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Learning-Centered Learning: Theory Into Practice
by Jim Reynolds
from Inquiry, Volume 5, Number 2, Fall 2000
© Copyright 2000 Virginia Community College System
Return to Volume 5, Number 2
Reynolds outlines a student development class that puts learning-centered learning into practice.
The field of education, like many other fields, continuously works with ever changing ideas and
methods. Education, however, seems unique in the way new ideas, theories and strategies are tried,
used, and, in some cases, abandoned. It is not unusual to hear the question: What is the current fad in
education? The assumption is that current educational practices and/or strategies will give way to new
ones. For example, one can remember the focus on the “open classrooms” in the early 1970s or the
recent debate over the use of “phonics” versus “whole language” strategies for learning to read. Similar
types of debates have also occurred in higher education. A prominent debate now in higher education is
the examination of learning versus teaching as these concepts relate to the learning process.
The concern over learning versus teaching is not a new debate. One can see roots of this debate
in the progressive education movement of the early 1900s (Pulliam & Van Patten, 1999) and the work of
Carl Rogers (1969) in the mid- and late 1960s. The thread of this learning versus teaching debate can
also be seen in the writings of influential educators and learning theorists. K. Patricia Cross, writing about
the learning process, makes the point “that we cannot transfer our knowledge ready-made into student
minds” (Cross, 2000, p. 10). Howard Gardner (1999) captures the concern for differences in learners
when he writes, “human minds do not all work in the same way, and human beings do not have the same
cognitive strengths and weaknesses” (p. 166). This focus on the learner and the learning process is at
the heart of the learning versus teaching debate.
This debate in higher education is further described by Barr and Tagg (1995) as a need to shift
from an instructional (focus on teaching) model to one where learning is the major concern (focus on
learning). At the community college level, Boggs (1996) supports this shift by suggesting that “we need a
new paradigm for community colleges, one which defines the colleges as learning rather than teaching
institutions” (p. 25). The mission for community colleges is viewed as not simply to offer instruction but
instead to produce learning as an outcome.
This article reviews the background of the learning versus teaching debate. The concept of
learner centered learning is described with supporting theory. The author outlines a “theory into practice”
effort where the theory of learning centeredness was used to design a Web-based student development
course. This article is intended to support the idea that successful learners assume a certain degree of
responsibility for their own learning.
The Learning Versus Teaching Debate
It might seem odd that there is a debate on the importance of learning versus teaching. One
might assume that learning would be a product of teaching and that the purpose of teaching would be for
learning to occur. If one looks at the process, learning and teaching can each be defined in its own way.
We know that humans are learning animals and that a great deal of human learning occurs outside of
teaching activities. We know that learning can occur without teaching and that teaching does not ensure
learning. That is not to say that learning cannot or does not occur from teaching activities. The debate is
not over the need or value of teaching activities, but over the need to focus and concentrate more on all
the factors related to learning.
Barr and Tagg (1995) see the teaching model as one where the purpose is to provide and deliver
instruction through courses and programs. A typical example could be where the teaching is structured
around classes (50-minutes lecture and 3 unit courses), covering course content and the use of an endof-course assessment. In this type of model, little concern may be given to learning outcomes or how that
learning is produced. The teaching model is further described by Wagner and McCombs (1995) when
they write, “teachers decide for the learner what is required from outside by defining characteristics of
instruction, curriculum, assessment, and management to achieve desired learning outcomes” (p. 32
emphasis mine). The teaching model seems to place much of its energy on the process or ways of
teaching and less concern on what is learned or how it is learned.
In contrast, the learning model paradigm is to produce learning and to create effective learning
environments. Barr and Tagg (1995) describe the learning model as one that “frames learning
holistically, recognizing that the chief agent in the process is the learner. Thus, students must be active
discoverers and constructors of their own knowledge” (p. 21). Carl Rogers’ book, Freedom to Learn
(1969), further supports the need for learners to take control over their learning. Rogers (1969) believed
that learners must be trusted to develop their own potential and encouraged to choose both the way and
direction of their learning. Learning-centered assumptions suggest that learners should have meaningful
control over what and how things are learned, plus how the learning outcome is measured. This concern
for the learner acquiring meaningful control of the learning process has been called “student centered” or
“learner centered” but more appropriately should be called learning-centered learning.
Learning-Centered Learning
The support for learning-centered learning comes from many quarters and is not a new concept.
Its roots date back to the progressive education movement of the early 1900s; that movement based
some of its ideas on learners having more control over the learning process (Pulliam & Van Patten,
1999). Carl Rogers’ work in the late 1960s supported the idea of giving learners more control of their
learning environment (Rogers, 1969). Currently, an advocate of learning-centered strategies is Terry
O’Banion, past president of the League for Innovation in the Community College. In O’Banion’s book, A
Learning College for the 21st Century (1997), six key principles are suggested that can be used to form a
learning college. One of the six principles is “The Learning college engages learners as full partners in
the learning process, with learners assuming primary responsibility for their own choices” (O’Banion,
1997, p.47). Learners accepting the responsibility for their own learning is the cornerstone of learningcentered learning.
The learning-centered concept is also supported by a study begun in the early 1990s by the
American Psychological Association (APA). The APA issued a report in 1993 that identified twelve
learner-centered principles. In 1997, the APA revised the report, identifying fourteen learner-centered
psychological principles. The fourteen principles were sub-divided into the following four groups: (1)
Cognitive and Metacognitive Factors; (2) Motivational and Affective Factors; (3) Developmental and
Social Factors; and (4) Individual Differences. Even though the APA (1997) report advises that no one
principle “should be viewed in isolation” (p. 6), this article uses the first principle as a foundation for the
theoretical support for learning-centered learning. All fourteen of the principles are used to deal
holistically with the learning-centered concepts.
The first principle under the Cognitive and Metacognitive factor in the APA (1997) report deals
with the nature of the learning process. This principle states that “successful learners are active, goaldirected, self-regulating, and assume personal responsibility for contributing to their own learning (APA,
1997, p.7). The psychological principle that learners need to take responsibility for their own learning is
the cornerstone of learning-centered learning.
Theory into Practice
How does one take the principle that learners need to take more control and responsibility for
their own learning and put that principle into practice? The author developed a Learning Choices course
(Reynolds, 1999) that uses strategies for implementing this principle. The Learning Choices title was
selected to help convey the idea that learners were going to have some control over their own learning.
Learning Choices is a Student Development course (STD-195) at Northern Virginia Community College
(NVCC) and meets the requirement of the college’s STD-100 Orientation course. All the Student
Development (STD) courses at NVCC are built around the following four major learning goals developed
by the college’s counseling staff: (1) Learning about Learning; (2) Learning about Self and Others; (3)
Learning about Academic and Career Goals; and (4) Learning about Information Resources. The
Student Development (STD) courses are designed in different ways depending on the instructional
approach and method of delivery selected by the counseling staff.
The Learning Choices (STD-195) gives learners an opportunity to select topics that would support
each of the four major learning goals. For example, a student might select to learn about her or his
learning style characteristics, which would support the Learning about Learning goal. If the student used
the Internet to learn about learning style characteristics, this would support the Learning about
Information Resources goal as well.
The Learning Choices course was designed to give participants significant control over WHAT is
learned, HOW it is learned, and how the learning outcome is MEASURED. These three areas of the
learning process (What, How and Measurement) have been traditionally influenced and controlled by
faculty. In a more traditional education environment, faculty has generally been given the control over
course goals and/or learning objectives. In a learning-centered environment, the learner is typically given
some choice over the course’s learning objectives. Tasks such as learning strategies and doing
assignments have been the responsibility of the student. In this area, faculty may want to work more
collaboratively with learners to develop more effective learning strategies for a particular course or
subject. As with course objectives, the measurement of learning outcomes has generally been the
domain of the faculty. In a learning-centered environment, learners may use a variety of ways to
measure their learning. Faculty can develop a number of measurement instruments so that learners may
select the assessment that emphasizes their strengths. Learning-centered environments hinge on the
ability of faculty members to see themselves as facilitators of learning and not solely as subject area
WHAT is learned, HOW it is learned, and how the learning outcome is MEASURED are three
critical ingredients in the learning process. The author searched for a way to capture these three
elements so learners would not lose the concept of how these elements are connected. A metaphor was
created to emphasize the three learning elements; it was called the Learning Tree Metaphor. The
Learning Tree Metaphor is designed to give the learner some practical insight into the learning process.
The Learning Tree Metaphor
Metaphors have generally been used to give structure and meaning to an idea or concept and are
often found in literature. Gordon Parks’ (1963) novel entitled The Learning Tree is a good example. In
one part of the book, Parks writes about a mother’s advice to her son, where she describes their
hometown as being like a fruit tree; some of the people are good and some are bad. The metaphor is
that a fruit tree with its good and bad fruit can be compared to a town that has good and bad people and
that one can learn from both the good and the bad. Parks highlights his metaphor and the title of his book
when he writes “let it be your learnin’ tree” (p. 36). Parks’ metaphor was instrumental in the choice of a
tree as a metaphor for the Learning Choices course.
The Learning Choices course uses the metaphor of a tree to help give structure to the learning
process. In the learning tree metaphor, the three systems of a tree (roots, trunk and leaves) are used to
represent three major elements in one’s learning process. In this metaphor, the first system is the tree
roots that provide pathways for water and nutrients from the soil. The second tree system is made up of
the trunk and branches. This system provides pathways for nutrients to reach the leaves. The leaves
make up the third system, which is the site for food production and growth for the tree.
In the learning tree metaphor, the roots of the tree represent the learning goals and objectives,
where the need for learning starts. The tree trunk and branches represent all the learning
strategies/tasks needed to produce the learning outcome. The learning outcome is represented in the
tree’s leaves where the tree’s growth is representative of the human growth enhanced through learning.
Students in the Learning Choices course are asked to view their learning topics as having the three
Learning Tree elements: (1) learning objective; (2) learning strategies; and (3) measurable learning
Learning Choices Course Process
An important feature of the Learning Choices course is its support of learning-centered principles
and strategies both in the course content and process. Learners are asked to select or create Learning
Trees that support all four of the course’s learning goals. The author has developed a number of
Learning Trees that support one or more of the learning goals. A student can select some of the existing
Learning Trees or create his or her own. For example, a student might select the Learning Tree that has
learning about one’s study skills and strategies as the focus for the learning experience. The Learning
Tree would have a learning objective, one or more learning strategies, and a way to measure the learning
outcome. Learners may collaboratively work with the author to modify or refine any of the three elements
of a Learning Tree.
The overall goal of the Learning Choices course is to have each student select or create enough
Learning Trees to support all four of the course goals. Each learner is asked to include two Learning
Trees: (1) a Learning Tree that creates the learning contract between the learner and the instructor; and
(2) a Learning Tree for the learner to participate in an online Learning Journal using the software program
Allaire Forums. Each learner is asked to document the time spent on each of the selected Learning
Trees with the total time averaging between 35 and 40 hours of learning experiences. One of the
designed goals of this course is to help learners learn about learning and move toward accepting more
responsibility for their own learning.
There have been a number of changes in higher education over the past decade. Emerging
technologies and the focus on distance learning have fueled some of these changes. There seems to
have been less change in learning strategies or the learning and teaching process even with the use of
new technologies. The debate over learning versus teaching is really not a new debate and the concern
about giving learners more control over the process has a long history in educational movements. The
debate over the level of learner control and the best way to put these controls into practice will continue
into the future.
Technologies like the World Wide Web are now available to make a greater impact on learners’
control of their own learning. The Learning Choices course described in this article is but one step to put
some of the learning-centered learning principles into practice. Lifelong learning is influenced by how
learners interact with their own world and their own learning experiences. The hope for the future should
be for individual learners to be empowered to direct and control their own learning experiences.
American Psychological Association (APA), (1997 Revision). Learner-centered psychological principles:
A framework for school redesign and reform. Washington, DC: APA Presidential Task Force on
Psychology in Education. [On-line] Available:
Barr, R. B., & Tagg. J. (1995). From teaching to learning. Change, 27(6), 13-25.
Boggs, G. R. (1996). The learning paradigm. Community College Journal, 66(3), 29-27.
Cross, K. P. (2000). Cross paper #4: Collaborative learning 101. Mission Viejo, CA: League for
Innovation in the Community College.
Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic
O’Banion, T. (1997). A learning college for the 21st century. Washington, DC: American Association of
Community Colleges and American Council on Education Series on Higher Education and the Oryx
Parks, G. (1963). The learning tree. New York: Fawcett Crest Book.
Pulliam, J. D., & Van Patten, J. J. (1999). History of education in America. (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River,
NJ: Merrill.
Reynolds, J. (1998) Learning Choices (STD 195) Course. Alexandria, VA: Northern Virginia Community
College. [On-line] Available:
Rogers, C. R. (1969). Freedom to learn. Columbus, OH: C. E. Merrill.
Wagner, E. B., & McCombs, B. L. (1995). Learner centered psychological principles in practice: Designs
for distance education. Educational Technology, 35(2), 32-