Similarly according to Moloi et al. (as cited in Mtika & Gates, 2010), group work is one of the strategies that can be useful in student-centered approaches. It does not only help students to discuss and share ideas with each other, but it also helps to improve students’ understanding of some concepts and develop their communication skills. In the student-centered classroom, the teacher has to think of students’ needs and the classroom is considered as a place where students work together, in groups and as individuals by encouraging them to take part in the learning process all the time (Jones, 2007). In the student-centered classroom, the teacher should know about their students’ background. Teachers should consider what they may know or do not know about their students because it helps to create the classroom conditions that are responsive to the learning needs of the students (Hodson, 2002). Furthermore, in social constructivist classrooms the relationship between teacher and students are much more dynamically involved, so that the teacher’s role is much more demanding to allow and actively promote recognition, evaluation, and reconstruction (Gunstone and Northfield as cited in Hand et al., 1997).
The size for effective student-centered classrooms can be organized into large group (class with 25-30 students), medium size (5-8 students), small group (3-5 students), pair group (2 students) and a teacher and a student (only in special condition) (MoEYS, 2002a). Furthermore, classroom arrangements, especially classroom space and resources like chairs and tables for large group activities are also important because appropriate resources helps to support the effectiveness and efficiency of instruction to the students.
2. 4 Definition of the Student-Centered Approaches to Learning
The terms “student-centered approaches” and “learner-centered approaches” to learning are the same and whilst some articles used the term student-centered approaches and other articles used the term learner-centered approaches, the two terms were used interchangeably. Both terms focus on the needs of students who as learners are actively involved in the learning process (Utecht, 2003). The term “student-centered approaches” is used in this study because this term is formally applied in Cambodian curriculum and ministry educational literature. Moreover, the student-centered approaches are broader for example, a student can be defined as learner, but a learner may not be defined as student. For example, a man wants to know about the educational law in Cambodia, so the man can go to library or search in the MoEYS website to read and learn about the law. The man therefore is not a student, but he is a learner.
The student-centered approaches to learning are defined as teaching methodologies associated with an approach to learning where students are the main characters in the learning process, and actively learn in a socially interactive way (Brush & Saye, 2000). The student-centered approaches are designed to assist students to learn best from meaningful life experiences, social interactions, and scientific experimentation (Pedersen & Liu, 2003).
The student-centered approaches to learning focus on individual student’s needs and growth, because these approaches are intended to develop the potential of every individual student and encourage their personal growth and interests (Morris, 1996). The student-centered approaches are also considered effective alternatives to the traditional teacher-centered approaches. Similarly according to Courtney (2008), it looks very different from the traditional didactic teaching methods that are widely applied in Cambodia. These traditional teaching methods depend on the direct instruction of the teacher and verbal and written repetition with little emphasis on understanding but strong emphasis on memory and recall. Kember (as cited in O’Neill & McMahon, 2005) and Hirumi (2002) stated the student-centered approaches are in contrast to the traditional teacher-centered approaches. In the teacher-centered approaches, teachers are at the center of the learning and teaching process and provide instruction to students; the students are the empty vessels into which the teacher pours their knowledge. This view contrasts sharply to that of constructivist theory where we see that students are central to the learning process, they are not viewed as empty vessels but rather actively participate in making knowledge by thinking and solving problems for themselves, and developing their self-esteem that is essential for learning and decision-making throughout life (American Psychological Association, 1993; Hirumi, 2002; MoEYS, 2005).
The core principle of the student-centered learning approaches is that students have different abilities, needs, and interests for how they learn, and they construct knowledge and meaning and learn in different ways (Brady, 2006; Murdoch & Wilson, 2008; Hirumi, 2002). The American Psychological Association (1993) stated that students have various capabilities and interests for learning. “Individuals are born with and develop unique capabilities and talents and have acquired through learning and social acculturation different preferences for how they like to learn and the pace at which they learn” (American Psychological Association, 1993, p. 9). According to Meyer & Jones (as cited in Hirumi, 2002), in the class students talk, listen, write, read, and reflect on content, ideas, issues, and concerns in order to construct their own meaning. “In student-centered environments, learners are given direct access to the knowledge-base and work individually and in small groups to solve authentic problems (Hirumi, 2002, p. 506). Similarly, according to Jones (2007), a student-centered class is a place where students’ needs are considered, as a group and as individuals, and students are encouraged to participate in the learning process all the time. At different times, students may work alone, in pairs, or in groups.
As a theory of epistemology, constructivism proposes that students bring their existing experiences and beliefs, as well as world views and their cultural histories, into the learning process when they internally build knowledge by interacting with the environment (Yilmaz, 2008). Constructivism is considered as a process that students actively construct their knowledge upon knowledge that they already have (Motschnig-Pitrik & Holzinger, 2002). Social constructivist, Vygotsky believed that “learning is a social process in which learners developed understanding through interaction with the environment around them” (Brush & Saye, 2000, p. 5). According to Jonassen; Duffy & Jonassen (as cited in Brush & Saye, 2000), the need for more student-centered learning activities have been promoted by the supporters of the constructivist epistemology of learning.
In short, the key characteristics of the student-centered approaches to learning emphasize students’ prior knowledge and experience, developing Bloom Taxonomy thinking skills, especially critical thinking and problem solving, exploring individual learning needs and interests, promoting active student involvement, and developing motivation for life-long learning (American Psychological Association, 1993; Brush & Saye, 2000; Hirumi, 2002; Mtika & Gates, 2010). However, there is no single strategy that helps students to have effective learning all the time and there is no teaching strategy that is better than others in every circumstance. Each teaching strategy has its strength and weakness, so teachers need to make decisions and chose teaching strategies that help their students to achieve the learning outcomes (Killen, 2003). Similarly according to Hab & Em (2003), to choose and effectively apply a teaching strategy the teacher has to judge many times because selecting an appropriate teaching strategy is based on the decision whether we provide knowledge to students through direct instruction (teacher-centered approaches) or indirect facilitation (student-centered approaches).
2. 5 Student-Centered Learning as Adopted by the Cambodian Ministry of Education
2.5.1 Vision of learning and teaching
Learning has many styles such as learning by seeing, listening, writing, reading, watching television, self-experiment, practice, thinking, playing games, study tour and so on. These styles of learning provide knowledge to the learners. However different learning can have different result. Learners may produce different learning outcomes with a different learning style to another student (MoEYS, 2002b). For example, those who learn by listening will forget all or remember a little after several days. Those who just stand and see people swimming cannot swim, but if they learn to swim themselves, they can swim effectively. People therefore can do something when they involve themselves. According to Confucianism, it is believed that “If you tell me, I will forget. If you show me, I may remember. But if you involve me, I can do and understand” (MoEYS, 2008).
The Cambodian government’s vision of the purposes for learning and teaching roles has gradually changed between societies and from one a period of time to another (MoEYS, 2002a). Previous teaching methods considered effective and appropriate was when teachers were considered to be the knowledge providers. Teachers provided knowledge and told students, and students listened to teachers and followed teachers without developing their own ideas or understanding. In this context teachers had the power because they had the knowledge that students needed to be able to progress through the education system. This vision was later officially abandoned because the learning outcomes were considered unsuitable to both the needs of the country for skilled thinkers and they compared poorly to the wider international educational context.
In the following period, another new teaching method was integrated called ‘question and answer’ method. The teacher raised questions and the students answered. This method was adopted in the belief that it would bring better results for students. The question and answer method was later changed and reformed to what was known as the ‘active method ‘because this method required much relationship between teacher and students. For the last vision, it was believed that creation only relationship between teacher and students was not enough. To have better result for students, relationship between students and students must be created in the teaching and learning process. Teachers have to prepare students to work in groups, so students can exchange their ideas, work cooperatively, and help each other in learning. This last vision is a very important part of student-centered approaches (Hab & Em, 2003; Inspector, 2002; Ung, 2008). These approaches to learning and teaching shifted the power reposition of the teacher from one who held all the knowledge to a more equal one where teachers partner with, sometimes lead, their students into new understanding and knowledge.
2.5.2 Principle and theory
Theories that are applied and relevant to teaching and learning in the current Cambodian school system are:
Learning is creating new knowledge
Learning is exchanging experience (Inspector, 2002)
The theories of learning above are also clearly identifiable as concepts of constructivism. Although constructivism is not a theory of learning, the principles have been applied by many educators in teaching and learning, especially, but not only, in science education (Han et al., 1997; Yilmaz, 2008). Constructivism emphasizes that knowledge and meaning are constructed by the human mind; in effect learners create links between their existing knowledge and new experience and make new knowledge structures and meaning (Yilmaz, 2008).
The role of teachers and students are changed by the adoption of the student-centered approaches to learning. Students are given greater responsibility for their learning and the teachers’ roles change where they become more coordinators or facilitators of the learning experiences. Students are encouraged to explore the knowledge by themselves and with other learners and the teachers help the learning process by showing students paths of knowledge. In this new role in the classroom, the teachers become part of the learning process and acts as a guide and a resource for the students (Utecht, 2003). Furthermore, the importance of school is to provide multiple opportunities to students to create knowledge and understanding by themselves through research, real experience and solving problems.