Finding the Center, Pedagogically Speaking

 

centered (adjective): 1) Placed or situated in the center. 2) [IN COMBINATION] Having a specified subject as the most important or focal element. E.g. ‘a child-centred school’ 3) US (of a person) well balanced and confident or serene. ‘she is very together, very domesticated, very centred.’ Etymology: Late Middle English: from Old French, or from Latin centrum, from Greek kentron sharp point, stationary point of a pair of compasses, related to kentein to prick.” (OED online).

The word “centered” gets bandied about a great deal these days, but I realized recently that I don’t really know what it means or where the concept originated.

In this reflective piece I want to play with the term and its etymology to interrogate the commitment to a “student-centered” theory of pedagogy.

As the above definition indicates, the word “centered” comes through several languages but originates in the Greek word “kentron,” which means “sharp point,” as in the jabbed end of the compass. As part of the compass tool for drawing circles, the pointed end must be held confidently still or else the continued arc around it won’t meet up evenly as a circle. No matter the circumference or diameter of the circle, the hand that holds the sharp point must be steady and firm in order to draw a good circle. When someone talks about a Christ-centered church, a family-centered medical center, or a child-centered elementary school, I have some sense that they give focus and importance to the object around which the organization is “centered.”

Where, then, can we find the center of a classroom? The spatial layout of a class space can tell us a lot, though not everything, about the commitments of the learning community that meets there. If the chairs are organized in tight, straight rows, the instructor is enthroned in the front. If, instead, the chairs or desks stand in rows but long aisles separate them, the teacher can alternate between lecture and rhetorical pacing. He may willingly pass amongst the students, yet there still exists a grid structure. We’ve all taken classes where the teacher orients the chairs in a large circle, which indicates a collaborative or at least conversational approach to the class. However, placing the chairs in a circle does not, alone, bring about truly community-centered pedagogy and learning. And the mere presence of a circle does not specify what actually exists in the center.

Up until recently, I would have said that I endorse a student-centered pedagogy; I would have argued that focus on the student should be the sharp pivot around which everything else happens in the circle that is the classroom. It seems self-evident that the work that we do in the classroom should be based on, centered on, those who are the learners.

However, as Friere and Rose have compellingly argued, we should not view education as a transaction of information or knowledge flowing from us (as teachers) to our students. If true learning occurs within conversation among a learning community (which includes the “teacher of record”), then students and teachers by necessity should both be centered. Or neither should be. I was grappling with this spatial construction when I started to read Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature (2003).

In her discussion about various approaches to teaching literature, Showalter categorizes Parker J. Palmer’s spiritual approach to teaching as “teacher-centered.” I can see her point, in that the quotes she draws from Palmer’s books a focus on the instructor’s convictions and willingness to be vulnerable with her class.

But even Showalter has to admit that Palmer’s approach “advocates a communal pedagogy and a community of learning that includes the teacher and the students” (Showalter 34, emphasis added). In direct contradistinction to the (retch-inducing) description Showalter gives of “teaching as performance,” the theory put forth by Palmer seems to me to center on a collaborative and open space created by an intentional learning community.

Of course, the teacher is ultimately the one who brings together these individual learners, but she is not herself above or separate from them. If anything, she bears a greater responsibility than anyone else does for helping the class develop an “ethos of trust and acceptance” (34). This trust and acceptance, which then fosters true “intellectual rigor,” can only be forged by a teacher who has examined her ego minutely, who is willing to take authentic risks and make room for difference, for messiness, for open-ended seeking. I would argue that the position Palmer stakes out belongs, not in the student-centered theories, but rather in a human-centered category. By this I mean that the nature of humans being informs and creates the course, necessitates the materials and assignments, and ultimately encourages learning. It’s not at all about instruction of content, as I see it.

The reason the professor shares her own feelings, thoughts, and vulnerabilities is in order to give the students in the class a true look at her intellect, not so that they are “entertained,” “awed,” or “cover[ed]… by the academic volcanic eruption” of “scintillating education” she spews all over them (Showalter 33). If anything, this revelation decenters the teacher as individual and opens the space for feelings and experiences that inform and interact with learning.

“Teaching and learning are human enterprises and we must use human emotions in the learning process rather than letting them use us,” Showalter quotes Palmer (34). We have feelings, reactions, hang-ups, fears, needs, frustrations, Palmer says, so let’s examine and harness them instead of repressing them.

Palmer’s spiritual approach to pedagogy takes as its starting point the centrality of the whole human–with history, baggage, expectations, emotions, and needs–in the class and in learning. To return to the original meaning of “centered,” the teacher who takes this angle spikes down a clear point and then creates an open, vulnerable, and rich space, the circle of the classroom, in which the students and teacher can actively construct themselves and their learning. Without a central point held by a self-aware instructor, the class can easily swerve from teacher-centered to subject-centered to student-centered and back again. Without a clear center, we end up with something less like a circle and more like a jaggedy ovaloid.

It seems to me that Palmer’s pedagogical approach would bring a lot of wisdom, patience, and authentic learning to the classroom. In fact, I was not at all surprised to read that Showalter wrote that Palmer’s approach appears in “the toleration and even encouragement of silence” (Showalter 34).

Perhaps instead of visualizing the teacher as the center, I can take a page from Palmer and instead argue that the teacher holds the center. She doesn’t stand there drawing attention to herself, but by her inner convictions about the human-centered, vulnerable, and messy process of the learning community, she confidently and precisely orients the space around which the humans and materials and conversations pivot.

Works Cited

“Centred.” Oxford Living Dictionaries. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/centred

Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

*****

Does the etymology of “centered” impact your understanding of what role the teacher plays in the classroom space? Do you consider yourself to fall into the “student-centered,” “content-centered,” or “teacher-centered” camp, or do you concieve of your pedagogy as inhabiting some other spatial configuration?

 

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