What is student-centered learning

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Tanja Selzer

Summary: During the second module of my further training to become a person-centered counselor, I often asked myself how the approach could be incorporated into my prevailing working environment as a teacher at a private school. I therefore decided to deal with the topic in more detail and to prepare a presentation for our training group. In the following I would like to report on how I felt while dealing with this topic: from the slightly hasty conviction that the approach could hardly be applied in my situation to the realization that I was hardly aware of what exactly was student-centered teaching and what possibilities, but also limits, exist for me in practice. My report does not claim to be complete, but rather to provide an insight into my personal world of thoughts while dealing with this topic and to provide practical experience from my own teaching.



I work as a teacher at a private school that prepares students who have left their state schools in the past for individual reasons for the external school leaving certificate in North Rhine-Westphalia. Since the young adults (on average 18-25 years old) come to our private school with different backgrounds and levels of ability, teaching as such involves some difficulties. During my training, I gradually became aware that the person-centered approach (PZA) can be applied to everyday school life, as with any form of human interaction. However, I couldn't really imagine much about it, I was admittedly very skeptical and asked myself whether student-centered teaching could really be implemented in my professional situation.


1. Traditional vs. modern teaching

During my research, at the beginning I often dealt with the question of what exactly the tasks of a teacher are and what role I would personally ascribe to myself in the life of a student.

According to Rogers (1989) [MS1], traditional teachers are in possession of the knowledge that they are supposed to impart to students. They keep the class tidy, set tasks and award grades. You have the "power" and authority, so to speak. When you think back to your own school life, what you most likely remember is frontal teaching and exams. Pupils are quasi distrusted, as it is assumed that they can only work satisfactorily with clear guidelines, rules and under pressure (ibid.). In addition, they have no right of co-determination. As a result, the atmosphere in the classroom is mostly characterized by the fear of making mistakes and being constantly improved. Students are therefore not perceived as a person, but only as a vessel into which knowledge is poured. Feelings or personal perceptions are irrelevant here. Thus the PZA can hardly be found in this type of teaching.

Fleischer (1997), on the other hand, summarizes the new values ​​of the school and describes how it is seen as the “house of learning” according to the NRW Education Commission (1995). Here more modern tasks of the teachers are named. In addition to the acquisition of learning skills, the focus is also on the joy of learning through the experience of self-responsibility and self-efficacy as well as teaching and learning management, learning arrangements, the generation of intelligent knowledge, the experience of success and failure, the ability to self-evaluate, new forms of performance assessment and knowledge of learning materials (ibid.) . As a framework model for learning in school, Fleischer therefore describes that there is no longer only the usual claim to convey content, topics and material of the corresponding subjects, but also to perceive, support and support the individual personalities of the students and the students as a group Promote learning skills.

In contrast to the rather conservative tasks of a teacher only to impart knowledge, goals are named here which work towards the development of the students' abilities to work independently and to develop knowledge independently in the future. However, if you look at these demands on teaching, the question arises as to how teachers who are under time pressure to adhere to curricula can really cover all of the above-mentioned aspects. It can be assumed that in practice the personal relationship to the students is usually less encouraged.

So after this broad division into traditional and modern teachers, I asked myself the question, where do I see myself? I admit that in fleeting conversations I usually mention that I am a teacher, rather ashamed, because the profession has so many clichés and, above all, negative associations. I therefore like to call myself an “atypical” teacher and hopefully fall into the category of modern teachers. Since I came to the profession as a career changer and did not study a teaching degree, I am not shaped by didactic and pedagogical theories, but learned my work directly in practice. I drew on my own experiences as a student and copied the types of lessons that I had liked most with my own teachers or professors and, in retrospect, seemed most effective. I would therefore say that at the beginning of my time as a teacher I mostly proceeded very intuitively, which on the one hand brought a lot of uncertainty because a lot had to be tried out, on the other hand it made sure that I stayed true to myself and didn't just play a role but tried to find myself or my own style. During my preoccupation with student-centered teaching, I became aware of the importance of the aspect of authenticity. But more on that later.


2. Teachers as facilitators of significant teaching

After this rather rough categorization in traditional and modern lessons, the question arose during my study of the presentation how the PZA could be found here. According to Rogers (1989), too, there are two types of learning, conventional and significant. The former is meaningless: “This learning only affects the mind. It is a learning that only takes place in the head. Feelings and personal importance do not matter; there is no reference to the whole person ”(ibid., p.22). Here the knowledge transfer of the traditional school can be found again. Significant learning, on the other hand, is meaningful, experience-based learning that includes personal commitment, is self-initiating and permeates the whole person (ibid.). Here the desired student-centered learning can be found again.

Rogers therefore does not speak of teachers, but chooses the term “facilitator”, who acts as a promoter in significant learning. Groddeck (1987) therefore summarized this term as follows:

The facilitator acts as a learning advisor and helper when the individual tries to find personal access to a given problem or topic. He supports his personal, affective as well as cognitive, confrontation in this process by behaving real, emphatically and respectfully towards the learner, as the client-centered therapist tries towards the self-actualization process of the client (Groddeck, 1987, p.92f) .

My job as a teacher would therefore be to be available as a contact person for the students and to create a climate in which the natural “urge to learn” and interest in the relevant specialist topics is aroused. The question now arose how I could create such a learning atmosphere. The basis for such a class atmosphere initially seemed to be the person-centered quality of relationships between teachers and students, which I now tried to understand more closely.


3. The student-teacher relationship

Rogers stated in his 1984 interview, On Student-Centered Teaching: “I think the attitudes that are effective for a counselor in therapy are also effective for a teacher who wants to teach children. “(Quoted from Wagner, 1987, p.47). He went on to say that in therapy the focus is on learning about yourself, while in school it is about learning about other things and, if possible, also about yourself. Pedagogical success is therefore dependent on the quality of the relationship with the students. According to Behr (1987), teachers should therefore perceive the feelings and motives of the students and show the students that they want to understand them. However, teachers should also be able to consciously experience and share their own experiences. Authenticity therefore seems to be the most important aspect in the classroom, because it forms the cornerstone of a good relationship, which can then be reinforced through empathy and appreciation.

But what exactly does this mean for teachers? In student-centered teaching, it seems important that teachers do not hide behind a professional mask and embody the stereotypical image of the unapproachable imparting of knowledge. You should appear as a real and authentic person and thus relate to the students. Only in this way is lively learning possible and only in this way can the students take off their own masks and appear as individuals (Rogers, 1989).

So how authentic would I consider myself to be during class? It was here that I noticed for the first time during my study of this topic that in recent years, apparently of my own accord, I was getting more and more away from wanting to be the professional teacher who did everything right. I remember how at the beginning, out of uncertainty, I always tried to do everything perfectly, to be well prepared and to have an answer to every question so that I didn't have to reproach myself. Over the years, however, I noticed how exhausting each lesson became as a result. I actually wore some kind of mask and was sometimes even afraid that students might catch a glimpse of what was behind it.

I can't say exactly how this has changed, whether it was the growing security at work, whether it was different projects that made it impossible to always wear the professional mask, because suddenly you appeared both as a teacher and as a confidant In any case, I showed myself more and more as a person in front of the class and felt more and more comfortable and less tense during the class. I no longer had the right to always be able to answer all questions or to stand behind everything I taught, but made it more and more transparent that I had to look up and submit information myself or not all the literary ones on the curriculum Found works exciting. I stood by the fact that I sometimes spoke far too quickly, accidentally threw pens across the room while gesturing, or made mistakes in the blackboard. The more I was myself and the students saw that it was okay to make mistakes, the more often they trusted themselves to be more involved, even if they were unsure.

While dealing with this topic, I noticed that the PZA, especially with the basic variable of congruence, could make a major contribution to creating a positive learning atmosphere in the classroom and that I had been teaching partially student-centered for years simply by being authentic knowledge.


4. Definition, conditions and effects of student-centered teaching

Now that I knew what the basis for student-centered teaching was, I wondered what approach or methodology would lead to students learning "significantly". According to Wagner (1987), student-centered teaching was characterized by a kind of "democratic" style due to the basic variables lived in the classroom. Pupils should be given more participation in the design and organization of the learning process. This would raise them to become mature and self-determined students who had learning experiences not only through frontal teaching, but also through alternative forms of organization such as group work, projects, open teaching, discovery learning and creative use of materials.

Research by Aspy and Roebuck (in: Rogers, 1989, pp. 153-165) showed that a person-centered demeanor on the part of teachers has an impact on the way students treat one another and their individual behavior. Accordingly, the requirement was placed on teachers to respond more to the feelings of the students and to take up their thoughts more often and to discuss them with them more. Praise and appreciation are just as important as coordinating the learning content with the needs of the students. Teachers should express themselves freely, genuinely and individually and create a positive atmosphere in the classroom.
In such a learning atmosphere, more conversations took place between the students, they solved problems more autonomously, reacted more calmly to questions from the teachers, had more eye contact with them, expressed themselves more independently and asked more questions. Furthermore, they got involved more during learning processes, moved more often, generally had more knowledge and were more creative.
The overall result was that the students were absent on average four days less, gained more self-confidence and self-respect and showed more motivation and learning success. They would have had fewer problems with discipline and destroyed less school property, showed an increase in the intelligence quotient as well as more creativity, spontaneity and would have been able to develop more sophisticated trains of thought (ibid.).

In order to design student-centered teaching effectively, both teachers and students would have to fulfill certain tasks or conditions. Teachers have to trust that students can learn on their own. They would have to create a climate in which learning is facilitated, offering options and arousing the inner drive to learn (Wagner, 1987). Teachers basically only offer learning aids and provide books and materials as well as contact with other students. It is important to promote the self-discipline of the students, because this is the only way to stimulate curiosity and learn how to learn as such. In such a learning environment it is possible for the students to discuss things with one another and solve problems together. Open lessons, in which they can determine their own learning organization and their learning pace over a longer period of time and learn independently in small groups and in phases of “free work”, is most helpful (ibid.). In the classroom, there is respectful interaction both among the students and between teachers and students. The focus here is on the pupils' right to self-determination and participation.


5. Difficulties in student-centered teaching in practice

But how realistic are such goals and can these conditions of student-centered teaching really be implemented in practice without any problems? There are several factors that make it initially difficult to apply the PZA “completely” in the school context, both on the part of the students and the teachers. In my experience, it is a big problem that students are no longer used to having freedom in dealing with their learning goals. Often this means that organizational forms that require autonomous work tend to be overwhelming at first and do not lead to the desired results. Group work is then used more often for general exchange and time is wasted if there are no clear guidelines and the working method and the goal can be defined yourself. Uncertainty and disorientation are spreading. "What exactly should we do?", "What is this good for?", "Can't you just help us?" Are the most frequent reactions from the students.

Since I work at a private school and teach young adults, this also creates another difficulty in using the PZA. The students already have a clear idea of ​​how lessons should be. They all usually have at least ten years of teaching experience, which is often very traditional, and are therefore rather skeptical of alternative forms of teaching. In addition, the students or their parents pay money for the lessons and therefore see it as a service that should be provided as they imagine it and as they know it. The young adults expect clear guidelines and instructions, and since they are specifically prepared for the external qualification, they want the best possible and most effective form of teaching. Democratic teaching seems completely unfamiliar and even unwanted here. Students are so focused and conditioned on the goal of working towards a school leaving certificate that it does not occur to them to learn skills for life in the long term by practicing independent learning as such.

Even before I dealt with the PZA in the school context, I often tried to bring in the pupils with their wishes and to leave decisions on how a task should be done openly and to give them the right to have a say. As a result, unfortunately only long and chaotic group discussions took place, which led to the fact that the students mostly turned to me in the end and asked: “Can't you just determine that?” They did not have the right to participate and how they could use this used to and overwhelmed her. Such a reaction also demotivated me, especially since there were also often students who demonstratively refused and boycotted such a form of teaching.

I realized that there were several problems that prevented me from teaching really student-centered. On the one hand, it is very strange for students when they only have one teacher who tries to live the PZA in everyday school life, while colleagues act very differently. The student-centered teaching has an outwardly anti-authoritarian effect and can lead to the fact that this type of relationship is exploited by students and one gets the feeling that one is not taken seriously or that one is being danced on the nose (Wagner, 1987) . A lot of freedom and the right to co-determination also mean that lessons can appear chaotic and unstructured at the beginning, and this can lead both teachers and students to fear that they will learn too little or too slowly (ibid.).

Furthermore, I was slightly ashamed to realize that at the beginning of my time as a teacher I brought more creative or open tasks and projects into the classroom and, after a while, demotivated, because the students mostly did not understand the deeper meaning of such a learning method, projects did not took them seriously and only half-heartedly completed them or the exchange and organization within group work hardly worked without supervision. The concept of freedom within the classroom didn't always seem to work for me.


6. Quality and limits of freedom - a conclusion

So although I had to experience myself to fall on more or less deaf ears with more creative and more open forms of teaching, and that in my situation it did not seem possible to teach "completely" student-centered due to the school requirements set for me and the expectations of the students, I realized that this wasn't necessary either. Even if I was not able to teach democratically, openly and with co-determination in every area, the following quote from Rogers in particular helped me to recognize that I can use the PZA in the classroom within the limits set for me, and actually already use it: "[...] it is the quality of freedom within the fences that really counts" (quoted from Wagner, 1987, p.55). For me, this means that I give freedom where it seems possible and effective, and above all that I remain authentic and make what I do and why I do it transparently.

In my opinion, at first glance, in most schools there seems to be little room for a person-centered relationship in learning. It sounds experimental and counterproductive at first, as the focus is shifted from the learning material to the learning methodology and this can usually cause irritation among the students, but also among colleagues, parents and the school administration. You are used to other things. In an environment where this is not the case, however, and pupils are confronted with this form of learning from the start, colleagues and school administrators are all pulling together, and parents too have confidence in the school concept, this seems to be a very successful form to be striven for in the long term of learning. Proof of this are schools that are devoting themselves more and more to significant learning, design democratic lessons and want to awaken the child's urge to learn by allowing freedom and co-determination wherever possible. For example, the “Primary School on the Süsteresch” in Schüttorf, in western Lower Saxony, received the “German School Prize” in 2016 and can therefore call itself the best school in Germany this year. At this school, great value is placed on free work in the form of self-study times and creative projects are established as part of the lessons, in which the children can set their own goals and are always encouraged individually, while the teachers are at their side as contacts and advisors stand. In my opinion, this is a school concept that is entirely in line with the PZA, and since the students in VERA comparative tests are well above the average, it is clear that this form of teaching leads to successful and long-term learning.

There are numerous examples of schools which, with similar concepts, correspond to the guiding principle of the PZA and are successful. Personally, I also notice that with the little that I can apply in my everyday school life, I am definitely committed to a different kind of learning. After I dealt with this topic as part of my further education, my way of teaching has not changed much, but I reflect a lot more about why I am doing something and whether there are still alternatives that I discuss with the class can. As before, I see it as my job to create a pleasant learning environment in which the students can show themselves as they are and I can also be authentic, even if this is always a challenge.



Behr, M. (1987). Carl R. Rogers and Education. In: Society for Scientific Discussion Psychotherapy e.V. (GwG) (Ed.), Rogers and Pedagogy (p.141-167). Weinheim, Munich: Juventa Verlag.

Education Commission NRW (1995). Future of Education - School of the Future. Neuwied, Kriftel, Berlin: Luchterhand.

The German School Prize (2016). Primary school on the Süsteresch. Accessed on January 7, 2017, from schulpreis.bosch-stiftung.de/content/language1/html/56357.asp

Fleischer, T. (1997). The person-centered approach and learning in school. Baltmannsweiler: Schneider Verlag Hohengehren.

Groddeck, N. (1987). Person-centered concepts in school and teacher education. In: Society for Scientific Discussion Psychotherapy e.V. (GwG) (Ed.), Rogers and Pedagogy (pp.79-140). Weinheim, Munich: Juventa Verlag.

Rogers, C. R. (1989). Freedom and commitment. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH.

Wagner, A. C. (1987). Student-centered teaching. In: Society for Scientific Discussion Psychotherapy e.V. (GwG) (Ed.), Rogers and Pedagogy (p.13-78). Weinheim, Munich: Juventa Verlag.