Student-centered learning is one of the hot buzzwords in higher education these days. The idea is universally accepted, and it is almost heretical that a professor, as a superior being with knowledge to disseminate, looks down on students and yells at them. Oh, I hate to be one of those professors. In principle, therefore, I understand and agree with the idea of repositioning students as the active subjects of learning. But the phrase “student-centered learning” accompanies other sub-tenets that I am less sure about “Don’t teach difficult material that doesn’t interest students. They won’t learn anything from it” is one of such tenets.
I am not saying that I expect Ph.D level research from a freshmen writing seminar. I am not advocating the teaching of material that is so removed from students’ interests as to fail to engage them. I understand that we can expect maximized educational effects when we properly engage students and adopt material that is appropriate for the student body’s intellectual calibre. What I want to ask today, though, is whether or not to teach material that students don’t get right away is such a lost cause as we are led to believe? My answer is negative.
When I was a student in Korea, I was bombarded with tons of lessons. I was a very good student with a good record of achievement, but nevertheless, I could not understand everything I was taught. Nobody would be able to process that much knowledge and information. When judged by the standards of student-centered learning, therefore, my Korean education must be pronounced a total failure. But I really don’t think it was a failure or a waste of my time. I rather appreciate having been taught a lot.
Do I remember everything that I was taught in high school? No. Two decades after graduating from high school, the retention rate of high school knowledge may not be higher than 20%, I think. Then, does it mean that the other 80% totally vanished out the window? I don’t think so. I think that the 80% of knowledge is stored somewhere in my brain, in the form of retrievable knowledge. To me, retrievable knowledge is like frozen food. You freeze food when you know that you don’t need it immediately but will need it some time in the future. Frozen food is not a waste. It is storage. It is there for the day when you need it. When you need it, you take it out from the freezer, thaw it, and voila, it becomes edible food.
Let me throw another example. As a literature major, I read a lot of novels. Do I remember everything I read? No. Also, some novels require certain types of life experience, and they may mean nothing to people who lack such life experience. Even then, however, I don’t think it is a waste of time to sit down and read them. True, they may fail to engage you the day when you read them. You may think that you wasted your time. Yet life throws all kinds of shit, and ten years after reading the novel, you may experience in your life what the novel portrays, and that’s when it rings the bell in your head. You will want to re-read the novel and gain some insight. If you had never read the novel 10 years ago, I don’t know how a chance to gain insight from the literary text would become available to you all of a sudden.
A novel which does not speak today may say many, many things ten years later. That’s why I try to read voraciously today, and that’s why I appreciate my high school education that bombarded me with knowledge I could not absorb then.What we read and are taught – once we experience it – never disappears. It becomes frozen and put on the shelf, waiting to be thawed some day.
This is why I believe that student-centered learning does not necessarily mean teaching material that is of immediately interest to students. One goal of education is to expand a knowledge base that will serve the students in the long run through their lifetime. From your education, you want to get something that you like and is useful right away. But don’t you also want to get something that will serve you well 10 years later?