Finding a balance between student-centered learning and teacher-led instruction

Teachers can find a balance between direct instruction and student autonomy by taking into account students’ prior knowledge.

The distinction between student-centered learning and teacher-led instruction is the subject of ongoing debate. Some people believe that teachers should be “the sage on the stage,” imparting knowledge through direct instruction, while others see them as “the guide on the side,” creating the conditions for students to take charge of their own education and development. Both of these views are opposing viewpoints.

Finding a balance between student-centered learning and teacher-led instruction

In point of fact, instruction is much more nuanced than such categorizations would lead one to believe, and requiring educators to select a side only serves to detract from the more pressing issue of what rigorous and equitable instruction actually entails.

So, how can we come to terms with this apparent divide, and what would that look like from a teaching perspective? To answer that question, it’s important to know what goes through students’ minds when they learn something new.

Together, previous knowledge and new learning work.

Let’s begin with a fundamental tenet of science education: We learn about new concepts by comparing them to what we already know. As a result, new information must be based on and linked to previous information.

To put it another way, the relationship between new and old knowledge is akin to the two halves of a Velcro strip. A learner’s new knowledge will not stick if it doesn’t connect to parts of their existing knowledge. This is important to know because it makes it possible for instruction to be both teacher-led and student-centered.

For instance, the question now becomes, “How can teachers use these “Velcro moments” most effectively to center student learning and activate knowledge that is most relevant to the lesson objectives?” if students are going to link new ideas to what they already know.

Let’s now take a look at how this plays out in real life. As part of a weather unit, imagine that you are an elementary science teacher introducing a lesson about how hurricanes form. Consider the following Velcro moment when planning the lesson:

-New information: I want students to remember the most important fact, which is that hurricanes are formed by rising hot air.

-Previous experience: I want to be able to link the new idea about how hurricanes form to the existing knowledge that students are taught early on about how hot air rises.

Will students use what they know about hot air rising to make a connection between hurricane formation or not? It all depends on how and what you ask.


First disconnect: Prior knowledge that is irrelevant and distracting that is activated if the teacher does not prompt effectively.

Imagine a student embracing the notion that hurricanes have names and declaring, “I heard about a hurricane called Eta! The name of my aunt is Eta. When I visit, she always treats me to candy.

The student will not be able to make meaningful connections because of this information. This student will learn something about hurricanes if left unattended, but not what you want them to take away.

Instead, ask for more specific examples of what they already know and use those to find the important information that needs to be remembered. You could say, ” Can you tell me something else about hurricanes besides their names? What are their components?

Second disconnect: Relevant, the learner’s prior knowledge that is not connected.

In situations like these, vital information that the student requires is concealed from view. The student may respond, “Well, I know that hurricanes involve a lot of rain…” This student is about to make an important connection between the humidity that causes rain and the fact that hurricanes are caused by rising hot air. However, if the instructor fails to assist the student in making the connection, the new idea will be less likely to stick.

Instead, keep your attention on that concept for a longer period of time and ask the student to explain what they mean by saying, “Tell me more.” Why do you believe hurricanes bring a great deal of rain?

Thirdly disconnect: knowledge that is only partially relevant and relies on the student to learn incorrect information.

The best way to describe this disconnect is as “knowing just enough to be dangerous.” A student might think, “I know that hurricanes and tornadoes both pass overhead quickly, so that means they’re the same, right?”

The student has made a false connection that, if it sticks, will only perpetuate existing misconceptions. What impact will this student’s belief that a hurricane and a tornado are the same have on any new information they acquire in the future?

Invite the student (or their peers) to test the idea by providing a rationale for the thinking that brought them to this point to clarify the misunderstanding. You might, for instance, inquire, “What else do we know about hurricanes and tornadoes?” How similar or distinct are their characteristics?

bringing the divide between the two approaches back into line.

A teacher’s options are limited if they are rigid about either teacher-led or student-centered approaches. Instead, we can consider the question, “What kind of instructional strategy will be most effective for these students to learn this concept in this setting?”

We are aware that students ought to be at the center of the learning process, as demonstrated by our example of teaching hurricane formation. However, this does not mean that they should be solely in charge of all necessary points of connection and learning. Two things can be true simultaneously with an approach based on how learning occurs: The activation of students’ prior knowledge necessitates an intentional, teacher-led process because it places students at the center of learning when teachers consider prior knowledge.


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