Are teacher-led and learner-led approaches compatible?

tug of warAs learner-led/learner-centred learning and teaching oriented methods and principles gain attention and popularity, teachers, curriculum developers, and instructional designers are incorporating them into learning activities and courses. Many report mixed results and issues when they do so. The following article examines one possible contributing factor to such results and issues.

Defining terms

Firstly, I’m not arguing that teacher-led and learner-led views of learning and teaching practice are absolutes or binary states. I view them as being on the same scale from extremely prescribed and controlled by the teacher, e.g. the stereotypical Victorian school master, through to entirely self-organised, defined, controlled, and sustained learning by autonomous learners themselves, e.g. special interest groups and communities of practice, and I believe that most online curricula and learning and teaching practices are situated somewhere in between.

Teacher-led <———————————————————————–> Learner-led

Teacher vs. learner-led scale

When tensions arise

With the best of intentions and carefully and skilfully constructed learning activities, teachers, curriculum developers, and IDs can inadvertently create relational and motivational tensions between teachers and learners, and among cohorts of learners by the way they mix teacher-led and learner-led activities. Here’s a typical case scenario:

An experienced, well-informed teacher has developed an online course that is predominantly teacher-led. The course uses online presentations, readings, webinars, and forum discussions which are intensively monitored led by the teacher. The teacher conscientiously provides guidance, instructional scaffolding, and links to further resources at every turn. The teacher then decides to introduce some learner-led projects, problems, or tasks to the course (Perhaps as a way to make the course less labour intensive for the teacher?).

However, only a small minority of the learners participate as much as expected and/or required, and the majority go “off track”, waste time, and/or complain about aspects of the activity or the whole activity. The learning outcomes are mediocre at best or even poor, and it’s difficult to regain the previous “learning momentum” of the course.

Why did this happen? Is there something wrong with the activity? Is there some way to make it more productive? I suspect that in most cases, the activity is adequately designed and not the main contributor to the issue.

What contributes to these tensions?

If a course is predominantly teacher-led to start with, it creates an atmosphere and learning experiences that set up learners’ expectations that are aligned with being led and having critical learning decisions being made for them, or the feeling that any decisions they make need to be validated or approved by an authority figure; the teacher.

Additionally, some of the prerequisite conditions necessary for learner-led learning to occur, e.g. social presence and building autonomous, mutually respectful, and productive relationships between teachers and learners, and among the learners themselves, may not be in place and may have gone unnoticed since they aren’t critical to the success of teacher-led approaches. When suddenly faced with the responsibility of thinking autonomously, analytically, and critically, and having to work closely with peers, who they may or may not have got to know very well, and without the supervision, guidance, and approval of their authority figure (the teacher), the majority of learners’ expectations are not met; they feel lost, unsupported, and confused.

In my experience, the majority of learners are perfectly capable of being autonomous, thinking analytically and critically, and taking responsibility for their learning; most people do so from an early age in their public and private lives outside of education. However, because of most people’s previous experiences of education and strongly held cultural beliefs about it, we need to be explicit when asking learners to do so in situations and environments labelled “educational” and cultivate the atmosphere, and provide the environment, support, and resources that are necessary. Learners need to get to know each other and learn about what each of their peers on a course has to offer with regards to the subject matter and learning objectives. They need to build interpersonal relationships and cultivate trust so that they have the confidence to explore, experiment, and take risks and feel that they have the interest, approval, and support of their peers as well as their teacher.

In conclusion

I’m not arguing here that teacher-led and learner-led methods and activities are inherently incompatible, just that from what I’ve seen in practice in the majority of instances, both in face-to-face and online contexts, tensions and issues can and do arise when certain conditions and factors aren’t taken into consideration. When we break with educational traditions and orthodoxies, and/or atmospheres of learning that have been cultivated within organisations, we need to be explicit about what we’re doing and why, and ensure that the prerequisite conditions are in place for learner-directed learning experiences to be purposeful, successful, and productive.