Since I’ve entered the field of English Language Teaching (ELT), I have watched countless presentations on student-centered teaching and read no small number of articles on the matter. My then-classmates/current colleagues have debated it until we’re blue in the face. We’ve questioned is efficacy. We’ve queried its best-practices. We’ve inquired as to the forms it may take in classrooms. I don’t know that we’ve really come to a consensus.
Personally, I’ve always been rather in favor student-centered education. Granted, I’ve worried that we occasionally pay it more lip service in the field than anything else. I’ve always felt that what was missing was a concerted push forward that speaks to best practices and to actual classroom efficacy. Part of that problem has begun to be addressed by the latest chapter I was reading in Renandya and Widodo’s English Language Teaching Today, “Student-centered Learning in ELT.” The one recommendation that they make that I think really unlocks the whole approach is the notion of co-learning with your students. As an aside, I do wish that they had dug much deeper into this concept. Like most chapters in this book, it just barely scratches the surface—usually because the individual chapters try to do too much.
While they link co-learning to Socrates, allow me here to offer a more concrete definition. Co-learning is the act of setting aside pride and creating an atmosphere of life-long learning in the classroom by engaging in the learning process with one’s students. Jacobs and Renandya (2016) correctly point out that this is sometimes difficult for teachers, who may fear that it will corrupt their authority in the classroom. However, I think it’s important to rethink expertise and authority in language teaching as it relates to co-learning. Co-learning, as defined here, doesn’t assume that the teacher is a total novice—they are most certainly an expert in the content area, and they are certainly expert learner themselves. This redefinition allows teachers to use the classroom as a chance to model effective learning strategies and to create an environment conducive to learning, all while expanding their knowledge alongside of their students. I know that when I have actualized co-learning in this way that it has led to some surprising results, including my current collaboration with a group of students from my Language, Identity, and World Englishes course (INSERT LINK).
This approach has a couple of benefits. First, it allows students to see models of how to create environments that are conducive to learning. That is, it allows them to see how to carve out space in an otherwise busy life to make room for learning. It also shows them how to welcome others into that space. This second half isn’t just effective for learning and teaching, it’s also great personal/professional development for the student, as it can equip them with the soft skills that they will need to be effective leaders of social organizations and professional groups in the future.
The second benefit of this view of co-learning is that it highlights the value of joint cognition on a problem. Said in the simplest terms, more brains are always better than one. By working with others to expand our knowledge and abilities, we can cover more ground; we can make further strides forward. Creating value around co-learning allows us to make salient to our students that learning—and language learning most of all—is a social act. They require that we engage with other social actors and in so doing expand our knowledge by engaging with the existing knowledge and experiences of others.
Finally, it highlights for learners that learning doesn’t stop once they leave the classroom and that expertise isn’t a destination. Rather, effective learners are those that engage in lifelong learning, that can maintain their curiosity and seek out answers. And, the expert isn’t someone with all the answers. Rather, it is the individual that knows how little they know and how much is left to learn. Being expert, just like being highly proficient second language user, is a continual process of doing, redoing, uncovering shortcomings, and effectively remediating those shortcomings for continued growth. We don’t just arrive one day.
To me, this is the promise of co-learning. It speaks to an essential soft-skill that individuals need in a modern society and in an exceptionally competitive global labor market. It also is critical to unlocking other aspects of student-centered classrooms, like encouraging student agency, moving towards student-student interactions, engaging with diversity, and fostering critical thinking skills.
Jacobs, G.M., & Renandya, W.A. (2016). Student-centered learning in ELT. In W.A. Renandya and H.P. Widodo (eds). English Language Teaching Today: Linking Theory and Practice (pp. 13-23). New York: Springer