What does a 'child-centred' lerning actually mean?

I believe it means giving children the 'opportunity to discover things themselves', or, in other words, 'letting them work independently' instead of 'lecturing' them what they need to learn/ know.

Of course, there are different levels of 'opportunities' for discovering things, depending on children's age, level of their knowledge and abilities to work independently.

With more knowledge about the way how our brain works, how children learn and what do we need the knowledge for, the tendency in education is changing from teaching to shape obedient pupils (who do what their teachers tell) to shaping independent pupils (who use their knowledge for their actions). For that, a lot of new methods and approaches have been developed (and are still developing).

In my practice, I have mostly been teaching children between 4 and 11 years old. However, being able to tailor the child-centred approach for the young learner, I first had to learn how to work independently myself. 

What does a person need to learn independently?

  • Be able to read:
    • how to find information;
    • how to find the meaning;
  • Be able to write:
    • how to coherently present (a topic/ some information in a text);
  • Be able to see different solutions:
    • know how to think divergently;
  • Be able to listen:
    • be able to concentrate;
    • be able to hear;
  • Be able to ask questions:
    • to know the context (be able to read)
    • to know how to communicate:
      • to know how to use the variety of social skills;
      • to know how to articulate the idea into a sensible meaning;
      • to know how to cooperate with others;
  • Have a mature personality
    • to allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them;
    • to focus on solutions, not excuses;
    • to take responsibility for your own actions;
    • to be able to take risks;
    • there are more, of course: you come across them when you work independently ... 

I believe that if you want to have an independent learner at the age of 11 or 12, you need to make sure the children had built firm foundations in their early schooling.

What can teachers do to prepare children at the age of 6-8 to 'build strong foundations'  towards independent learning?

Prepare the activities to give children the grounds for: 
  • finding the meaning in their doing:
    • themes, aims and information should be cross-curriculary entwined under the same topic (project based);
    • the activities should be gamified;
  • learning how to listen:
    • giving exercises to work on concentration;
    • presenting strategies for listening (storytelling, songs, instructions ...)
    • presenting exercises in a context (for example, tailored from a story);
  • learning how to speak:
    • using words in their function and a context (in sentences, chunks of words, collocations)
  • learning how to read:
    • learning sounds, letters, syllables in a context (in a text or lyrics)
    • finding words/ information in a text/ lyrics
    • showing strategies how to find the meaning of the words/ information in a context;
  • learning how to write:
    • writing in a context (using 'gap-fill' type of exercises rather than working with isolated words like in crossroads, connecting words with pictures ...)
  • learning how to find different solutions:
    • open tasks with many correct answers;
    • justifying their decisions;
  • learning how to use social skills:
    • learning social skills through completing tasks in different cooperative structures;
    • learning the variety of social skills through action!!!.

... and every lesson should have a structure that gives:

  • Introduction - You ready? Let's see where we are ...

  • Body - Getting to know new things ...

  • Conclusion - Let's wrap it up: have you found anything interesting?

It is the structure that gives a successful resolution not only to our lessons but also teaches us the process of work: you start - you act - and then you need some kind of closure.

Can't I do that with a coursebook?

In my opinion, the 'coursebook approach', in its essence, contradicts the independent work. For both, the teacher and the pupil. 

I speak for the coursebooks designed for young learners and their 'traditional' use in the classroom. I am open to the possibility there is another way to use the coursebook for young learners. However, with the coursebook, the programme is fixed, it is not yours (you were not involved in the process), which in a way defeats the object of being independent ... 

What's the 'traditional use' of the coursebook?

For the teacher: 
There is a fixed programme, written by somebody else.The teacher's job is to follow the programme by executing the activities from the coursebook with children. It is not necessary for the teacher to know the aims, or to organise the programme to convey the content of the coursebook to the students. 

For the pupil
They need to listen and follow the instructions. The results/ answers in the tasks are already known in advance. There is a set of information selected in the books for them, and they need to learn/ memorise it. There is no incentive for pupils to use their brains for anything else. 

There is a 'friendly ' use of coursebooks with children. They learn through play activities, but the knowledge is focused on learning and memorising isolated vocabulary, there's no cooperative learning, no learning of listening and speaking strategies or writing coherently within a context ...

I do not refer to any research, but through attending different international conferences and seeing the classroom practice at home and abroad, using coursebooks is rather common practice in most schools, especially the state ones. I do not know how it is in other countries, but in Slovenia, coursebooks are not prescribed by law. Teachers are bound by the rules only to follow the curriculum.

What's the alternative?

Well, project work is definitely an option.

Preparing a project means that teachers create their own programme, which, of course, demands not only more effort but also some deeper knowledge. The teacher has to know what the aims are and what actions (activities, tasks) lead to achieving the aims.

In other words, a teacher needs to be an independent learner to be able to teach that way. 

As for the children, it means they need to be given enough time to be able to work on their own and at their own pace to comprehend what they do and thus internalise their actions/ knowledge. In that way, they actually learn. (That, of course, requires lessons longer than 45 minutes.)

I'm not saying project work is the only alternative. 

But I am saying it definitely gives grounds for independent learning. 

How do I know if I am an independent learner?

Well, the way I found out about myself is through analysing what sort of training I searched for and enrolled in.

In the beginning, I was enthusiastic only about those that gave me 'ready-to-use things', preferably with the instructions 'How to use it' included. Once they were exhausted, I had to supply myself with more of 'ready-to-use things' ...

Today, I choose the courses and training, which give me some food for my self-improvement, to learn how things work (not necessarily related to teaching) to be able to create (not just follow what others say).

I'll write more about CHILD-CENTERED PROJECT-BASED APPROACH in my next post.

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