In the student-centered classroom of the early twentieth century, the lThe concept of student-centered learning first achieved popularity in the 1920s. It was a complete about-face from standard teaching methods to that point. Prior to this, the teacher talked most of the time, students worked primarily as a whole group, and desks pointed the same direction—toward the board or teacher. like the student-centered classroom of today, the teacher relinquished the classroom stage to students to a large degree, guiding and directing from the wings. Students determined what they learned and how they learned it. Learning took place in small groups, and classrooms were arranged to facilitate this. Materials were varied, permitting students to choose from those approaches to which they felt they best responded, and students spoke at least as much as the teacher.
Progressive reformers of the early twentieth century criticized and tried to abolish drills and rote memorization, warning that these methods were detrimental to students’ health. In the mid-1950s, the emphasis on standards and achievement had a brief resurgence after the nation reacted to two events: Rudolph Flesch published the now-famous Why Johnny Can’t Read, in which he blames teaching methods for an epidemic of illiteracy in the United States, and the Russians launched Sputnik. The impact of Sputnik on the American ego in general and education, in particular, cannot be underestimated. As Powell (2007) points out, “though Sputnik was a relatively simple satellite compared with the more complex machines to follow, its beeping signal from space galvanized the United States to enact reforms in science and engineering education so that the nation could regain technological ground it appeared to have lost to its Soviet rival.”
By the 1960s, however, the less structured approach of the early twentieth century had returned. Ramping up educational instruction was antithetical to the low-key, rebellion-filled 1960s. Instead, educational reformers began exploring alternative colleges, open classrooms, and various student-friendly classroom strategies such as active learning, learning in a variety of media, and self-directed learning activities. When educational researchers learned that SAT scores had declined along with attendance, enrollment in academic courses, and the number of homework assignments in the mid-1970s, the educational hemlines demurred to the more traditional approach yet again. Walls went back up between the classrooms and over several decades the emphasis on standards, testing, and accountability gradually escalated, culminating with the enactment and domination of the No Child Left behind Act in 2001.
This legislation required every state to test every student, with few exceptions, to measure how effectively standards were met. Now educators are incorporating and modifying child-centered methods developed in the progressive eras into rigorous academic standards, measured quantitatively as required by No Child Left Behind and other education policies under consideration for the future. Some of the buzzwords and concepts may differ slightly, but today’s “cooperative learning” methods, emphasis on “critical thinking skills,” and treatment of learning as a process rather than an end are approaches quite similar to those that were popular in earlier decades of the twentieth century.
Many educators now recommend a combination of student-centered approaches, which focus on how the student learns, and the traditional concerns of enhancing academic achievement as measured by tests, which focus on what knowledge the student acquires.