Student-led vs. teacher-led learning

Published: November 3rd, 2020

Student-led learning has gained pace over the last several years. It means a departure from a traditional classroom set up, giving pupils more autonomy and encouraging them to take more ownership of their results.

In a teacher-led class, the educator decides the shape and pace of learning, often in a linear format. Pupil-led learning involves more collaborative projects, greater reliance on group work, and fewer lecture-style lessons. 

A teacher-led classroom focuses on:

  1. Traditional pedagogical methods
  2. Lecture-style lessons
  3. The teacher at the front of the class
  4. Learners absorbing knowledge

A student-led classroom focuses on:

  1. Modern learning techniques
  2. Group work and collaborative projects
  3. Pupils in control of their learning
  4. Learners being self-aware

These differences can have a huge impact on the pedagogical focus of the classroom. Some educators believe that student-led learning empowers and motivates pupils to drive better personal learning outcomes. Others maintain that a departure from teacher-led learning can hinder building and improving upon knowledge

These binary scenarios are problematic in the modern classroom, because both traditional and modern teaching methods deliver value.

Why is student-led learning popular?

Many educators believe that giving greater power to pupils allows them to become more aware of their personal strengths. To facilitate this, teachers may encourage them to ask more questions, deliver more frequent feedback, research subjects online and present their findings to the classroom. They believe that allowing students to take more responsibility for their studies can deliver long-term benefits like increased soft skills.

A student-led approach is widely considered to develop greater confidence with a focus on formative assessment to understand personal strengths.

Why is teacher-led learning popular?

Some educators are skeptical of the benefits of a student-led approach to learning, claiming the positive results to be unclear. Others strongly believe that teacher-led learning is essential to provide a structured approach that children’s brains are yet to develop.

According to a 2015 report by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), pupils with higher levels of teacher-directed instruction achieved significantly better results. The report suggests that pupils exposed to higher levels of enquiry-based instruction and student-led learning achieved significantly worse results.

The same PISA report claims that teacher-led approaches, such as explaining how a science idea can be applied to a number of different phenomena, had a net positive impact on scores. 

Could the solution be your classroom set-up?

As many teachers know, education is rarely as binary as these two learning scenarios suggest. You can blend student-led learning with teacher-led learning to ensure pupils are engaged and motivated, but also given structure and the best access to knowledge. The solution may be to develop a more rounded classroom instead.

A rounded classroom puts the teacher directly in the middle of learning. For example, consider the classroom space. Do you have an interactive display, like an ActivPanel? If so, try arranging desks in a semicircle around it so everyone can see and hear effectively.

A rounded classroom isn’t just physical, it’s metaphorical. A flywheel approach to learning allows for constant feedback and improvement. Successful learning is student centred even if it continues to be teacher led. 

If your classroom is set up for more traditional teaching, it’s not just the room design that makes a classroom more student oriented. Think of ways to encourage pupils to speak up, ask questions and get involved in what they learn. Edtech, apps, and digital lesson delivery software can all help give teachers more flexibility to dynamically adapt their teaching and gain valuable feedback.