Learner-centered teaching: Are schools doing enough?

Traditionally, students studied in classes where the teacher provided everything; the teacher asked the questions, provided detail to their answers, offered the examples, organised the notes, previewed and reviewed topics, among other things. This method of instruction is termed as teacher-centred teaching.
Students in a group discussion. Such activities are essential for the learner-centred approach to succeed. / Julius Bizimungu.
Students in a group discussion. Such activities are essential for the learner-centred approach to succeed. / Julius Bizimungu.

Traditionally, students studied in classes where the teacher provided everything; the teacher asked the questions, provided detail to their answers, offered the examples, organised the notes, previewed and reviewed topics, among other things. This method of instruction is termed as teacher-centred teaching.

Experts say that the main danger with this approach was that it didn’t encourage students to get out of their shells and participate actively in their learning activities. To break this passive cycle of instruction, the government, last year launched the competency-based curriculum to promote the learner-centred approach as a mode of teaching. The learner-centred approach, among other things, is believed to help students to grasp skills better because it engages them more in the entire learning process.

Education experts assert that learner-centered teaching is where the student assumes the responsibility for learning while the instructor is responsible for facilitating the learning. But why is this approach particularly good for today’s learner?

“The learner-centred approach is way richer than the teacher-centred one because it helps us to develop new research skills and also enables us to self-assess the work we do. However, from my own experience, I have realised that it is at times difficult to meet a teacher’s expectation when doing research alone,” says Derrick Gashegu, a Senior Five student at Lycee de Kigali.

For Mike Rutebuka, a student at Integrated Polytechnic Regional Centre (IPRC) Kigali, the learner-centred approach helps students to enhance their reading skills.

“This method helps us to develop reading skills. When we were in lower classes, teachers used to provide us with everything, today it has changed and a student is required to make effort to get things done as a teacher gives a little guidance. It really promotes the reading culture,” he says. 

Sharon Amanda Muvara, a Rwandan US-based student pursuing a degree in psychology, says she has had a chance to learn under both approaches. 

“When I was joining the university after my high school, I honestly didn’t remember much of what I had studied. I went to the university with so many expectations but I was disappointed. It felt like students are at the mercy of the lecturers. We only studied when they were available and when they are not we didn’t,” she explains. 

When Muvara went to the US, she was able to appreciate the difference between the teaching systems, noting that the learner-centred approach was better. 

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Pupils of Bright School in Muhanga District learning how to make Leonce balls using local materials. The learner-centred approach encourages such hands-on activities. / File photo.

“Professors here have a passion for what they are doing; they are always present whenever needed. They find ways to help you do more than just sitting in class or studying online, they want you to learn more and also you to teach them too,” she adds.

Teachers’, parents’ take

Aaron Butera, a teacher at Green Hills Academy, Kigali, notes that the student-centred approach has a lot of merits, but maintains that the demerits should not also be ignored.

“Student-centeredness encourages students to think critically because they know the teacher wants them to say something, so they will be encouraged to think. We can also say it builds confidence, eliminates laziness and gives a chance to students to do self-evaluation,” he says.

Butera, however, says that the approach has several demerits and suggests that the implementation should be done carefully to make it effective. 

He highlights challenges like lack of enough time for teachers to explain concepts and the planned content as students will more likely be given much of the time.

“That sometimes can affect a student’s self-esteem as their colleagues tend to make fun of their comments and ideas. Even when the methodology is meant to make students participate in class, some never appreciate its importance and they continue being lazy and passive in class, making it less effective,” Butera adds.

Innocent Kambanda, a Kigali-based parent, believes that the approach is good, but feels it is costly.

“It’s a good approach but it needs a lot of investment. For instance, if the child is only provided 20 per cent of the content by the teacher, he needs to have full time internet and other resources to make enough research, which comes at a high cost,” he says.

Emmanuel Rutiganda, a parent in Kigali, says the system would have a greater impact if our education systems were strong enough, especially in terms of facilities and capacity.

“The investment is way too high. A few of us (parents) can afford to provide daily internet access to our children. I don’t even think the libraries are enough to help all the students to do their own research,” he says.

Strengthening the learner-centred approach in Rwanda 

Dr Papias Malimba Musafiri, the Minister for Education, says the learner-centred approach boosts creativity and innovation and that this is why the new curriculum was introduced.

“Whereas the traditional mode of teaching assumed that learners are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, the new mode empowers the learner to take the centre-stage of teaching and learning. It thus instills in the learners critical thinking, innovation and creativity while acquiring the 21st century knowledge and skills,” he explains.

The minister explains that in 2013, Rwanda Education Board embarked on the journey of reviewing old models of learning, revising the old curriculum. It was factored in that they would align the learning and teaching models to national development goals, which saw the launch of the new competency-based curriculum.

For Samuel Nkurunziza, the head teacher of Kagarama Secondary School, the competency-based curriculum came at a time when most of the schools were adopting modern ways of teaching and learning.

“The new curriculum will help in advancing education. Transitioning to the digital ways of learning and teaching has more merits and this is why the learner-centred methods are preferred,” he says.

“We have already started implementing the new curriculum and we strongly believe there’s much anticipated impact. However, we still lack enough requirements including the textbooks, projectors and even the capacity to expand the ICT laboratories to enforce the approaches and also enable students to have ample access to internet and computers,” he adds.

As is the case in some schools, Nkurunziza notes that his school has also adopted new policies and strategies where they have extended the time for library access and night preps, as well as carrying out continuous teacher trainings to master the system.

Nkurunziza explains that while introducing the new curriculum, it was revealed that the old curriculum included substantial coverage of the core skills, especially literacy and numeracy, but lacked content relevant to expectations of the labour market. There was, therefore, an emphasis on knowledge acquisition rather than transferable skills, such as problem-solving and critical thinking essential to productive employment.

At least 100 national teacher trainers and 3,000 district master trainers; 300 teachers in each district were trained to reach schools in all districts. On top of that, 29,000 subject school leaders for new subjects introduced in the new curriculum from all schools at the sector level were trained. 

What research says 

Although various educational institutions and development agencies especially in developing countries are trying to implement the learner-centred approach, research indicates that it is still uncertain whether only one approach can lead to greater impact. 

A recent survey of best teaching practices by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) chose to avoid terms like ‘learner-centred’, suggesting that it’s not always clear what classroom practices they refer to. Indeed, there are different interpretations among educators where some associate learner-centred approaches with techniques such as group work; others with practices whereby the teacher gives little instruction and learners find out for themselves; others say it’s all about a ‘philosophy’, and not tied to any particular method at all.

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THEIR SAY...

Benjamin Butare, a teacher at GS, Rugando
It’s important because it moulds students to become public speakers through the confidence gained while taking the role of a teacher. I also believe the approach teaches students to be more responsible, especially when out of school, because of their ability to address issues boldly.

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Aminadhad Niyonshuti, a teacher at Apaper, Kicukiro
When students take the lead role in class, it can be hard to enforce order as most of them may not respect their colleagues. Nevertheless, the learner-centered approach helps students to learn from each other, thus making them more independent, which boosts their performance.

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Delphine Ingabire, a graduate in education
I find it the best approach since it motivates students to take the role of leadership even after school. The approach is also helpful in a way that in case a certain teacher is not able to attend a particular lesson, the class won’t be idle as students would use that chance to engage in productive discussions.

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Elyse Kwizera, a S3 student
Some students may lack the confidence to raise issues in front of teachers, but when their fellow student is taking the role of a teacher, it’s easier for them to interact and ask questions, which boosts their participation in class work.

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Freedom Kabarere,a university student
In case a teacher has many lessons to attend to daily, the learner-centered approach becomes helpful as students can take up that role and lead the class. In student-led discussions, the teacher is able to find out which areas were not well-tackled.

 

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