I hit a wall of frustration last week when I was doing some walk-through classroom observations in my school. Fellow principals can probably relate with what I am about to say.

I spent a little under an hour in one classroom hallway, and in that time I made it into six different classrooms. In five of the six classroom visits, I saw the exact same thing: The teacher was lecturing from the front of the room, and students were seated at their desks taking notes.

My frustration stems from the fact that in my school, we have spent quite a great deal of time trying to develop and foster student-centered classrooms that can better engage students by empowering them to take ownership for their own learning. Through these efforts we have not outlawed lecture, but we have tried hard to minimize its role and use in the classroom.

Perhaps what I saw was an anomaly, but I am not convinced. Clearly, we still have a ways to go if we are to truly leave the teacher-centered classroom model where the teacher is viewed as a sage on the stage and instead move to a modern student-centered one where the teacher is seen as a guide on the side.

The concepts of sage on the stage and guide on the side are not new. In fact, in this College Teaching article from 1993, nearly 25 years ago, educator Alison King explains the concepts and the importance of moving away from a teacher-driven model.

"In most college classrooms, the professor lectures and the students listen and take notes," King writes. "The professor is the central figure, the 'sage on the stage,' the one who has the knowledge and transmits that knowledge to the students, who simply memorize the information and later reproduce it on an exam, often without even thinking about it.

"This model of the teaching-learning process, called the transmittal model, assumes that the student's brain is like an empty container into which the professor pours knowledge."

King may have been ahead of her time. In 1993, educators were still predominantly working from textbooks and journal articles. Students conducted research by heading to the library and looking up topics in the card catalog. The Internet was in its infancy and had not made its way into 99 percent of college classrooms, let alone K-12 classrooms yet.

Fast-forward 25 years, and small devices known as smartphones that fit in our palms and pockets have the power to provide us with any information that we need. Gone are the days when the teacher had the knowledge to impart. In today's classroom, educators face a new set of problems that must be wrestled with:

  • How do we help students access and filter the information available to them?
  • Once they have found relevant information, how do we help students interpret and apply it to their situation?
  • With this information, how do we help students extend their thinking to transfer it to new situations and problems?

To answer these questions, we have to empower students and engage them in their learning in ways they have never been challenged to do in the past. We don't want to create future "Jeopardy" champions who can regurgitate facts and figures; we want critical thinkers and problem-solvers. Getting to this means we need student-centered, not teacher-centered learning environments.

In this Education Week blog from earlier this year, Saskatoon, Canada, educator Wendy James writes, "While we know learning occurs in the time when student make sense of something for themselves, we persist in telling students things for most of each period, then get frustrated when the new information is not absorbed."

James goes on to suggest, "Brain research tell us direct instruction for grades 9-12 should not exceed 15 minutes. Even adults can't handle more than about 18 minutes (Ted Talks!), so half a period of teacher talk is largely wasted."

James offers these three suggestions for fellow teachers to consider when developing lessons that involve direct instruction and determining how to use teacher "talk" time effectively:

  • Make sure students have all the information they need to do the process or task.
  • Make sure students have all the key information about what I am teaching.
  • Make sure students don't misunderstand.

Educators looking to create student-centered learning environments can learn a lot from this website entitled Students at the Center Hub, hosted by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. On their website they state, "The Students at the Center Hub is a resource for educators, families, students and communities wanting to learn more about research, best practices, supportive policies, and how to talk about student centered approaches to learning."

There, educators and school leaders alike can engage with their colleagues and peers in schools from coast to coast who are tackling this issue one classroom lesson at a time.