Brain-Based Learning

Balancing Teacher-Led Instruction and Student-Centered Learning

Taking students’ prior knowledge into account can help teachers balance direct instruction and student autonomy.

January 5, 2023
PeopleImages / iStock

The debate over teacher-led instruction and student-centered learning is an ongoing one. For some, teachers should be “the sage on the stage,” there to impart knowledge via direct instruction, while others see them as “the guide on the side,” there to create the conditions in which students can lead their own learning and growth.

In truth, instruction is much more complex than such binaries would suggest, and inviting teachers to pick a side only distracts from the more important question of what rigorous, equitable instruction actually entails.

So, how might we reconcile this apparent divide, and what would that look like in practical, instructional terms? To answer that question, it’s important to understand what happens in students’ minds whenever they encounter something new to be learned.

Prior Knowledge and New Learning Work Together

Let’s begin with a basic principle of learning science: We come to know new ideas by reference to what we already know. Because of this, new knowledge must be built on and attached to prior knowledge.

In other words, new and old knowledge behave like two halves of a Velcro strip. Any new knowledge a learner encounters needs to attach onto parts of their existing knowledge—otherwise it won’t stick. Knowing this is significant because it opens up a space for instruction to be both teacher led and student centered in nature.

For instance, if students are going to make connections between new ideas and what they already know, the question becomes, “How can teachers best use these ‘Velcro moments’ to center student learning and activate knowledge that’s most relevant to the objectives of the lesson?”

Now let’s consider what this looks like in practice. Imagine you’re an elementary science teacher launching a lesson about how hurricanes form as part of a unit on weather. As you plan for the lesson, consider the following Velcro moment: 

  • New knowledge: I want students to take away the key piece of information that rising hot air plays a part in the formation of hurricanes.
  • Prior knowledge: I know students learn early in their academic career that hot air rises, so I want to be able to connect this existing information to the new idea about how hurricanes form.

Will students activate their relevant prior knowledge about hot air rising and make a connection to hurricane formation or not? It depends on what you ask and how you ask it.

Imagine that you asked students to brainstorm things they know about hurricanes on a know, wonder, learn (KWL) chart in which they must fill in: What I Know, What I Wonder, What I Learned. If this was all you did to connect their prior knowledge around hurricanes to what you want your students to know, a number of disconnects would likely occur.

How to Address the Disconnects

Disconnect one: Irrelevant, distracting prior knowledge that’s activated if the teacher doesn’t prompt effectively.

Imagine if a student latches on to the idea that hurricanes have names and says, “I heard about a hurricane called Eta! My auntie’s called Eta. She’s kind and always gives me candies when I visit.”

This information only distracts the student from making meaningful connections. If left unattended, this student will learn something about hurricanes but not what you want them to take away.

Instead, prompt them for more specific examples of existing knowledge, and use that to home in on the pertinent to-be-remembered information. You might say: “Other than their names, can you tell me something else you know about hurricanes? What are they made up of?”

Disconnect two: Relevant, prior knowledge that the learner doesn’t realize is connected.

In cases like these, important information that the student needs is hiding in plain sight. The student might say something like, “Well, I know that hurricanes involve a lot of rain…”

This student is on the cusp of making an important connection between the humidity that gives rise to rain and the fact that rising hot air causes hurricanes. Yet, if the teacher doesn’t help the student make the connection, then it remains undiscovered, and the new concept will be less likely to stick. 

Instead, focus on that idea for longer and invite the student to elaborate on what they mean—for example, “Tell me more. Why do you think hurricanes involve a lot of rain?”

Disconnect three: Partially relevant knowledge that the student relies on to learn inaccurate information.

This disconnect might best be referred to as knowing just enough to be dangerous. A student might say, “I know that tornadoes pass overhead quickly and so do hurricanes, so that means they’re the same, right?”

The student has made a spurious connection that, if solidified, will only lead to further misconceptions in the future. If a hurricane and a tornado are the same, what effect will that thinking have on any new knowledge that this student encounters in the future?

To clear up the misunderstanding, invite the student (or their peers) to test the idea by providing a rationale for the thinking that got them to this point. For instance, you might say, “What else do we know about tornadoes and hurricanes? What about their features are similar and different?”

Reconciling the Divide Between the Two Approaches

Being absolutist about either teacher-led or student-centered approaches limits the number of options at a teacher’s disposal. Instead we can ask ourselves, “What instructional approach will work best for these students to learn this idea in this context?”

As our example on teaching hurricane formation shows, we know that as the primary beneficiaries of the learning process, students should be at the center of it. However, this doesn’t mean they should be primarily responsible for all the points of connection and learning that need to happen. An approach grounded in how learning happens allows two things to be true at once: When teachers take prior knowledge into account, it places students at the center of learning, and the activation of students’ prior knowledge requires an intentional, teacher-led process.

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