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Child-Centered Education


Q. Our school prides itself on offering "child-centered education." How does that differ from other sorts of education?


Child-centered education is the idea that the needs and desires of the child should take precedence in structuring the learning day. It is a prevalent philosophy in the nation's preschools and kindergartens, and increasingly, through the grade-school years and beyond. The whole idea is that learning should be fun and engaging for the child, and is most likely to be that way if the child is in charge of the learning experience, rather than the adult parent or teacher.


Child-centered education is most characterized by learning "centers" in a classroom that promote hands-on, active participation by the child. There may be magnifying glasses and bug slides in the science center, books and puppets that could be used to re-tell the stories in the language arts center, and wood blocks and shapes in the math center. The children are free to manipulate the objects in these centers. It is the process, the activity, the experience, that is valuable, not the facts, ideas, concepts or skills.


It is a relatively new approach to education. For centuries past, adults defined what education should be, and children were the ones who did the adjusting. For the most part, education was done at home, rather than away at school, and either the parent or, in wealthy homes, the tutor or instructor, would introduce all subject matter, command the child's attention, direct the activities, and definitely instruct the child. Education was considered work, not play.


Then came the softening influences of child psychologist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as well as Dr. Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, who all contended that a child's self-esteem and self-concept should be built up in order to create a better learner. Soon, the colleges of education were promoting child-centered education instead of instructionally-centered education.


With television and shows for preschoolers such as Sesame Street, soon it came to be that you had to engage children to learn using entertainment, fun and games. Teachers who believed in the classic approach of content delivery were left in the dust by teachers who could manipulate the latest learning technologies and hold children's attention. Even though children's reading ability, vocabularies, math skills and science comprehension all were falling by the wayside, they sure could manipulate the colorful, fast-moving technology of video games, iPods, laptops and so forth.


Increasingly, with away-from-home schools and more and more learning tools at the disposal of the schools, the focus has gradually shifted to where the adult's role has been shifted to being a mere "facilitator" of learning, rather than "instructor." The adult is no longer center stage, introducing the concepts, leading the activities, instructing during the process, and so forth. The adult now gathers materials for a learning experience in the classroom and then pretty much steps aside and lets the children freely work with the materials and activities at their own pace, "constructing" their own experiences. Teachers have been referred to as "file servers" in this set-up, which is insulting, but close to the truth.


The child-centered classroom emphasis is on play, and fun. That is to be applauded in preschool and kindergarten, but becomes a destructive and dangerous philosophy when extended through the primary years and all the way into high school and college. That's increasingly the case, to our nation's peril.


When the "fun and games" go away, so does the learning. And when the child believes he or she is at the center of the universe, look out.


Homework: Child-centered education is not all bad. In fact, it is a good idea for preschool and kindergarten. Parents and taxpayers should just make sure educators do away with the philosophy and the wide-open classroom organization supporting it, by first grade. See a good article on how child-centered education become popular and what a child-centered kindergarten should look like from the Association for Childhood Education International,


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 133 2008***

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