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Embracing Learner-Centered Pedagogy

Most educators pride themselves on putting our students first and try to make teaching decisions with our students' best interests in mind. But, what does learner-centered teaching really mean?

In their 2017 book, Learner-Centered Pedagogy: Principles and Practice, Kevin Michael Klipfel and Dani Brecher Cook set out to answer this question--and how it can be applied to teaching in a librarianship context. When asked to articulate what having a learner-centered approach means, most point to individual exercises or classroom techniques they employ or try to avoid, but are unable to describe the philosophy as a larger concept.

Ultimately, Klipfel and Cook's definition of learner-centered pedagogy is "who we are as people matters."[1] They explain it in further detail as: "Our conception of learner-centered pedagogy encourages library educators to encounter the learner as an individual with personal interests, preferences, and motivations, and uniquely human set of cognitive capacities."[2]

Klipfel and Cook distinguish between the educator who facilitates learning through building connections with their students and the educator as "expert." The former, striving to understand who their students are as human begins with diverse and complex needs--both cognitive and psychological, is derived from person-centered therapy in humanistic psychology.

They rely heavily on Carl Rogers' application of humanistic psychological theory to education, explaining that Rogers viewed learning place across a spectrum of meaning. They describe it as follows:

"On one end of the spectrum is learning that has no personal meaning to the student, as in the rote memorization of nonsense syllables. Because there is no concrete or compelling personal reason to remember these things, they tend to be forgotten quickly. . . . On the other end of the Rogerian continuum of meaning lies significant learning, which has both meaning and personal relevance to the learner. Significant learning takes place for the learner if, and only if, the learner attaches some personal meaning to the subject of inquiry and wants to learn about the subject matter. Real, genuine curiosity is central to this kind of learning."[3]

As Klipfel and Cook put it, we should constantly be asking ourselves, "What is it like to be a person learning something?"[4] As such, discovering what matters to the learner himself or herself should be the goal of the learner-centered educator.

This can be challenging for law librarians, who may or may not have a significant amount of time with the students (for example, in situations where they are just leading a one-hour workshop as a guest lecturer). We can, no matter how much time we have with our students, ask ourselves why the research instruction we are doing matters to the students--more than just the fact that they'll be spending a significant time in practice conducting legal research--and consider their previous research instruction experiences. In other words, we can practice empathy by trying to put ourselves in our students' shoes--and structure our courses/workshops to best fit their individual needs. For example, this may mean giving less information on the background/history of particular resources and allowing more time for practical application of skills. It may also mean having an open line of communication with students about what they want to learn, what they think they need to learn, and how they might apply what they learn. While there may be things learners don't know they need to know, it's important to tie what they're learning to their goals, so they'll value and consequently retain what they've just learned--and then apply it to new situations.


[1] Kevin Michael Klipfel & Dani Brecher Cook, Learning-Centered Pedagogy: Principles and Practices 1 (2017).
[2] Id. at 1-2.
[3] Id. at 7.
[4] Id. at 9.


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