Planning to teach the student, not the subject

Wednesday 28 August 2013

As the May session IB teachers really get to grips with their courses for class of 2015, I started my own course planning with a reflection on the difference between subject-centred and student-centred approaches to teaching and learning. The discussion of student-centred practices as applied in the classroom is now commonplace, with pretty much everyone apparently agreeing that we should all be more student-centred (Ken Robinson is among those who have recently placed emphasis on creating personalized, student-centred education). The IB has also recently re-iterated the ‘student-centred’ nature of its programmes by placing student images at the centre of each of its new programme models (IB, 2012). But, what exactly is student-centred learning in the context of an IB course? More practically, how do you plan your teaching in order to make sure your course is appropriately student-centred?

Whenever I am reflecting on anything philosophical, I always find that getting at the definitions of terms involved is an illuminating experience. It’s interesting to see the variety of interpretations given to the term ‘student-centred’. There’s a range that seems to run from ‘anything involving a student is student-centred’ (e.g. outcomes based assessment), to ‘the student decides everything, including whether or not they will attend class’ (e.g. unschooling). The IB definition is given on their webpage titled ‘Student-centred: what it means’ (Beckett, 2007). To the IB, student-centred means the teacher should ‘[look] at the needs of the student, and [consider] how to make the learning relevant and meaningful to the student’. It is also related to the IB notion of inquiry learning and to constructivist approaches generally. Essentially, the IB seems to interpret student-centred learning as the students constructing knowledge and acquiring skills through teacher led and facilitated inquiry into discipline focused topics, in response to identified learning needs in line with the course curriculum. That’s not as radical as an unschooling definition, but it’s still going to require a more careful approach at the planning stage if teachers want to achieve it.

The meaning of the term thus defined, I went looking for course outlines/schemes of work and lesson plans I could recognise as consciously student-centred. However, practical examples are not easy to find. It seems that even when teachers intend to promote student-centred practices in the classroom, in planning, they are guided by the content, concepts and skills listed as curriculum assessment outcomes – which means they end up focusing on the subject. This is hardly surprising; school management, regional or national educational standards supervisors, and even parents often insist on such a focus. The balance between student-centred and subject-centred planning seems heavily weighted towards the subject. Nevertheless, despite the lack of ‘true’ examples, I was able to put together a reading list of descriptions of student-centred planning, and how it looks in practice.

I then thought about the personal preferences teachers have when it comes to planning. Myself, I am torn in this respect. Pedagogically, I must say I definitely see better results when I go for a less structured approach. But, unfortunately, personally I love lists and ticking things off them. I can’t even plan a family outing without making a nice little ‘schedule’ to organize everything from how long we can spend making the sandwiches to seating and baggage distribution on the train. (The family forgive me this and still love me.)  So, when I am planning learning, I like to get that curriculum and distribute it neatly across the 70 or so lessons I am going to get in a year. You can imagine how much I liked the IB ‘hours of study’ advice. Oh yes. ‘I can spend 20 hours on this, and 10 hours on that...’ Which is all very well, and the kind of thing people like to see written down at the start of a course. But it’s not student-centred enough to be of any real pedagogical use - as I would find out every year when I met my class, discovered who they were, and what they really wanted, and needed, to learn. So, to help with reflections on personal preferences, I thought it might be fun to make a quiz. The quiz is a bit like something you might find in a glossy magazine, only it’s about teaching. (I don’t have a smiley collection on my toolbar, or I would add one here.)  

That’s all for now! I hope you will enjoy exploring the materials I put together. I will be adding some more to this section at a later date, too. Until next time, happy planning.


Francis Beckett. (2007). Student-centred: what it means. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 28 August 2013].

International Baccalaureate. (2012). Launch of new programme models. [ONLINE] Available at: Last accessed [Accessed 28 August 2013].

Sir Ken Robinson. (2013). Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution! | Video on [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 28 August 2013].

Tags: #planning, #student-centred, #inquiry


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