Student Centered Learning in Software

Before I started working at 8th Light I spent two years at a boarding school teaching German, Economics, and coaching fencing. Although I didn’t study education in college, I got my foot in the door by being paired with a mentor instructor who helped guide me on my way to becoming a better educator. As part of this process I learned some things about pedagogy that turned my concept of what it means to teach and be a teacher on its head.

Like most twenty-somethings, my most recent formal education took place in college. Many of my classes involved a group of students sitting in rows facing in the same direction at the professor who stood at the front of the classroom and lectured while writing on the board. In progressive teaching circles, this is referred to as “teacher centered learning.” The focus is on the teacher and the teacher’s knowledge, not on the students and their knowledge. Oddly enough, this style of instruction was highly discouraged in my new job as a teacher. Instead, we were pushed to turn that model around -- to create an environment of student centered learning.

Putting students in situations where they have to create their own understanding and justify that understanding to their peers is the essence of student centered learning. This teaching philosophy embraces Piaget’s theory of [Constructivism](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism(philosophyof_education)) to promote deeper understanding of new material. It hinges on the idea that learning does not take place in a vacuum. We construct new understanding based on concepts that we already understand, scaffolding layers of understanding on each other. Integrating these concepts as a teacher means you can set up your students for greater learning success.

So how does this apply to software? There is a lot of theory and jargon which can be difficult to sift through if you are trying to implement student centered learning for the first time. If you’re reading this, you probably have the opportunity to to teach on a regular basis. Whether this teaching takes place at a code retreat, in the process of onboarding a new team mate, or introducing a new technology to a group of colleagues, there is one tip you can employ to be a better teacher to those around you:

It’s not about you.

By keeping this in mind -- by keeping the focus on the student, not you -- it forces you as a teacher to think more about the mind of your student. For example, when pairing with a person new to your project or inexperienced with a complex topic… ASK, don’t tell. Ask questions to gauge their level of understanding, comprehension, and interest. If you are trying to help someone reach a new level of understanding, it doesn’t matter how well you can recite facts or spew theory if the person you are trying to teach is disengaged.

Trying to put yourself in your student’s shoes -- seeing things from their perspective -- puts you more in tune with them and their intellectual progress. Checking for understanding often will allow you to catch them if they start to drift away. By asking guiding questions, you foster an environment of active learning, forcing your student to create new understanding.

If you are a teacher -- and we all are, in one capacity or another -- student centered learning is the most effective way to deepen your student’s understanding and enhance their critical thinking skills. It’s not about you, it’s about your students.

Philip Szalwinski, Software Craftsman

Philip Szalwinski is a former 8th Light employee.

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