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STUDENT CENTRED LEARNING A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR

TEACHERS
by GRAHAM ROGERS

Co-ordinator for Business Courses at the British Council, Bangkok.

WHY STUDENT-CENTRED LEARNING?


A highlight of the Thai National Curriculum 2002 is the proposed shift in
emphasis in teaching methods to a student-centred learning approach.
Thai education has been radically changed by the National Education Act of
1999. In addition to reorganising the administration of education in Thailand,
this legislation aims to change the practice of teaching in Thai schools. The
goal is a paradigm shift in Thai education from teacher-centred to studentcentred learning. For example:
In organizing the learning process, educational institutions shall:
(1) provide substance and arrange activities in line with the learners'
interests and aptitudes, bearing in mind individual differences;
(2) provide training in thinking process, management, how to face
various situations and application of knowledge for obviating and
solving problems;
(3) organize activities for learners to draw from authentic experience ...
enable learners to think critically and acquire the reading habit and
continuous thirst for knowledge;
(5) ... both learners and teachers may learn together from different types
of teaching-learning media and other sources of knowledge;
(6) enable individuals to learn at all times and in all places.
(Section 24, National Education Act of 1999)
However, this change is not simply something we have to make because the
Government says so. It has major pedagogical benefits, which are particularly
relevant to language learning. In this paper I shall attempt to define studentcentred learning, specifically features that differentiate it from a more
traditional approach to language teaching. We shall also touch on the changing
roles of teachers and students, and identify some ways of creating suitable
materials for the new approach. Finally, we shall examine some of the
anticipated problems previously expressed by our teaching colleagues and
attempt to offer some solutions to those problems.

WHAT IS STUDENT-CENTRED LEARNING?


Student-centred learning puts more responsibility on the learners for their own
learning. It involves students in more decision-making processes, and they
learn by doing, rather than just by listening and performing meaningless tasks
which are often not in context and therefore unreal to them. Because learning
becomes more active (rather than passively listening to the teacher), it
becomes more memorable: because it is personalised, and relevant to the
students own lives and experiences, it brings language alive, and makes it
relevant to the real world.

It is nothing new. Many of our teaching methods are already student-centred.


FEATURES OF STUDENT-CENTRED LEARNING
When planning more student-centred lessons it is useful to remember the
following:
Ask dont tell: always try to elicit information, ideas, and answers from the
students. They are not empty vessels waiting to be filled by the all-knowing
teacher. They have knowledge and experiences of life, as well as language
which can contribute greatly to the learning process. The more they
contribute, the more they are likely to remember. We should never
underestimate the ability of our students.
Focus on students experience and interests: if the teacher chooses
the topic, or just follows the course book, the students may not be
interested. If, however, teachers use the course book as a base for then
moving on to practice activities relating to the students' personal lives and
areas of interest and experience (personalisation), the students are more
likely to become involved in the lesson, thereby remembering more.
Communication over accuracy: the main reason for students learning a
language is to be able to communicate with other speakers of that
language. In reality they will probably speak English with more non-native
speakers from the region than with native speakers, and the ultimate goal is
to be able to understand and respond to each other. Students therefore
need opportunities to practise communicating in English without the
constant fear of making mistakes hanging over them. If you feel the need to
correct their mistakes, don't interrupt their conversations, make notes and
give feedback later.
Learning by doing: the more actively involved students are in their own
learning, the more they are likely to remember what they learn.
Students have choices and make decisions about learning. Group work
requires negotiation and decision making working together towards a
common goal.
Focus on confidence building for real-world skills. By developing
communicative competence, language again becomes more real and part
of the students lives.
Encourage interest in English used in the real world. By using authentic
materials familiar to the students (magazines, the internet, video,
television, letters etc.), students are constantly in touch with the language
in an absorbing way.
Tasks are open-ended, i.e. there is more than one possible answer.
Traditional grammar based tasks are either right or wrong and test only one
skill at a time. They are generally unimaginative, often in the form of
multiple choice answers (so the students have a 25% chance of being right
without actually knowing the answer at all) and totally divorced from real
world situations. Open-ended tasks are wider in their focus and involve a
variety of language skills.
High exposure to English through the use of authentic materials again:
students may be set homework involving research undertaken using the
internet or other English language reference sources.
Students learn more than language. They are also encouraged to think
critically and develop problem-solving skills through more creative tasks
and group work.

CREATING MATERIALS: traditional vs. student-centred approaches


When creating student-centred materials for using in class, consider the
following:
are the students involved?
Do the students have some choice?
Will the students really USE language to communicate?
Is the task is open-ended (i.e. there is more than one possible answer /
outcome)?
Remember:
Think of the final product / outcome of the task and work backwards.
Consider the aims, procedures, resources and roles.
Make a TASK not an EXERCISE.
Dont underestimate what students can do.
Example 1:
A traditional approach:
1. Students think about their hobbies. Students try to guess each others
hobbies.
2. Listening passage with 6 speakers talking about their hobbies. Students
listen and match hobbies with speakers names.
A student-centred approach:
1. Students think of their hobbies.
2. In groups of 6, students make a script of a conversation where they talk
together about their hobbies.
3. Students make a tape (6 tapes in total) and a matching exercise.
4. Students swap tapes between groups, listen and match hobbies with
speaker
names.
5. They listen again and complete a feedback form.
6. Students receive feedback from peers and the teacher.
Example 2: Another traditional example:
1. Students read about some problems e.g. John is too fat. What should he
do?
2.
Students make suggestions for solutions.
Another student-centred example
1. In groups, students think of 2 health problems. They consult the teacher
concerning how to write the problems in English.
2. Students make posters of their health problems.
3. Poster exhibition. Other students must write 2 solutions on posters. No 2
solutions on one poster can be the same.
4. After the exhibition, each group chooses the best 2 solutions written on
their poster, and thinks of 2 reasons why each of these solutions is best.
5. The teacher teaches some presentation skills.
6. Students give a presentation of their problems and solutions, and receive
feedback from the teacher and peers.
THE PROCESS OF MATERIALS DESIGN
There are 6 things you might consider to start your materials design. You dont
need to consider all of them:
language objective (e.g. collocations of time)
learning objective (e.g. students learn to identify their own errors)
topic (e.g. local environmental conservation)

resources (e.g. morning news in English on Channel 9)


task/activities (e.g. answering Agony Aunt letters in the newspaper)
expected finished product (e.g. short guidebook for tourists)
THE PRODUCT OF MATERIALS DESIGN
Here are some suggested guidelines for checking the finished materials:
The materials should:
have variety
be attractively presented (e.g. font, layout)
have content that appeals to the students
help the students feel at ease in using English
develop students' confidence
expose students to useful language
draw students' attention to important language points
provide opportunities for the teacher to help students with their English
provide opportunities for feedback to be given on students' work
account for different learning styles, attitudes and needs of students
TEACHER SKILLS NEEDED IN STUDENT-CENTRED APPROACHES
Related to the new roles of teachers, there may be some skills that teachers
need to develop to be effective with student-centred approaches. These
include:
giving useful practical suggestions
feedback

giving constructive

acting as a language resource

monitoring student work

improvising teaching of language points


unexpected

coping with the

coping with students with different learning styles


creating their own materials
approaching the community for help

YES. BUT WHAT ABOUT?


SOME ANTICIPATED PROBLEMS
We need to have the ability to change, but it also important to be able
to keep hold of the good things. Some teachers may fear change,
as change is uncertain, but it is not necessary for teachers to
change everything they currently do in the classroom, but to
change some things to make improvements. Change is a slow and
difficult process, so should be taken step by step.

Weve never tried anything like this before.


Good! Its always exciting to try something new!
We dont have the facilities to do this.
Not many are needed. The greatest facility you need is inside yourself!

Weve just started using a new coursebook. We dont need any more
changes yet.
Coursebooks can, and should, be adapted to make them more studentcentred.
It would be great if we only had 12 students in a class. We have 50.
Yes, this is always a problem, but pair and group work can be conducted
effectively whatever the group size, and students themselves can be
appointed to monitor their own groups.
If we do this, there will be too many discipline problems.
If the activities are well structured, geared to the students interests, and
the students are motivated to achieve something on their own, they should
be too involved in the work to misbehave.

Our students need grammar for the Entrance Exam. This doesnt help
them.
Change needs to be slow and constantly reviewed in order to be effective in
the long term. The new Entrance Exam will demand a better command of
communicative techniques, so eventually, this approach will help them.
Moreover, developing students confidence to use the language effectively
will have a spin-off effect on their command of grammar.
The students will just copy and not learn anything.
There are actually fewer opportunities for copying with a student-centred
approach than with the traditional approach, as students are producing their
own work rather than merely completing exercises.
Ive been teaching successfully for 15 years. I dont need to change.
A truly successful teacher is always looking for new ways to teach, and
always learning from their students! Personally, the day I stop learning as a
teacher, is the day I should stop teaching.

As teachers we should always remember the Wise Old Owl:


The wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw, the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard
Why cant we all be like that bird?
This paper was produced with acknowledgement to Assoc. Prof. Richard
Watson Todd, King Mongkuts University of Technology, Thonburi, and Ms Sheila
Taylor, Head of Teacher Development at The British Council, Bangkok, and is
derived from a Seminar Workshop for ERIC trainers they jointly ran at Chiang
Mai in March 2002.
Graham Rogers
The British Council
Bangkok
June 2002