In the teacher-centered model:
- The teacher is an expert on the subject matter and the students are there to learn from a "master," if you will.
- The teacher is in full control of the course. He or she selects the projects/texts. The work is produced for and graded by the teacher.
- The teacher dispenses wisdom and the students absorb it.
- The students are motivated by their grades and other extrinsic rewards. They are graded by how well they match up to a pre-determined standard of excellence.
In the student-centered model:
- Power is decentralized in order to make room for everyone's empowerment. Everyone learns from each other---including the teacher.
- The students actively shape the direction the course will take. They select the projects and texts based on their interests.
- Knowledge and learning is created synergistically by the class.
- The students are motivated by their own curiosity and intrinsic desire to learn. The students' work is produced for a real audience and for real purposes. The students may be graded by their peers.
Classrooms have historically followed the teacher-centered model. Most universities are pretty much set up to follow this model. But recent research about teaching methods have led to the growth in teachers who use the student-centered model. Although they were a little more rare, I had a few professors who followed the student-centered model from time to time when I was an undergraduate.
It's important to remember that these are not binaries. I find that many teachers use a combination of these two models, some falling closer to one end of the spectrum than others. During my undergraduate studies when I was being trained pedagogy and educational philosophy, the student-centered model was strongly advocated by most of my professors. I don't think it's because the student-centered model is definitively better (although it does have a lot of research to back it up). I think it was because these professors assumed we were already familiar with the teacher-centered model and wanted to show us the benefits of the student-centered model in the hope that we would give it a chance.
For me personally, my native impulse is to be more teacher-centered. I supposedly have a red personality, which means that I have a strong need to feel that I am in control. For that reason, the teacher-centered model appeals to me on an instinctual level. But I have also found that the more I introduce student-centered elements into my curriculum, the more beneficial I find it to be.
This semester I'm experimenting with a fairly student-centered approach when it comes to my class policies. I have a neighbor who is a psychology professor at UVU and he's been bugging me for a very, very long time to try letting my students determine the policy. I've finally caved in and I'm giving it a chance---reluctantly giving up a little bit of that sense of being in control for the sake of the experiment.
Basically, on the second day of class, I had the students engage in a class debate about what our policy should be for absences, tardies, and late assignments. The debates were fairly interesting. When discussing absences, one class spent the bulk of the time talking about how missing class was its own punishment because it causes you to fall behind in the course. (They ended up opting for just letting people attend as needed with no penalties for poor attendance.) One class decided to allow 4 absences and give 5 points extra credit for every unused absence. Another class decided to give 30 points extra credit for having less than 3 absences and -30 points for having more than 5.
In the first two classes that I taught the discussions went fairly smoothly. It surprised me how quickly they reached a consensus. However, the last class had me second-guessing whether I was ready to give up control just yet. Many of the student started talking about how coming to class was just a hoop to jump through in order to get a grade. Their cynicism towards their education admittedly made me feel a little defensive---and it started to bubble over in my tone during the discussion. At one point I asked them why they weren't just taking an online class (which only required you to do the work and didn't require attendance or strict deadlines). I was hoping someone would talk about the value of coming to class, and a few of them did, but not very powerfully. I honestly began to wonder if any of them would end up attending the class at all. Finally, when I told them that I really didn't think I could be an effective teacher if only 3 students showed up because I had planned lots of group work and in-class discussions, that seemed to shift the discussion a little bit. (They were the class that opted for the +30/-30 policy.)
Anyhow, it's been really interesting. I hope I haven't damaged my rapport with my third class because of my defensiveness. My sense is that it's not a lost cause, but we'll see how it all plays out by the end of the semester. I'll let you know how it all turns out when the semester is over.