Margaret Woodward, Western Australia Regional Meeting

Student-centred learning 1After doing teacher training, I had to put my plans to turn around the education system and solve all the problems of the world by the time I was twenty-five years old, on hold. I married – an unforgivable condition for female teachers in Western Australia in the 1950s. I decided I’d need to wait for ten more years. I had my sixth child when I was thirty-one and realised I’d need to hurry, with only four more years to go. In the intervening years I had done a Grad Dip specialising in Learning Difficulties and Reading, I met some very dedicated educators and educationists and we started a Remedial Clinic. Yes. We even called it that to start. In 1969 that was acceptable.

Margaret WoodwardIn our Remedial Clinic, we started working with children having difficulties in school, after hours on Wednesdays and Saturday afternoons. Basically, we wanted to have an environment where children could play and create together, at the level of their own ability, encouraged to learn the skills required to learn how to achieve the goals each child set, being accepted and loved just as they were.

Within a week, the children had renamed the group Kids Klub and it became more inclusive, starting with siblings of the founding children, then their friends, extending to anyone who heard about us and wanted to join. By week four, we had grown from 15 to 45. We had to start a waiting list.

The teachers, psychologists and trainees involved as staff had many searching discussions and explorations of different ideas and philosophies, goal searching, consultations and hours of conversations with the parents and children involved. We agreed that in broad terms, humanist philosophy was fairly close to summarising our ideas. Humanistic Education refers to an educational philosophy that believes human beings are, by nature, self-developing creatures. An educator’s primary responsibility is to create an environment in which students can do their own growing. Humanistic educators have a broad understanding of the knowledge that children acquire as they grow, and highly value student’s affective and social development as well as their intellectual development. The goal of humanistic education is to contribute to the development of energetic, positive, self-respecting, caring human beings who can meet all challenges.[1]

Humanist philosophy is expressed in open education where:

         A. The student has some say in deciding her/his curriculum course and activities.

         B. The student has some say in her/his time tabling.

         C. The student has some say in who s/he works with.

Our school started in 1975. We used to claim quite proudly that the ABC at KIDS School stood for Accepting, Being, Caring. We hope it still applies. On the surface it sounds like a fairly light-hearted statement, but we have found that Accepting is a very deep and difficult step. Often, it is even quite difficult to even accept ourselves. Society puts so many values on us, we find ourselves doing some quite strange things to conform to some outside expectations – like shaving hair from quite delicate parts of our bodies, even hot-waxing to remove the hair from its follicle, people with curly hair straightening it, people with straight hair curling it, to name just a few examples. The curriculum now states that Being is a very important part of what school offers. Quite hard to define Being, but I liken it to the statement “sometimes I sits and thinks, but sometimes I just sits”. Being is a bit like the Just Sits bit – where the student has time to just BE – not doing, not thinking, not telling you thoughts – just being. Caring seems obvious, but it isn’t as much as it would seem. The Caring bit embraces the student-centred zone.Student-centred lerning 2

Perhaps it is important to point out and underline that student-centred does NOT mean student-controlled, nor that there are little self-centred darlings who will be permitted to do whatever they want no matter how ridiculous or selfish, just because they have thought of something to do – or not to do.

The start is with consultation. A conference type dialogue works quite well, with some framework put in place which enables the students, no matter what age, to give their ideas about things. By the time kids are at school, they have already experienced many conditions in their lives where they have been expected to please adults, so in a school setting, it is really important that we try for their ideas first. If we present our ideas first, it doesn’t work, because then there is the danger that they will go along with our ideas because they think we want them to agree with us. Research has shown that most teachers wait for 3 seconds for students to respond in a school situation. Time that for yourself. It isn’t very long for you to think of something, work out how you want to say it, tune in to see if it’s good timing, gird up the courage to put your views to the group or person you are talking to, etc. As a result, traditional teachers are inclined to say that they tried for a discussion but the kids don’t respond. If it is necessary to present ideas to get the discussion going give three or so completely different sets of ideas then let them choose, or add others as they happen – and allow time for this to happen.

It is not possible to use every idea put forward by the students. There needs to be some discernment from them, so discussion and thinking go hand in hand. Often, staff need to give some guidelines, such as pointing out that there might be some over-arching restrictions – like the laws of the country, the already expressed wishes from parents, the philosophy and ethos of the school, respect for the thoughts and feelings of other students who have already expressed opposing views. Sometimes staff need to be Socratic type questioners – not the leading questions such as “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to ban Coca Cola from the shopping list?” But the ones to give the thinking back to the students – “Do you think that will help to achieve the purpose?” Or “What are we hoping to achieve?” Or “How will we go about putting that into action?” or “Does that take care of the opinions already expressed by everyone else?”

Sometimes, we have a concerned and caring parent present at such a meeting. We avoid that when we can because even parents who have been asked to wait for something from the kids usually can’t manage. Never mind 3 seconds! 3 nano-seconds, maybe. Then they often leap in, using intimate and private knowledge from their child to say things like “Why don’t you suggest the things you were telling me yesterday?” And then continue to say what they are. Often the kid is shocked! A conversation with their mother, the person they tell lots of things to that they don’t tell anyone else, is being repeated here in public! Or worse still, some parents, even the caring ones, interject their own ideas with some kids being too polite to disagree.

To give an example, sometimes at school a situation might arise with the Mathematics Programme, in seeking for the maths that is fun to do, challenging, problem-solving, hands on, and relevant to real to life situations. So many maths books concentrate on using rote type learned facts, straight memory work and not much else. Most of the kids couldn’t have suggested something like the Mathletics Programme[2] because they didn’t know it existed. We presented the idea to them, asked if they would be willing to give it a trial for a term/semester, then evaluate its success or otherwise when they knew more about it. Sometimes that needs to be our role, as facilitators to enable and enhance opportunities for students to learn. That’s the part we play in the process. This is not the type of education that some teachers want to be involved in. If the adults – parents, teachers, community members – believe that the main way children learn is by being taught by an “expert” i.e. teacher, then student-centred learning is not for them.

That is not saying that in student-centred learning teachers can’t teach anything. They can, but the emphasis is taken away from the teacher teaching and is placed on the student learning. When the student asks for help, the teacher then shows the student how to – NOT do it for them. There is respect for the integrity of the student and faith in their ability to learn.

Student-centred learning 3From this background of a school-based student-centred learning, it is a relatively small step to look at student-centred learning in an adult/Quaker setting. We are accustomed to group situations where there is a facilitator/co-ordinator – terms we choose to use rather than leader/teacher because we are trying to establish our belief in the value of the input of each participant as being of equal worth.

So for a Quaker group, the facilitator may use different ways of working – reflective listening by repeating a suggestion that has come from a group member, in the same words or maybe different words but as close to the original meaning as possible; creative listening by using the basic idea in a suggestion but maybe adding or subtracting a factor which may change slightly but keep to the main idea of the original suggestion; appeal to other members of the group to add or subtract; ensure there is agreement before making final decisions. When there is agreement the facilitator might then suggest a search to see if there are already study materials or programmes that could be suited for the purpose, adaptations that may need to be made. The important bit for the facilitator is to ensure that each group member feels consulted and part of the final agreement. I think it is amusing that one of the most difficult bits of this process is finding suitable times for each member.

Occasionally in an adult setting, there may be people who have had experiences not shared by other members in the group – e.g. attendance at other yearly meetings, courses studied at one of the Quaker study centres. In these cases, it may be appropriate for them to share their knowledge, as with teachers who know about Mathletics programmes. A degree of objectivity from the sharer needs to be maintained so other members feel they are still being given choices. When decisions are made in this way they have a lustre and health of their own, adding great value for each person who has been part of the process.

[1]Here is a very lengthy and interesting description and reference to concerns us decision making, well worth reading for those interested.

[2] Mathletics:- a computer programme for use in schools.

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