, successful ends.

Theodore “Ted” Maier is a professor of English and Spanish at Danville Community College (Va.). Maier has taught American literature and English composition for more than 20 years at various college

It’s Your Turn:  CCW wants to hear from you!
Q: How has the drive to place student learning at the center of college culture changed your campus?
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