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3.5: What is the difference between teacher-centered vs. student-centered philosophies?

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    By: Hope Gibbs

    Learning Targets

    Readers will be able to understand the differences of teacher-centered philosophies and student-centered philosophies.


    In today’s school, there are essentially two types of teaching philosophies. Both types will be different in their teaching styles; however, both want the best for their students. So what kind of teachers am I talking about? I am talking about teacher-centered and student centered teachers. Their philosophies are different. What type are you? Your ideas and attitudes about education will help shape what kind of teacher you want to be.

    Students vs. Teachers

    Even though both teacher-centered and student-centered teachers what to help the students learn, they are like night and day in their approaches. Teacher-centered philosophies focus around essentialism and perennialism. Some of the most popular student-centered philosophies include progressivism, social reconstructionism, and existentialism. According to Mary P. Driscoll, “teacher-centered and student-centered views put primacy on the learning of the student, and all other aspects of the learning environment and instruction are planned from that initial standpoint” (1999).

    What are Teacher-Centered Philosophies?

    Teacher-centered philosophies are the ones you are probably most familiar with. These philosophies focus on what the teacher wants his or her students to learn. There are a lot of factors that determine what kind of teaching philosophies to use. Shawn A. Faulkner and Christopher M. Cook state that “the state tests seem to drive the curriculum and warrant more teacher-focused instructional methods—lecture, worksheets, and whole-class discussion” (2006). We remember this from our own experiences in school. Do you remember when you were in class and the teacher was in front and she lectured to you? Everyone student remembers taking notes off of the blackboard. These are just two examples of teacher-centered practices. Kathy Brown clarifies that “the teacher-centered approach is associated chiefly with the transmission of knowledge” (2003). Getting the knowledge out and to the student is the main focus. The students are accountable for what they have learned and the teachers are also. Teachers are in control and they plan out activities and learning strategies according to specific times during the lesson (Teacher Vision). Teacher-centered philosophies that are mostly used in teaching include essentialism and perennialism. Let us briefly look at these two philosophies.

    1. Essentialism in the Classroom

    In the excerpt of the book Teachers, Schools, and Society: A Brief Introduction to Education, authors David Miller Sadker, Ph.D and Karen R. Zittleman, Ph.D state how “Essentialism strives to teach students the accumulated knowledge of our civilization through core courses in the traditional academic disciplines” (2007). What this means is that our society has certain viewpoints and practices that schools must pass down to students in a more authoritarian way. According to William Gaudelli, who is an assistant professor of social studies education at the University of Central Florida, “essentialists concern themselves with teaching students how to survive, succeed in their lives, and not be a burden to others” (Gaudelli, 2002). Essentialist teachers believe that what they teach will help their students in real-life situations as they grow older (Gaudelli, 2002). In the classroom, you will most likely see traditional subjects such as math, English, science, and history as the foundations of learning. “Essentialist teachers rely on achievement tests scores to evaluate progress and teachers expect that students will leave school not only with basic skills, but also disciplined, practical minds that are capable of applying lessons taught in school in the real world” (Sadker and Zittleman, 2007). In essence, teachers want their students to be able to use what they have learned in school and use it appropriately in the real world.

    2. Perennialism in the Classroom

    Perennialism and essentialism may sounds somewhat alike, but perennialists are in fact different in their approaches. “Perennialists recommend that students learn directly from the “Great Books”—works by history’s finest thinkers and writers, books meaningful today as when they where first written” (Sadker and Zittleman, 2007). “Perennialist generally prefer a past orientation, because it tends to be based on historical truth, rather than conjecture about the present and guessing about the future” (Gaudelli, 2002). This means that perennialists believe that a student can be influence by such heroes in our past like Washington and Lincoln. In a perennialist classroom, the teacher will focus on the importance of reading and will often use the underlying reading lessons to make a moral point (Sadker and Zittleman, 2007). These teachers want to teach their students how to be excellent leaders in society just like history portrays.

    What are Student-Centered Philosophies?

    Student-centered learning is just what is says. It is basically learning by doing. Teachers believe that education should be child-centered. According to Julie K. Brown, she basically says that “student-centered instruction is when the planning, teaching, and assessment revolve around the needs and abilities of the students” (2008). This is quite the opposite from what you have just read. “Regardless of variations in developmental levels, all children are exposed to the same content in the same time period and the teacher’s role is to facilitate growth by utilizing the interests and unique needs of students as a guide for meaningful instruction” (Teacher Vision). According to Becky A. Smerdon and David T. Burkam, “students develop analytic skills that can be applied to other problems and situations, rather than accept their teachers’ explanation” (1999). This technique gives the students the chance to use their abilities and experiences to solve problems and find new ways of learning. One example of this would be if a math teacher lets his or her students work in groups to solve different problems or let students create their own test. With student centered learning, students and teachers are committed to working together and finding the best achievable way of learning.

    1. Progressivism in the Classroom

    “Progressivisms build the curriculum around the experiences, interests, and abilities of students, and encourage students to work together cooperatively” (Sadker and Zittleman). The progressivist teacher would use games like Monopoly or Jeopardy to illustrate important points. Unlike Perennialists, Progressivists do not believe in teaching “Great Books,” but use “computer simulations, field trips, and interactive websites on the Internet to offer realistic learning challenges for students, and build on students’ multiple intelligences” (Sadkier and Zittleman, 2007). Many props are used to expand the students’ abilities and to make them think a little differently. Instead of just lecturing to students, teachers try to find more interesting ways to communicate important learning techniques and this “affords students opportunities to explore ideas and construct knowledge based on their own observations and experiences” (Smerdon and Burkam, 1999). Teachers ultimately serve as their students’ guide and they want their students to use problem-solving strategies they have learned in class to help manage the challenges of life.

    2. Social Reconstructivism in the Classroom

    “Social Reconstructionism encourages schools, teachers, and students to focus their studies and energies on alleviating pervasive inequities, and as the name implies, reconstruct into a new and more just social order” (Sadker and Zittleman, 2007). Social reform is the key to this type of philosophy and social challenges and problems help guide teachers with their message. A social reconstructionist teacher wants to not only inform their students, but rouse emotions and point out the inequalities that surround them and the world (Sadker and Zittleman, 2007). The teacher engages the students to discuss and address problems such as poverty, homelessness, violence and many more issues that create disparity. The teacher’s role is to explore social problems, suggest alternate perspectives, and assist students’ examinations of these problems (Sadker and Zittleman, 2007). For examples in the classroom, “one group of students might analyze news coverage of racial and ethic groups of a community or students might arrest and trial records in order to determine the role race plays in differential application of the law” (Sadker and Zittleman, 2007). The main focus of this philosophy is to help students find ways to improve society. The teacher wants the student to value society and realize that there is unfairness in the world and it is important to be aware and act as advocates for those who are being judged.

    3. Existentialism in the Classroom

    Existentialism is another student-centered philosophy. “Existentialism places the highest degree of importance on student perceptions, decisions, and actions” and individuals are responsible for determining for themselves what is true or false, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly (Sadker and Zittleman, 2007). To sum it up, students make choices and then take the time to evaluate those choices. “The teacher’s role is to help students define their own essence by exposing them to various paths they may take in life and by creating an environment in which they can freely choose their way” (Sadker and Zittleman, 2007). This philosophy means that students think for themselves and are aware of responsibilities assigned to them. Existentialism philosophies say no to tradition and focuses on the students’ unique talents. The teacher views each student as an individual and students learn how to achieve their full potential by trying new concepts.


    There are many philosophies that come along with teacher and student-centered teaching. Which one is the best? It depends on the content being taught. Research indicates that teachers’ personal and professional characteristics are related to how they teach (Smerdon and Berkam, 1999). The way a teacher feels comfortable with the subject matter may influence him or her on how the subject will be taught. The most important goal is to teach the students and help them prepare for life after school. Both teacher-centered and student-centered philosophies can achieve that for the student.


    Brown, K.L. From teacher-centered to learner-centerd curriulum: Improving learning in diverse classrooms. Retrieved September 18, 2008, from

    Brown, J. K. (2008). Student-Centered Instruction: Involving Students in Their Own Education. Music Educators Journal, 94(5), 30-35.

    Driscoll, M.P. Reconceptualizing processes and agents of learning in an environment perspective. Retrieved September 14, 2008, from

    Faulkner, S.A. (2006). Testing vs. Teaching: The Perceived Impact of Assessment Demands on Middle Grades Instructional Practices. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 29(7), 1-13.

    Gaudelli, W. (2002). U.S. Kids Don’t Know U.S. History: The NAEP Study, Perspectives, and Presuppositions. The Social Studies (Washington, D.C.), 93(5), 197-201.

    Sadker, D. & Zittleman K. (2007). Teachers School and Society: A Brief Introduction to Education. 207-217. Retrieved September 14, 2008, from

    Smerdon, B.A. & Burkam, D.T. (1999). Access to Constructivist and Didactic Teaching: Who Gets It? Where Is It Practiced? Teachers College Record, 101(1), 5-30.

    TeacherVision. Learned-Centered vs. Curriculum-Centered Teachers: Which Type Are You? Retrieved September 15, 2008, from