Learner-Centredness: Some Additional Points


Elizabeth Burge

VOL. 4, No. 1, 47-50

Dr. Randy Garrison has responded with some vigor to my recent dive into the pools of andragogy, learner-centredness, and guidelines for facilitating adult learning (Burge, 1988). He believes that I used the notion of self-directedness to connect the concepts of andragogy and learner-centredness, and he uses this belief as a springboard to reiterate (as I did) criticisms of andragogy, to question my use of learner- centredness, and to call for "a clear understanding of the education transaction."

He made quite a splash! But I don't feel drenched by his plunge into waters already explored in my article - in fact I'm disappointed that we didn't see him launch his own brand of liferaft upon the waves. In my article, expressing my own doubts about the Knowlesian concept of andragogy, defining my use of learner-centredness, and rejecting self-directedness as an assumed condition of adult learners, I did offer four sets of guidelines as a liferaft to support hapless practitioners afloat in these turbulent waters. Dr. Garrison appears to dismiss my various criticisms of andragogy and these practical guidelines and instead reduces the concept of student-centredness to an "emotionally appealing and one-sided" or "catchy" label.

Our debate will progress little if I simply show where Dr. Garrison has missed some points or omitted to acknowledge my contributions. Both of us operate from our own sets of beliefs, professional assumptions, and styles of interacting with students. I merely want to add four points to my original article. Each point summarizes why I regard learner-centredness as a difficult but worthwhile concept. I don't pretend that these points respond to yet another call for "a clear understanding of the educational transaction"; indeed I don't believe that we will ever have, nor do we necessarily need such a detailed understanding. There are too many contextual variables in learning and teaching. Indeed, variables such as epistemological stances, needs for control and rewards, attitudes and cognitive processes (covert and overt, rational or intuitive) defy complete analysis. I doubt whether great clarity can be achieved about an event that is so internal to the learner and for which the learner alone has to be responsible. The notion of an "educational transaction" does not in my experience convey the holistic, multidimensional and complex nature of learning: it is too unidimensional, non-affective, and redolent of the business world.

The points I am about to make are free of "scholarly scaffolding," as I do not want to hide behind such scaffolding when my own experience can engage both the reader's attention and feelings.

My first point is that the concept of learner-centredness is allencompassing and not merely an over- reaction to the competing concept of teacher-centredness. As educators we intervene in a complex internal process motivated and maintained by learners. What learners do is affected in part by what we do, in part by their own orientations to learning. Our style of intervention is conditioned by our assessment of the learner, the resources we provide for learning, the type of learning needed, our existing facilitation skills, and our preferred or habitual styles of learning and facilitation. Furthermore, to be an effective, learner- centred facilitator I have to learn about myself - sometimes an uncomfortable process! I see the concept of learnercentredness therefore as including both educator and learner behaviors, attitudes, and goals. The roles played by an educator during the interdependent process of facilitation will change as her or his assessments, both rational and intuitive, dictate. Never in my personal experience as facilitator have the roles of the educator lessened as a result. While some of them are different from the conventional forms of authority exercised, they are never diminished; in fact, they are cognitively and affectively very challenging!

The second point is related to the first: what matters in a learner-centred view is learner self- responsibility, not learner self-directedness. I, as an educator, cannot take responsibility for someone else's learning: only the learner can do that. I can take responsibility only for effective facilitation - knowing my own strengths, weaknesses, and value positions; providing resources; helping clarify the boundaries of course content; ensuring that academic rigor is maintained; and helping the learner exercise real freedoms in how learning is carried out and assessed. Effective facilitation directs the learner toward accepting self-responsibility. That stance, however, will cause the learner to behave in a variety of ways, depending on how secure she or he feels. Sometimes my intervention may have to be very directive because the learner is operating in a dependent mode; at other times my intervention may be more collaborative because the learner has reached the interdependent stage of operating; that is, she or he has already passed through the dependence and independence stages. The key skill for the facilitator lies in knowing which intervention style to use when and why. A key skill for the learner - a metacognitive one - is the ability to feel self-responsible across a range of feelings and behaviors. For some learners becoming self-responsible requires a quantum leap, a paradigm shift, in their self-concept and self- esteem as well as in external behaviors. It is not always an easy transition, but as a facilitator you definitely know when it happens, and it's exciting to be part of that experience!

My third point concerns the sophistication of the concept of learnercentredness. The concept is sophisticated because its six components require a lot of fast processing and decision making. I defy anyone to see these components as part of an "emotionally appealing and one-sided" label; rather they are cognitively tough, challenging, and multi-faceted.

It may be useful here to review what I regard as six components involved in implementing a learner- centred view.

The first component is the learner's personal ability, resources, and opportunities for access to learning. All kinds of problems may be acting as demotivators or as other barriers to effective learning. The second component is choice. The learner must be given some real choices concerning course content and process without the course losing academic rigor or coherence. Definitions of what is academic rigor must be built into the course and learners must be helped to understand how their choices contribute to effective learning. The third component is relationships: between theory and practice, between learners' own experience and that of peers, and between tutor and guests in a course. The vexing issue of diversity in learning styles, the fourth component, keeps me on my toes. How can I best help a holistic, visual, broad categorizer learner (to name only three dimensions) when my own cognitive and learning styles do not match? The fifth component is support mechanisms. What library-based, counselling, administrative, peer, and "significant other" services and relationships are in place or are needed to ensure learner success? What constraints operate? The sixth and last component is the estimated levels of development reached by each adult learner. In my article I pointed out some of the developmental dimensions (ego, psychosocial, cognitive, physical, and moral) and underlined their theoretical and practical complexity. As well, we are required to be gender sensitive: a demand which, as we learned at the CADE Banff Conference in 1988, is fraught with defensiveness, passion, and a good deal of ignorance. As a practitioner, I don't have yet a wide range of answers to the problem of sensitivity to differing abstract levels of development, but, with the help of colleagues, I am developing ideas for gender-sensitive and gender-inclusive learning and facilitation.

To return to my points on the concept of learner-centredness, the fourth and last point has been made by some of my colleagues, whose insights and courtesy in a 1988 pilot survey I conducted were much appreciated. Respondents were asked to define a learner-centred orientation as distinct from a course writer or an institution-centred orientation :

In defining a learner-centred orientation to education, the majority of respondents placed the learner's needs at the centre of the entire teaching/learning process. The learner is seen as a complex interactor with a past, a present and future. A learner's needs are interpreted broadly to include ongoing learning skills in a wide sense - as stated by one respondent, `to stimulate self-directed lifelong learning'. Respondents agree that the individual diversity of students must be taken into account - their varying educational backgrounds, work experiences, learning styles, and present life situations. As expressed by one respondent, `a student's life experience is relevant to every facet of the learning process and ... course design, curriculum choices, instructional and evaluation methods and student support services will take student diversity into account'. The relevance of students' past life experience is seen as central to this orientation: the teaching process must take into account `the whole learner in the whole environment'. (Burge & Howard, in press)

The four points I have covered here lack the attendant metaphors to capture the richness and rewards of learning, and to extend the paradigms we use to understand our learners and our work. Will our next discussant provide some metaphors I wonder? Will she or he be bold enough to talk in personal and epistemological terms about their paradigms or about the new paradigms they think we need?


Burge, E. J., & Howard, J. (in press) Learner-centredness: Views of Canadian distance education educators. Scottish Journal of Adult Education. Burge, E. J. (1988). Beyond andragogy: Some explorations for distance learning design. Journal of Distance Education, III(1), 5-23.

Garrison, D. R. (1988). Andragogy, learner-centredness and the educational transaction at a distance. Journal of Distance Education, III(2), 123-127.

Elizabeth Burge
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
252 Bloor Street West
Toronto, Ontario
M56 1V6