Teacher-centeredness in higher education [Archives:2004/711/Education]

February 12 2004

By Sami Al-wossabi.
Master's student in Applied Linguistics
Northern Arizona University, US

Teacher-centered classroom is indeed an unpleasant and overwhelming phenomenon that almost every classroom in English higher education in Yemen is suffering from. For example, in teacher trainees' classes where students are trained to be teachers of English and are supposed to be not only competent teachers but also good communicators, teachers appear to be the masters of the classroom. That is, they keep talking and talking without realizing, or may be intentionally ignoring, that many students are not following them. Those learners, on the other hand, look as lifeless as the chairs they are sitting on. To put it differently, they are physically present, but I bet, their minds are wandering off somewhere else. They are indeed passive learners who do not speak unless asked by the teachers. And, if they do they would certainly succeed someday. But because the lack adequate practice, they lack self confidence and consequently their faces turn red when they are asked to do so. The crux of the problem is that they are not encouraged on a regular basis to participate orally in the classroom.
Students can not be accused for such passivity. Rather it is the teachers who are to blame. Yes, whether we like it or not, it is always our fault since we are not able to provide our students with valuable learning experiences regardless of the size of the class which appears to be the favorable excuse for many nowadays. As an experienced classroom teacher I can vouchsafe that even careless and low level students get enthusiastic and highly motivated for the learning task in hand if the teacher creates a condition where they are made to feel valuable or worthy individuals who can learn and contribute to the overall discussion in the class. We must consciously and willingly change our attitude and the classroom ecology for the benefit of our students. We must realize that learning English in higher levels of education, particularly for teacher trainees involves not only the ability to listen, read, and write but also about to learn to act and think. These are the skills that teachers' trainees need most in their prospective teaching classes. Learning how to think and express thoughts and ideas cannot be accomplished in a teacher-centered classroom. It will only be successfully accomplished in an interactive classroom where teachers can control their talk and where teachers act only as a facilitator, a guide for their students in their developmental processes of learning. It is an admitted fact that over 80% of our Yemeni graduate teacher trainees in many teacher trainees institutions are not good communicators of English. One of the crucial reasons behind such a condition is indeed teacher-centeredness.
Thus, the role of the teacher even in literature classes is not to spend the whole time of the class (90 minutes) lecturing and lecturing in most cases to himself/herself as many students used to comment. Dear colleagues, bear in mind that students always express their unhappiness about such classes. Why don't we ask students to read the texts and then give them the opportunity to present their opinions even in one sentence? Why don't we guide them on how to go about reading their texts and analyzing them by, for example, providing them with study guides? Why don't we use writing, reading and listening as tools for effective communication in the class?
Believe me, dear colleagues, there is no harm in following such strategies, no harm at all. Students will consequently participate more effectively and will feel the immediate advantage of being enrolled in such a participatory class. I have experienced using such strategies and I know how effective they are.
I know for sure that many teachers understand the importance of establishing such interactive learning atmosphere and how this atmosphere can be handled to strengthen the ability of the students to accomplish their learning goals. However, they may not find what I am saying here so convincing as many may ask “what about large classes?” I agree that this is a problem that occurs in many classes in higher education and cannot simply be avoided in our target teaching situations. Nevertheless, we must be aware of the ground realities of the system in which we are operating. I know many teacher-educators are teaching over 100 students in their classes and yet are able to make their classes interactive and meaningful. The mystery behind this is that they are creative teachers who always think of ways to keep their students' motivation high. They understand what suits their learners best in their learning processes (pair work/group work configurations), they value their students' participation, they recognize their students' accomplishments, they always try to create a climate of trust and acceptance with their learners, stimulate students' confidence through interactive activities, and more importantly, they try out many methods and teaching techniques till they are able to identify the best teaching procedures that fit into their students' needs and expectations.
Dear colleagues! Let students derive their curriculum whenever possible. Help them be independent learners, help them take the responsibility of their learning. I had been a student for four years majoring in English language teaching and I know what it means to listen to your teacher for almost two hours talking with little or no participation on the part of the students. When I became a teacher in higher education in the Faculty of Education, Hodeidah University (teaching almost 200 students only in first year and other 220 students in second year,) I did my best to keep my learners intellectually alive and interested even if we discussed topics other than the curriculum. This was possible simply because the students are the ones who brought up such topics. I felt the responsibility to offer them opportunities to participate, think, and act rather than be passive recipients in the class. The results were tremendously significant and most learners enjoyed their learning experiences and learnt how to be confident and not be afraid of making mistakes whenever they are asked to speak and express their stance, thoughts and ideas.
In conclusion, I need to mention that what I have mentioned above is based on my own observation as a student as well as a teacher and on the observation of many other teachers who would like to bring about a change in their classes. I believe, as do many others, that teachers are the main source of passivity, if any, in such a classroom. However nothing should prevent us to try out different procedures and techniques in our classrooms and come up with something that may work effectively in our teaching situations. Let us not take refuge behind excuses. If we do, that will only stifle our creativity and our potential to render our teaching meaningful to our learners.