Introduction: How and Why to Structure a Classroom for Student-Centered Learning and Equality
Cathy N. Davidson
Finding Better, More Equitable Ways to Learn
What is the best way to learn? Clearly there are many methods, tactics, technologies, strategies, theories, and practices that can help us all to learn better, to teach better, and, in general, to improve what happens in the spaces of our classrooms and beyond. What is different about our book than many centering on teaching practices is that we are concerned with everyone learning.
The basic premise of student-centered, engaged learning is that, to make a truly equitable and democratic society, we have to begin with a form of instruction that is itself equitable. The title of our collection, Structuring Equality, comes from our central conviction that you cannot counter structural inequality with good will. You need to design structures that themselves are equal. If you do not, you end up replicating inequality, no matter how good your intention. Engaged learning must engage every student. That goal of structural equality must be part of the reflections upon which all pedagogical experiments are based.
This book explores some ways that we have found to be effective. It is intended as a useful and usable guide for anyone who is interested in improving the quality of undergraduate reading, writing, research, critical thinking, and creativity, and even the importance of movement for learning. It also offers insights into the best ways to improve evaluation of teachers, ways that truly help professors to become better at what they do.
“American Literature, American Learning”
This book itself is both a product of student-centered learning and part of that process. It was co-written in a course entitled “American Literature, American Learning,” in which ten students at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) spent the semester investigating some foundational American texts about the importance of learning and then looked more broadly at pedagogy, both in the American progressive tradition of John Dewey, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and others, and in the international tradition of Paulo Freire, Frantz Fanon, and Stuart Hall.
In this course, students spent the first weeks reading from a prescribed syllabus and responding to the assigned texts on a public course blog. Every week, one or two students wrote an elaborate response to the readings and the other students responded to the response, such that an energetic dialogue had begun before anyone ever entered the classroom. We then used the classroom to experiment with a range of active learning techniques: Think-Pair-Share, inventories, class stacking, and many others.
All of these techniques aim at what the American Psychological Association terms Total Participation: methods by which we structure equal participation by every member of the class rather than allowing anyone—whether the professor or a particularly extroverted or intellectually aggressive student—to play the dominant role. There are abundant researches that in the conventional classroom, the students who are most like the professor—in attitude, assumptions, language, and also in gender, race, sexuality, and class background—shine. If we are going to have equality in learning, we need to structure that into how we conduct our classrooms.
Midway through the class, we tried a more radical experiment in giving students an equal voice in the creation of the learning experience. Without an instructor present, students designed the last half of the course, constructing a syllabus of readings and planning the remainder of the semester, with different students working in pairs to design active learning engagements for all of the readings. We then decided, collectively, that, in lieu of ordinary term papers, students would instead write a handbook on the methods and practices we had researched and explored so that others could begin to initiate student-centered learning practices in a number of domains.
The Afterword to this book, prepared by Futures Initiative Fellow and English doctoral student Danica Savonick, who assisted in this course, provides meticulous and practical detail about how we ran each week’s classes, what we did, and how. One particularly noteworthy feature is that twice students were guided in their own student-directed process of project development, revision, collaboration, and completion by an expert in learning design, Dr. Jade Davis, Associate Director of Digital Learning Projects at LaGuardia Community College. Thank you, Jade, for your invaluable contribution!
So what is “student-centered learning”? It is a way of structuring learning that recognizes that students are human beings. That shouldn’t be so difficult, but it is often forgotten. It focuses on learning, not education or grades or credentials. It focuses on learning that will last after the course is over. It focuses on all the talents, skills, knowledge, and interests that a whole collective brings into a classroom, and finds ways to make the most of those rich resources, collectively. The professor scaffolds the experience, of course. The professor brings expertise, of course. The point of student-centered learning is not to show off the expertise of the professor. It is to help students learn how to learn, and to help students have the tools, ability, and confidence to do research, gain knowledge, and become experts themselves.
Learning how to learn is a skill that lasts long after the knowledge mastered in a class is forgotten or outmoded. In a rapidly changing world, learning how to learn is a survival skill. Learning how to learn lasts a lifetime. That is the motivation behind student-centered learning. It is, quite simply, a higher, better form of learning.
Structuring Equality in the Classroom
Our book, Structuring Equality: A Handbook for Student-Centered Learning and Teaching Practices, starts from the premise that you need to create equitable structures in the classroom in order to engage each and every student in active learning. Why is this important? I would suggest that there are two main reasons, one social and one pedagogical.
First, the social reason: for all the critiques of racism and sexism that have come out of academe, our profession embodies racial and sexual hierarchies and divisions that are roughly on par with Fortune 100 corporations. Some 85% of full-time full professors are White and some 75% of full-time full professors are men. Yet the students coming into our classrooms and graduating from our undergraduate and graduate programs are now majority female and increasingly scholars of color. Something is clearly misfiring if we have an ideology and body of intersectional critical theory that favors equality and yet maintain a system of apprenticeship—the training of undergraduates to go on to graduate school in order to become professors who teach undergraduates and other graduate students—that favors replication of the status quo. The system is not working.
While there are many institutional levels on which we can and must address structural inequality, the classroom is one arena in which each and every one of us can begin addressing it immediately. Ample research attests that both the lecture and the seminar tend to reward participation by students who most resemble the professor—in attitude, background, and, similarly, in race, gender, and other social factors. The methods we advocate go beyond the seminar to include simple pedagogical methods anyone can use in a classroom tomorrow, methods that result in Total Participation. It will introduce ways that each and every student contributes to the knowledge in the classroom, set up as a matter of equality and practice.
Second, the pedagogical imperative beyond equitable student-centered learning is that it is a better way to learn than either the lecture or the seminar. We know this from various researches, from the long development of professional school training, and we know this from our common, everyday life practices.
If I have to pass a test that is vital to my existence—let’s say a citizenship test or a driver’s test—I don’t just attend a lecture about the content or even a fuller seminar. If I want to pass, I most likely form a study group, test myself with my peers, give myself pre-tests, and quiz others too. I might also go back and re-read the material when I don’t understand the correct answers, and in other ways give myself formative challenges that help me prepare for the final challenge of the crucial test. This is basically the way medical school operates. The adage of surgical training is: See one. Do one. Teach one. This is active learning.
We have added a fourth component: Share one. By students engaging in an online “study group” before we ever enter the classroom, they have already compared ideas with one another, interacted, and tested their ideas before they come into the traditional hierarchical space. They are also writing for an audience of their peers but also for anyone else who happens to be reading. This is both formative, peer interchange and professional public writing.
Haunted by Eight Percent Learning
In one classic study, psychology students who took a course did only eight percent better on a test on that course content material four months after the course was over than parallel students who had not taken the course. This statistic, replicated numerous times, is often used to chastise the poor teaching or the poor learning (take your pick) of “students today.” Often the internet is blamed, of course, for this terrible crisis of learning. The problem is that this particular study, by C. Meyer and T. B. Jones, was published in 1993, the same year that the Mosaic 1.0 browser was released to the public and the "internet" was, for all practical purposes, a reality beyond a limited number of professional users. And there are such studies going back at least to the early decades of the 1900s.
Anyone who is concerned with learning beyond what can be measured in the standardized, summative score at the end of the course or the year is haunted by that eight percent figure. What we have more of, now, is data confirming that, one way or another, we rarely retain more than ten percent of testable content, even from the very best teachers.
Should we be alarmed? Well, it depends. If we want the brain surgeon to really master the subject, and know that “See one. Do one. Teach one” is the best method, why wouldn’t we also want that for critical reading and thinking too?
In this course on “American Literature, American Learning,” we asked the question, what if we decided that all learning should meet the standards we apply to the training of brain surgeons? What if we wanted historians and literary theorists and English Language Learners and everyone to take their lessons into the rest of their lives too? What would we need to do? How would we transform the classroom for this level of engaged learning?
We believe that education can be much better than it currently is if it adopts active, equitable student-centered learning practices.
Content May Not Be King
It turns out that actual learning of content in the one-way transmission or broadcast model (i.e. being lectured at) is not something that we do particularly well as humans. Why? Largely because we don’t really listen very well when learning isn't something we think we need to know. We don't do very well at learning what we don’t need to know. We do a much better job of mastering those things we need to succeed in the world. We do a very good job of sorting out and forgetting those things we don’t do well. The whole point of active learning is that it makes urgent and personal and important all kinds of things that are not “necessities” in an ordinary sense but that can be deeply, humanly important and necessary to one’s spirit, one’s intelligence, one’s deep sense of history, one’s deep store of information in helping to make wise and just decisions in the future, and so forth.
In other words, active learning helps us understand why seemingly non-essential information is actually essential. It helps us connect the dots between the facts, make our own personal connections to events or incidents of the past, helps us find our own interests and motivations, and therefore allows us to develop our own complexities and our own world view.
Most formal education does a very poor job at helping individual students to understand what aspect of what they are learning in school is vital and important to what they want to do outside of school. If you expect more, then you have to change the paradigm from credential-centered learning to student-centered learning.
You have to learn beyond the test and the credential. In other words, you have to turn the unnatural way one learns in school into a mode of learning more like the way we learn just about everything else important in life in life: by connecting it to what is relevant and important to our lives. That requires re-centering learning on the student.
Active learning requires teachers/professors to rethink their role and function in the classroom not as central but as facilitator to what the students achieve. It requires students to understand their goal is not only to get the A on the test but to understand the content that might well be crucial to their life, experiences, relationships, future learning, workplace, career, and everything else after the graduation date.
Structuring Equality: A Handbook for Student-Centered Learning and Teaching Practices
To write this volume, we had to transform ourselves from a class—with a professor, an assistant doctoral student, and ten Master’s and PhD students—into “The Graduate Center Learning Collective,” a coalition of co-learners and co-teachers writing a book together. This was a major decision as it required collaboration, constant feedback, many careful steps in which everyone gave everyone else suggestions and help, and then project development, both for individual and collective contributions.
Most graduate students at the Graduate Center are also teaching courses on the CUNY’s twenty-four campuses, both four- and two-year colleges. Graduate Center students teach some 7,700 classes a year to over 200,000 CUNY students each year. In our Graduate Center Learning Collective, several people are working full-time while earning their degrees. There are not only full-time professors but administrators in programs, who carry out many responsibilities even as they are working towards their degrees.
Several of the essays below wed the theory we read in “American Literature, American Learning” with the professional work members of our Collective do every day in their jobs. We hope you will find this book to be helpful in your own work, as college professors and as college students. We also hope you will use the “Comments” sections to let us know what you think, to offer your own ideas and responses, and to provide any helpful suggestions to our readers about other articles, books, or websites that might be useful as we all explore student-centered learning.
If the goal of education is not only a degree but learning that will help to shape the rest of one’s life, then active, equitable learning is the key. Helping students become active, confident agents in the world is the goal. We hope these essays will do a small part in working towards that goal.
Meyer, C. and Jones, T.B. (1993). Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.