Every now and then as a teacher, you stumble across a new way to explain something you’ve been wrestling with for a long time.
It happened to me during our recent inaugural offering of Design + Deliver: Intensive on Teaching Online & Hybrid Courses, Learning Forte’s facilitated course for seminary faculty, continuing education leaders, and others who teach in relatively formal settings.
It all started during a round of “clearest/muddiest.” That’s a formative assessment we use to check in about how a particular week’s activities are landing with participants. In this particular activity, the Rev. Kelly Sundberg Seaman, Dean of Formation for the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire, wrote the following (and later gave me permission to share):
Muddiest: Finding a balance between being learner-centered and the need/expectation to present/cover/teach a definite block of content, like a particular book. Question: Is there such a thing as being too learner-centered?
From where I sit, this is a high-stakes question indeed. We at Learning Forte have a strong commitment to backward design, which slows instructors down and asks them important strategic questions about their context and objectives before diving into creating and curating content to include in their syllabi and share via learning management systems.
Backward design is a counter-intuitive way to prep a course. We often find our students, our clients, and ourselves resistant to the somewhat painstaking work of writing clear, jargon-free, student-centered learning objectives. We believe, and the evidence supports, that it’s worth the effort.
I knew exactly where Kelly was coming from. It’s where practically all of us teachers come from. We love our fields and our content. We feel just as accountable to our foundational texts and disciplinary identities as we do to our students and our institutions. When push comes to shove, Kelly has a particular book she needs her students to leave her course being intimately familiar with.
In that moment, I did seriously consider whether it’s possible to be too learner-centered. I ended up proposing a slight change to the premise of the question. I replied as follows:
Kelly, there’s an Evelyn Underhill quote I love: “Not grace alone, nor us alone, but God’s grace in us” (i.e., “working in us”). I might borrow her formula and say “Not content alone, nor students alone, but content working for our students.”
I believe that, ultimately, there’s no such thing as “pure” content. Sure, we can share a PDF of a book chapter with any student, on any learning management system. But we can’t separate that content from the motivations, interpretations, and everyday experiences of the people who care about it, or don’t care about it, or perhaps don’t yet care about it.
If I truly care about “my content”—those books and articles and podcast episodes and short films that I can’t live without and can’t wait to introduce to my students—then I have to think carefully and specifically about how it can become their content. That means knowing something about them.
We spend years becoming subject matter experts. Our primary challenge when we sit down to design a course is to do everything we can to become experts, or at least more than novices, about our students.
So no, I don’t think there’s such a thing as being too learner-centered. Because each learner is a co-participants in our community’s shared encounter with the content. Teachers and students alike give shape to the experience of the media and activities that comprise our courses.
In some ways, the content is the least important part of the equation. When we prioritize students, that content can breathe, resonate, and hopefully take wing for a new generation.
Kyle Oliver is Head of Learning Media at Learning Forte and teaches Christian formation at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. He will also co-facilitate Design+Deliver: Intensive with Learning Forte CEO Stacy Williams Duncan October 7 – November 18, 2022. Register today!