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Creativity Crisis

Chapter 6

STUDENT- CENTREDNESS

Student-centredness is a beguiling catchcry of higher education, with sustained world-wide interest for many decades. A lot has been written; a lot has been promised. Each Faculty in each university likes to boast that it is student-centred; and for many, the pious wish is genuine and not just an artifice of marketing, which forces all academies to take on the rhetoric regardless of their belief in it. Which school anywhere in the world is going to say: we are not student-centred but teacher-centred or bureaucracy- centred? Once the term reached any degree of spread, it became necessary to adopt it in all publicity about learning and teaching. The suggestion by Google of ‘student-centred learning’ alone yields about 1,430,000 results.

Nevertheless, student-centredness is a promising concept if it does not automatically default to the empty rhetoric that every other institution uses in promoting itself as delivering student-centred education. It matters a great deal in the cultivation of creativity, where learning design often compromises the cognitive independence of the student. A student-centred approach to education could well make room for the imaginative privacy of the student in following a similar kind of curiosity-driven learning that inspires research graduates, albeit with a greater degree of scaffolding.

For many lecturers, student-centredness is the same as active learning, which is cultivated energetically in favour of greater engagement and more vigorous learning. It means running classes where the students are engaged doing exercises together, solving problems, revealing how they go about tasks and explaining methods to the group. An example would be a lecturer who uses a tablet to demonstrate ideas in physics, where the strokes of the stylus are projected on a screen. The lecturer then asks students how we might go about an analogous problem and hands the tablet to the nearest eager student, whereupon they pass the tablet among one another, each demonstrating or responding to a further aspect of the challenge. Active learning is a splendid strategy to create greater investment in learning, and requires special skills on the part of the lecturer, who must (a) propose a curious problem at the right level and with suitable scaffolding, (b) withdraw from centre-stage and let the students take over and (c) maintain an encouraging but ultimately judging presence, so as to retain control and direction of the class. It is easier to do in problem-based subjects rather than humanities where, however, the traditional Socratic tutorial model is also somewhat student-centred, even if it is not normally described as active learning.

Asking students to solve problems is nothing new and, as worthy and laudable as it is, it is far from a blueprint for student-centredness. It was the basis of studio education, for example, since time immemorial. The way you learn to draw or play oboe is to draw or play oboe. A teacher cannot lecture you how to draw in a way that then results in good drawings, in the same way that reading a book cannot by itself make you competent at oboe; you have to take the pencil in your hand in front of the motif and practice, just as you do with the oboe and a musical score. In many disciplines, this priority of students being active in their learning is deeply embedded and necessarily so. In all good programs for a long time before we were born, students have learned by doing tasks, just as you might in a maths lab or a language lab today.

But we would not call such programs student-centred if the tasks within it are alienating, obscure and pointless to the students, especially when they are compulsory and resented as such. I could be asked by a lecturer to take a lead in explaining something to the group and experience the event as humiliating, because I have misunderstood the challenge or I feel exposed next to the confident people around me. Yes, some students can shine while taking on the pyrotechnics of the lecturer and filling in his or her expectations, but it might leave a whole lot of other students feeling much more inadequate in the active group than they would in a traditional ‘passive’ learning situation.

Active learning is clearly a good thing, and all creative people like artists and musicians owe their genius to its timeless magic. But active learning is not necessarily student-centred, even if the higher levels of student involvement that it entails are broadly sympathetic to student-centredness. There is no necessary stage of metacognition or self-directed learning within it— though there may be—just lots of practice. The same is true of project-based learning (PBL) which champions the ‘guide on the side’ rather than ‘sage on the stage’,1 but we would not own it as so marvellously student-centred if the students are compelled to do projects that they do not want to do.

In-class student learning activities have bit by bit replaced didactic teaching by lectures in other disciplines and their appeal is well-recognized. Mostly, students do not glaze over or neglect to come to class. The methods are not especially radical but resonate happily with student-centredness. Active-learning strategies could easily become part of an emphasis on student-centredness. The problem would be if student-centredness were subsumed by active learning or PBL, because student-centredness is a lot more than just active learning or PBL.

We can begin by distinguishing three perspectives of student-centredness. The first is purely operational: give students choices of subject, time and place, so that the combinations and modalities that they select are their own. The second is pedagogically dynamic, where we see learning as an activity with the student doing the learning at the centre, actively constructing their knowledge rather than passively absorbing it from an authority. The third is radical, which I would like to define as an emancipation from assessment- led education, an ability to exercise freedom of interpretation in any learning brief, so that the student cultivates intellectual autonomy and imagination.

The most popular understanding is something a bit like student-choice or study-flexibility in course architecture and delivery. It means offering lots of alternatives for the student to select from. It might not be convenient for the institution but students come first—‘they’re what we’re here for’— and students need choice and freedom as a priority. This understanding of student-centredness is technical, operational and tangible. It might not even extend to what a student does within the classroom (though it might) but sometimes just operates between classrooms, in the sense that students may be flooded with electives and the student-centredness is defined by the decision about which subjects to take. With technologically-assisted pedagogy and clever timetabling, we can give students choices of subject, time and place, so that the path that they take is all their own. With these enlightened technical provisions, theoretically, students could direct their syllabus and opt for subjects and methods that suit them best; and in this way, they have greater ownership in the material that they choose.

You can already imagine a critique of this blueprint. Never mind that it is impossible to cater for such diversity in any given cohort, even for the majority! Assuming that we can run everything that students want, and when and how they want it, we would still have the problem that they may not enjoy the subjects that they have chosen from the formidable spread. Choice in itself is positive and honours diversity; but it is no use if you are choosing between three or four options, all of which are dreadful and are not themselves student-centred. It is the same with the timing of lessons. Here, we really can offer infinite choice, because technology allows us to run classes online, especially virtual lectures, readings and interactive quizzes; so students truly can do those parts of their study whenever and wherever they like. But the choice to attend a boring, anxious and confusing lecture at 9.00 am or 11.00 pm is still not a major pedagogical gain if both of them are of the same dull calibre. Choice is no guarantee of learning—as when our choices were misguided—and the motif only satisfies student-centredness to the extent of a mechanistic precondition of learning, not the learning itself.

We should not make a caricature of this common understanding of student-centredness, because it is tangibly beneficial in one sense, honouring diversity and choice and allowing the individual some latitude in how to study. Especially when it comes to time and place of study, the proliferation of technologies and willing lecturers who love installing their talks on YouTube and creating excellent interactive resources on learning management systems! Ultimately, after contemplating the next category, we may have little more than this practical level of student-centredness; and within its simplicity, we may discover a conceptual extension that clinches the aspiration.

Choice is mostly desirable from a student point of view, except when it brings anxiety, as when it threatens to visit the student with remorse over the bad choice. You do not want to reproach yourself later. But assuming that it is positive for the student, it is uncertain and menacing for the teacher. Student choice means individual treatment. Any one learning activity will not necessarily be congruent with another. Tailoring assessment will be especially difficult because standardization means fairness. In each circumstance student-centredness is a headache for the teacher.

For all these reasons, student autonomy is not normally what scholars mean by student-centredness. Rightly or wrongly one thinks of student- centredness as embodying certain cognitive processes and volition unique to the student. An example is the power of reflexion or metacognition necessary to deep learning or the ability of the student to direct her or his learning, that is, self-regulated learning. There is a large overlap of such concepts, broadly relating to the idea of taking responsibility for your own learning, not necessarily being an autodidact but being able to gain access to the right kind of assistance and guidance when the moment is most convenient. But because the key ingredients involve reflexion or learning about learning (let us say metacognition) it is not enough to ply student with online material with information and exercises: there has to be an invitation or cue for students to interrogate their progress, to take stock of their processes and so empower them to self-regulate their progress in a prudent way. Provided these elements are installed in the flexible formats that we are becoming accustomed to, a substantial part of student-centredness is being served.

The second understanding of student-centredness involves a dynamic narrative of classroom activity. It comprises a whole anatomy of learning, strongly associated with John Biggs, who described a scale of thinking about teaching in the contemporary academy. In the most negative learning-and-teaching cultures, says Biggs, there is an unfortunate focus on what the student is, what species, what calibre, what standard. There is often subliminal resentment over the low grade of students that we end up with in our classroom, even in an exclusive research university; lecturers may have contempt for what the students are by nature or upbringing, what intellectual mettle and stock they come along with. This level fatalistically considers learning to be simply a function of the preconditioned talent and interest of the student. If they do not learn, they are to blame. I as a teacher am not given students who are good enough. Judging by the results, they do not understand even after I have taught them; and if I were honest, I also would not be able to take credit for their learning when they have demonstrated a good grasp of the topic. This aloofness is admin-centred. The gate-keepers have to be vigilant and only allow suitable students into the course.

At a higher level, the focus is on what the teacher does. Biggs describes the archetype of teacher-centred lecturer, who is better, if vain, much less deterministic, but still far from perfect. Teacher-centred lecturers see their role as to animate the class in a performative way, perhaps jazz up the syllabus with witty language or parallels in popular culture—using jokes, allusions, inflected voice, visual pyrotechnics or music—and make students take an interest by entertaining them. Biggs, like all the universities that he has inspired, is justly suspicious of these artificial strategies to win student interest, because their theatricality is unlikely to lead to learning, though these charismatic performances might well be ingenious and might also win hearts among the student audience and produce stellar student evaluations.

Instead, Biggs commends a third level to us, where the focus is on what the student does. It is when we see learning as an activity by the student. Learning is what the student does. We need to acknowledge this fact in a model with the student doing the learning at the centre (hence student-centred) and arrange the delivery of the syllabus accordingly. When delivery, learning activities and assessment all line up with the learning outcomes, students are no longer disempowered by the caprice of incongruent elements but their learning is facilitated optimally, no longer upstaged by the performative brilliance of the lecturer. Sometimes the term is modified to ‘learner-centredness’ or ‘learning-centred education’ but it often means much the same thing.

The case is compelling and has convinced the Anglophone world to change its emphasis as best it can, diligently following the constructive alignment that Biggs himself coined. Philosophically, however, the move to constructive alignment to secure student-centredness must be interrogated, because the logic is open to question. For example, the levels that Biggs outlines are not mutually exclusive. It is possible simultaneously (1) to blame students for failing to match your own brilliance, (2) nevertheless to treat them to a grand show of your brilliance and finally (3) to organize learning activities for students that keep them busy and engaged in good alignment with learning outcomes and assessment. Professing the rigour of the third is no guarantee of abstaining from the arrogance of the first and the pleasurable conceit of the second. Teacher-centred academics might well imagine that their antics are 100% constructed around student learning, which is what the student does, only encouraged by the theatrical prowess and leadership of the lecturer. It really depends on what we mean by student-centred.

The second definition, if you like, is this: student-centredness means acknowledging that it is the student who does the learning, not the song and dance of the lecturer. It is a huge contribution and aligns with some fundamental claims about how students learn, how they achieve life-long learning when their learning is deep and reflective, not merely memorization. But in essence, student-centredness means something that happens within the classroom, putting the organic experience of the student at the centre. Much is to be located at the centre, a construct of remarkable pressure. With student-centred learning, the centre swells to subsume the syllabus, the agency of the teacher, the assessment and the learning activities.

As with the metaphor of deep and shallow in deep and surface learning, the great edifice of Anglophone academies organizes itself around an image: the image of a centre. Before proceeding to a third definition of student-centredness—which is rather on the conjectural side and is more radical than both the technical definition and the dynamic pedagogical narrative of Biggs—it is necessary to question the very term ‘student-centred’. We know what a student is but what is a centre? What does ‘centred’ mean? In good faith, we put the two words together to mean ‘focused upon students’, so that students are the primary preoccupation of the educational system. The implication, as already suggested, is that this centre might formerly have been posited as the teachers (who either have clever or dull ways of conveying material or instilling ideas). More likely, this centrality of the teacher is subsumed by the centrality of the institution itself. It could arise, for example, when a university has an enviable tradition and brand-name which it owes in large measure to its research profile and reputation for attracting elite students. The institution sees itself, and demands to be seen, as the epicentre of advanced thinking. The individual student within it might be felt to be not at the centre of the university but some junior periphery, whence the student might patiently aspire to a condition of greater centrality with the university’s greatness, its high attainments of scholarship and intellectual advances. In Biggs’ scheme, this sense of the centre as the university itself belongs to the first level of thinking about students: what the students are, not what they do.

But to use the word ‘centred’ means neither what they are nor what they do but where they are. Clearly ‘centred’ is a metaphor and is not intended physically; but the language is both recent and telling. Centre and centred invoke an image, a lot like a wheel, where the middle is the axle, the point at which everything turns.

‘Centre’ is an old Greek word (κέντρον) which, however, did not mean centre in the sense of ‘middle’. It meant a point, a pin or spike, a goad such as one uses for a horse2 which was sometimes double3 and hence perhaps best translated as spurs. As a spike, it is what Oedipus might put his eyes out with;4 and, as horribly, it could be an instrument of torture, mentioned together with whips.5 It could be used metaphorically but in the sense of an impulse6 and is never very far from its verbal form, to pierce or prick (κεντέω), which is what bees and wasps do,7 or to even stab,8 which is echoed through the etymological insight of our Shakespeare in his line ‘Affection! thy intention stabs the centre’.9

Already in Greek, however, the word transitioned toward a geometric meaning through the image of the pin or peg or rivet or rowlock.10 If you draw a circle with a compass, one point stays in the middle, the centre where the spike is, and the other describes the continuous arc that surrounds it. This stationary point at the middle is the pin (κέντρον) or centre11 which could also be the centre of a sphere12 or the earth which was correctly understood to be a sphere.13 From this technical image, the idea arose that any body has a centre: a zone is centre-like (κεντροειδής) whence something may turn on a centre (περίακτος) and something that wobbles rotates in a way that is not true to its centre (ἔκκεντρος), that is, eccentric.

By the renaissance, the idea that the earth is in fact a sphere still had a degree of excitement. ‘Now we know’, says a poem by Agnolo Firenzuola, ‘that there are people beneath us and they turn step by step by the force and virtue of the centre’,14 anticipating Shakespeare’s hyperbole that ‘This whole earth may be bor’d; and that the moon / May through the centre creep and so displease / Her brother’s noontide with the antipodes’.15 Elsewhere, Firenzuola describes the impenetrability of the centre of the earth.16 Derived originally from the point of the compass, the motif of the centre has enormous prestige, as it translates to the eternally immovable, the rock- solid core surrounded by unthinkable tonnages which are the weight of the universe. So in praying to God, Vittoria Colonna contrasts herself as afflicted earth, with a centre around which divine providence gyrates.17 So too in love, one is drawn into contrasts of a centre in an unchanging universe and the unstable wheel that spins one’s fate.18

The word centre is rare in literature of the renaissance. It occurs in few circumstances, perhaps because the subject matter is so seldom geometrical. The only instances where it arises are circumstances that describe geology with a certain hyperbole, referring to the centre of the earth as a sign of how deeply one might plunge into the abyss, as in Bandello: ‘I should have been submerged and hurled into the chasm to the centre of the earth’.19 In poetic language, the centre of the earth was a byword for the deepest engulfment, ‘to penetrate the earth right to the centre and the infernal pits that encircle it’,20 or where the earth opens up to the very centre.21

Slowly, however, the word moved to mean the middle of anything, not just that unique axle of the universe. It begins in the high renaissance where, for example, Baldassare Castiglione describes the Aristotelian formula for virtue as the middle of two extremes, both of which are vices, the one for being too much of something and the other for being too little. To explain the subtlety, he uses a nice analogy: just as it is hard to find the centre of a circle, so it is hard to identify the mean between excess and deficit.22 We see the first signs of the centre being moralized, positioned, so to speak, as the ideal. A little later in the same chapter of The courtier, the image is identified with goodness. ‘I say that beauty is born of God but it is like a circle, of which goodness is the centre; and just as you cannot have a circle without a centre, so beauty cannot exist without goodness’.23

As we know from the ordeal of Galileo, it was believed that the centre of the universe is the earth, as Castiglione says, the rotund heavens adorned with so many divine lights, and the earth in the centre, surrounded by the elements and sustained by its own weight.24 This image of planetary grandeur especially suited baroque taste, with its majestic command of extravagance in things good and negative. For Shakespeare, ‘the strong base and building of my love / Is as the very centre of the earth’.25 To discover its centre, the earth itself is enjoined to turn itself inside out: ‘Turn back, dull earth, and find thy centre out.’26 As in the earlier period, the extreme of anything deep can be figured as the centre of the earth: ‘you must dig with mattock and with spade, / And pierce the inmost centre of the earth’.27 For all that, the centre begins to lose its cosmic uniqueness as the centre of the earth and one begins to talk of other things having a centre. Thus England may be conceived as having a centre: ‘even in the centre of this isle, / Near to the town of Leicester’;28 and so the town square is seen as the urban centre: ‘the market-place, / The middle centre of this cursed town’.29 Applied to geography, it is a considerable breakthrough in the history of ideas, because it means that the centre is no longer unique, in the same way that any number of circles will have the same number of centres. Every country must have a centre—its own and not that of another—and within that country every town must have a centre proper to it. The relativity of the centre is discovered.

A centre can be plural but not multitudinous. On one occasion, the centre is invoked in relation to the individual: ‘Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,’30 which is found in the more introspective genre of the sonnet; but even here, the metaphor is not realized without the superintendence, so to speak, of the earth. The soul is unique and it follows that there are as many unique centres as there are souls; but Shakespeare does not quite say so. The centre is still the earth’s, albeit ‘my earth’, the earth that I belong to and that belongs to me. Tantalizingly, the relation of a centre and an individual remains hanging in the air for a very long time. The baroque period is fundamentally not very interested in individuality, a word which is used in the seventeenth century but is also only understood in the contemporary sense in the eighteenth century. Throughout the baroque, the concept of a centre remained mostly geographical one way or another, either in its ancient alignment with the centre of the earth—mostly for dramatic clout, as in Corneille’s line from 1636 where one plunges live to the centre of the earth31—or the motif of the centre of a kingdom, as when Racine admires the way that Augustus spread his light to the very edge of the earth while hardly moving from the centre of the empire.32

Certain paradoxes of the concept emerge in this strangely elliptical history, where a tiny point somehow embodies both something intimate and cosmic. The baroque is playful with its circles and centres, and begins to emotionalize them. In an idyll, Giambattista Marino describes the noon as the day being ‘in the centre of its wheel’.33 Above all, however, the centre with the greatest prestige is the heart. In another idyll he writes ‘just as you’ve opened the centre of your heart to love’s dart, thus it is necessary for me to open the most hidden thoughts of the deepest recesses to find what secrets Destiny has written in the gloomy archive of immortal laws’.34 This image of the innermost heart, the centre of the heart, recurs in other poets, like Scipione Errico, who also discovers that the sparks of love were locked and hidden there.35

A gift of a painting from another poet can touch the poet Marino to the centre of his heart.36 In a way it is a tautology. The heart is already a centre: it is imagined as the core, which is also the Latin word for heart (cor). But the heart itself is a pumping organ that can be extracted with a knife in many gory renaissance stories. For the heart to function as a core, so to speak, one adds the slight redundancy ‘the centre of ’ the heart. It is a bit like the colloquial ‘in my heart of hearts’, also illogical but well portraying the mental stress in capturing an idea of emotional centrality. It might be nonsense, too, since the things that you feel so deeply and impute to the innermost heart are tingles that are felt all over the body but perhaps least of all in the heart, which only registers a feeling by its increased pulse. For one reason or another, the centre of the heart recurs in Marino’s epic many times:37 open my breast and look in my heart at the centre;38 from the centre of the heart, one draws a sigh39 or words that rise like fire.40

But Marino is also open to using the word centre to describe the middle of anything. An example is the centre of a wide and shady forest,41 the centre of a room with a statue of Atlas42 or even the inner penetralia of the ear43 or a secret bath sculpted in the centre of a wood44 or a tree of immortal green that makes a terrace of shade in the centre of the field.45 Like a baroque garden designer, Marino loves the centre of things, especially when clinched with some landmark like a fountain46 and which accords not just with the palatial vistas of baroque gardens but the centralizing of government in the baroque.47

On one occasion, Marino writes of the ‘centre of my desires’48 but even in the following century, the metaphor is not hugely advanced. Often writers of great wit and sentimental imagination like Montesquieu only use the word to apply to the centre of a circle.49 During the enlightenment, one spoke of ‘the centre of virtue, the idea of true love’.50 In his instructions for the scene of La fiera di Sinigaglia Carlo Goldoni calls for a town square or the town centre with various shops51 and in the preface to La buona madre, Goldoni calls the court the centre of the nation,52 and elsewhere, one of his characters says that ‘I am yours, that which the throne represents in this centre’.53 On the other hand, the centre can be used—as in Australia— to indicate the remoteness of a place. It occurs in a letter by Metastasio, declaring that there is no gondolier in Venice, no crook in Rome, no idiot in the furthest edge of Calabria or in the middle of Sicily (nel centro della Sicilia) who does not detest, condemn and deride this plague that we call eighteenth-century fashion (secentismo).54

These stories in the evolution of the concept are valuable not because we need a complete and continuous history of the word from antiquity to now but because the period to the dawn of the industrial revolution reveals a structural stress and unsustainable pomposity in the word. Centredness begins with a prick and rises by geometric metaphor to an assertion of universality—indeed that unique point which is the centre of the universe—but is fraught the moment it transcends this uniqueness. Once the centre applies itself to multifarious settings, it becomes contested and vague, at risk of banality and solipsism. Historically, it begins as a physical point and arrives at the condition of immovability, the one centre for the whole world. Then it wanders somewhat and is applied with relativity to nations, cities, gardens and hearts. Today, in spite of the untrammelled proliferation of the word, now commonly reaching into the psychological, there is no certainty that the centre is positive; and even ‘centredness’ is not always a virtue. Normally, when we say that someone is centred, it indicates stability, balance, lovely metaphors that also derive from physics. The lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary also acknowledge a psychological meaning of the word ‘centred’, which arose in the 1970s, apparently in America. It means ‘emotionally well-balanced or serene, at ease with oneself, self- assured.’

Even these latter-day meanings, however, are not as stable and unequivocal as the physical image suggests; and the historical paradoxes continue with other equivocations. We can equally say that someone is ‘self-centred’, meaning egotistical and selfish. This negative conception of centredness is extremely common and is the opposite of being ‘centred’ in the sense of balanced: rather it means needy, self-absorbed and probably insecure. Google finds four million instances of it. There is scarcely a stronger image of morally reprehensible narcissism, because it suggests that love of the self comes at the expense of consideration for others. Lexically, it has no natural antonym. One cannot say that a person is ‘other-centred’. It makes no sense, because the address to the multiple contradicts the uniqueness of the centre.

Although relatively new in the history of ideas, the concept of centredness is archaic in atomizing people. Instead of seeing people as relational entities, it sees them as a kind of atom with a nucleus. There may be no necessary contradiction between the individual and the relational: ideally, we can be very certain of our independence and at the same time connect with our community. Ideally, communities are nodal, with each individual a kind of centre, insofar as each person provides the connection with a group.

While only a matter of emphasis, the symbolism of language is powerful. The conception is mighty in a way that highlights its own neurotic fragmentation to the very atom. Casting the emphasis on the individual with a centre as opposed to the individual partly described by his or her connexions (let us say the relational) runs counter to recent philosophy that understands human phenomena as multifocal rather than structured by binaries like centre and periphery. In particular, the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari has challenged the positivist assumption that objects and beings can be categorized according to tree-like structures, such as Domain > Kingdom > Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species.55 Instead of a classification that assumes an arborific structure, Deleuze and Guattari promoted the image of the rhizome, the plant tissue which is not conscripted into channels of centrality but maintains a cellular economy without any sense of greater and lesser. It is a poststructural understanding through which human phenomena can be conceptualized by association rather than a master narrative of causation, hierarchy and centrality.

When we say student-centred, of course we do not mean to imply any kind of hierarchy. It is more the opposite, where the impulse is to offset an institutional hierarchy (or centre) and to allow for the irreducible integrity of the individuals to whom the hierarchy ministers. But what type of centrality do we expect for the decentred? At the risk of being literal, it seems so odd to tie ourselves linguistically to a centre when—rightly or wrongly—contemporary understanding of the learning experience emphasizes the relational. In most cases, there are at least two foci, as with an ellipse: the student and the teacher. But then there are other students in the class, all of whom have a teaching role, just as there may be other teachers in a group-taught unit or module, all of whom have different voices and approaches, quite possibly different opinions and ideas of pedagogy. The student works it out and is intensely aware of the oddness of this class or that. The peculiarities of the lecturing staff are much likelier to be a topic of conversation among students than the syllabus.

Education is rhizomatic. It is not centred, even if we argue that the imaginative instance of learning is unique to each individual. But if the whole communicative economy of education were artificially centred, it would be mortified. It would potentially suit my case to be able to reduce the learning experience to the hermetic integrity of the individual, as the individual is the unique owner of an imaginative moment of projection, casting an identity over new subject matter and developing a self-image in the process. But education is hardly confined to that moment, which consists of legion encounters that either encourage or discourage the creative leap. Politically, we want to be able to say: in our academy, education is student-centred. But the structure, if it has any meaning related to our long history, is confusing and archaic.

The multifocality of the student learning experience is seen nowhere better than in the agency of feedback. From the student’s perspective, to attend, participate and produce would be incomplete if there were no feedback. The importance of feedback is its communication of the teacher’s opinion or possibly also the opinion of peers. The feedback may or may not be consonant with the learner’s understanding but it structurally completes the pattern of learning-by-doing and represents the integrity of the learning experience. Even if your judgement of your own work testifies to high self-esteem, the nitpicking or approbation is a key indicator that your efforts have connected with someone. Another mind has evaluated your work, has followed where your mind has been and makes reflexions on it. It is in many ways the most outstanding element that distinguishes organized education from autodidacticism, more than assessment, because we can learn formally from a teacher without assessments. But if there is no feedback, the student is effectively self-taught. The learning experience is triangulated, as the learner, her or his effort and the teacher, are connected with an expression of reciprocal interest.

Perhaps to avoid any connotations of self-centredness, the term ‘student- centred’ is sometimes substituted with ‘learner-centred’, but the problem in logic remains. Given the classical Biggsian strategies to achieve student- centredness (which all have to do with deep learning), it would be more elegant to say ‘learning-centred’ rather than ‘learner-centred’; because the assumption is that the process of learning is made more efficient, focusing on what it really takes to achieve deep and lifelong learning rather than shallow, opportunistic and easily-forgotten learning.

There is no absolute construct of centredness, much less student- centredness. But if we move from student-centred to learner-centred to learning-centred, the idea begins to take a more logical and tangible form, because the centre in learning is learning itself, even if this definition of centredness risks circularity (so to speak!). If student-centredness were redefined in the direction of learning-centredness, it would consist in a new freedom from assessment-led education. In learning institutions around the world, the stakes in education are competitive. Rightly or wrongly, the performance at exams and other forms of testing is foremost in the student’s mind. Achieving high grades means more choices for gaining admission into other prestigious programs, preferential treatment, scholarships. I do not see how in this pressured environment—where teachers set all the terms and fill the student’s mind with the travails of assessment—we can be so shameless as to invoke the term student-centred.

Under the term student-centredness we project a disingenuous promise to learners that they are at the centre of our preoccupations. But in fact our preoccupations as teachers have little in common with theirs as learners, if not anxiety. Students agonize: ‘how can I pick up all the hints that I’d need to ace the assessment?’ Meanwhile, educators have comparable stress in rationing the hints. They are tasked with the invidious job of telling students everything that they need to ace the assessments—making all activities and delivery line up with the stated learning outcomes—but still leaving enough traps in the assessment so that they can discriminate and produce a curve in the results. Assessment is no longer allowed to be a kind of guillotine at the end of a period of study (even when formative, like the final essay), terminating the semester with its necessary finality; rather, assessment haunts the learning experience throughout, with the ever-present reminder through learning outcomes, learning activities and delivery, all in alignment with assessment and without any scope for disinterested learning.

By disinterested learning, I mean learning that you do for no immediate advantage or without an immediate application, with the possible exception of telling someone about it or dangerously weaving it into an essay that is really meant to be about something else. Universities used to be a haven for disinterested learning, whereas now they only have room for the instructional and the prefigured. Before the doctrine of constructive alignment became universal, there was a slightly irresponsible but nevertheless liberal understanding that the noblest study involved learning that was not exactly called for but occasioned by curiosity or the sway of the syllabus. And to that extent, it was more student-centred, because the student constructed her or his own brief. Constructing the terms of learning these days is not understood in those terms. Rather, Biggs ingeniously attached the cognitive term ‘constructive’ to the bureaucratic term of ‘alignment’, with the implication that activities, delivery and assessment aligning with learning outcomes would magically put students at the centre of their learning; because, as they construct their own learning—so the assumption—they owe it to the alignment with learning outcomes. Somehow, with no embarrassment of a mixed metaphor, the line produces the circle, which produces the point.

Perhaps it is now too utopian to recall, but I remember students studying art history and spending a large part of their time reading on other forms of cultural practice, from feminist theory to poetic literature, only obliquely analogous to the syllabus. As a tutor in the early 1980s, I could see when their efforts were motivated by genuine enthusiasm and it seemed easy to detect when a student was simply piggy-backing from another subject. The spectacle of students freely exercising their imagination remains a thrill for me; and in former times, nothing constrained me from accommodating their enthusiasm, even though it stretched our idea of the syllabus. When a personal study plan was genuinely eccentric and motivated by curiosity rather than calculated for speedy expedience, it still remained risky and overambitious. Students could easily get caught up in alien subject matter and not answer the question. When they succeeded, their heterogeneous efforts were often hard to compare, because all so unalike. But it seemed important to allow students to be creative, use their initiative as individuals and forge something that they could call their own idea.

It has occurred to me to attribute some of this licence to the freedom from statements of learning outcomes. It seemed self-evident that the purpose of studying renaissance art would be to know something about renaissance art at the end of it, but especially to get to think about its history and meaning and exercise one’s talents of observation, perceptive speculation and imaginative expression; whereas today we feel that it is inadequate to rely on this clairvoyance and consequently feel a need to stipulate how the knowledge should be manifest. As an intellectual exercise for us as lecturers, establishing the learning outcomes is worthwhile, as well as bracingly difficult; but what exactly is the value proposition within them for our students? I fear that it is an increase in anxious criteria-monitoring.

If as a student I had been indoctrinated to think of the learning outcomes as I planned my work for the unit or subject or module, there is little chance that I would have felt licenced to exercise my spirit of independence. It is more likely that I would have felt foolish for not following the instructions. Everything is aligned and so my learning activities would have set me up with the best chance of demonstrating the learning outcomes through the assessment process. To stray would be discouraged, because I might be demonstrating another learning outcome which is not listed. Quite likely, I would already have been made aware of the criteria used for marking the forthcoming essay, a list of bullet points which I know would be replicated on the tutor’s marking rubric. I would have every assistance in being able to meet the learning outcomes and none to invent my own. In one sense, the conventions of alignment are enlightened; and we know why they have arisen. But in another sense, they are disastrously prescriptive. In observing the pedagogical machinery, I am largely constrained; my mind is owned by the task master and I would stray from the brief at my peril.

By what diabolical sleight of logic did the academies of the Anglophone world decide that this rigidity would be student-centred? To read Biggs, you would assume that constructive alignment is a precondition of student- centredness, and that only when all the elements of teaching and assessment are constructively aligned can student-centredness be achieved. Alas, the reverse seems more plausible. Sure, a constructively aligned program is student-centred insofar as it is not teacher-centred. But it does not follow that somehow students become more autonomous because the teaching methods are consistently linked with prescriptions or that students can better construct their knowledge because of the certainties of alignment.

It might be objected that the kind of autonomy suggested above is all well and good for elite humanities students—who in a sense can already be treated as research graduates—but it has no application to other disciplines that require a mastery of facts and processes. Up to a point, I cannot deny that there is a discipline-bias in the argument, since a part of it is derived from my own experience teaching and supervising in art, design and architecture for three decades. My intention in citing my own experience was to note how much pedagogical expectations have changed over the period. In the process, however, I must acknowledge that the discipline that I have studied and taught is far from universal.

It is fine to recommend that students can be inventive with their projects when the brief is to write an essay on Titian or art nouveau architecture. The subject matter is creative and it follows that some element in the interpretation will be inflected with sympathetic imagination. If the architecture of Héctor Guimard raves and writhes and breaks convention, Nalini too can reach a high pitch of descriptive euphoria, without necessarily plunging into indulgence. Or as a literature student, say, Nalini, whom we spoke of earlier, can find a lot of licence in her essay on TS Eliot, because Eliot himself is full of imagery, evocations, ambiguities: the field invites the reader to put things together in imaginative connexions with the idiosyncrasies of the verse. Nalini cannot be as incoherent as Eliot in her essay, because she still needs to follow an expository purpose, but she can certainly exploit the moody wayward changes of Eliot’s content and prosody.

This reciprocal enchantment of topic and essayist cannot be matched in maths or econometrics or physics or accounting or chemistry. Learning in most disciplines has a slightly different trajectory, which is less about creatively throwing your powers of interpretation around and more about understanding principles and techniques which then allow calculation and decisions. Even within the humanities, several disciplines are not necessarily well studied through rhapsodic personal creativity. Take German language. To fathom the grammar, vocabulary and syntax—and then to gain skills in listening and talking—might indeed involve imagination as well as memory; but the learning exercise does not afford the kind of poetic conjecture that puts me in the centre, me as the new revisionist of canonical works, charming my way to imaginative expressions that magically establish my viewpoint as the conduit of world interpretation. In my German studies, I need to build an ability to say things, for which I need a lot of knowledge and practice in conjugation and declension, word-order and of course the largest possible vocabulary. Otherwise, all my personal zeal will only lead me from blunder to blunder, and no one will find it rewarding.

There are two ways to answer this critique. First, though we definitely have technical disciplines that are understandably intolerant of eccentricity, we also have broad educational learning outcomes for all our degrees. Good universities have enlightened graduate attributes (or student capabilities) which include ethical and expressive dimensions. Monash University, for example, expects that its students will know how to communicate perceptively and effectively. It is a wonderful enlarging brief for the university as a whole. The students in maths or econometrics or physics or accounting or chemistry all need the same skill. Where will they get it? We cannot simply say that those qualities are really only proper and essential to humanities students, even though they would be admirable and desirable for all students to have.

Second, being student-centred is not really ever about the subject matter but the fact that one is learning; and learning anything, as we have argued, is a creative act, where we graft newly encountered material onto projections of an identity that we will gain as we absorb it. It may or may not be true that we learn literature by writing with an imaginative impulse; but all learning is about developing some enthusiasm for and ownership of the material because it makes sense and becomes a part of us. In learning, that is, what first seemed chaotic becomes intelligible as a set of meaningful relations; and this new perception of sense is something proper to you as a learner—delightfully so—not the subject matter itself, even though someone may be demonstrating the sense in it for you and activating the thrill of seeing it. So understanding the inverse square law or the pressures in a pipe are realities in your mind when you learn about them: they aren’t abstract or remote any more than poetic literature is. Certainly the inverse square law is universal and does not harmonize with idiosyncratic interpretation; but it still exists in the imagination, is enlivened with language and metaphor: you understand it through stories and images and can explain it as an interpretation of other curiosities of physics, like gravity.

Student-centredness is not about eccentricity or flattery for students who have the confidence to indulge their imagination. Still less is it about the teacher withdrawing from a forceful narrative presence in the relationship. It is not about choices offered on a purely technical level. It may, from time to time, involve all of these qualities, but the one that is primary is the ancient motif of sympathy between teacher and student, where the teacher actively participates in the thinking of the students and enables the embrace of foreign concepts or methods toward an enlarged identity. This sympathetic form of engagement has arguably been suppressed by the very system that is represented as student-centred, namely constructive alignment.

We are not about to dismantle the established architecture of constructive alignment, even though it is so prescriptive and corrosive to intellectual autonomy. For the moment, we have to live with it, because any alternative will be construed as confusing or mystifying students; it would stand accused of not ministering sufficiently to anxiety over assessment and may be identified with the arbitrariness of older arrangements in liberal studies. For all that, the doctrine of constructive alignment will not last forever; and of all the competing pressures on educational priorities, the claims of student-centredness are among the more exigent. Our ability to think of what student-centredness is, what learning-centredness is, could be considered undeveloped.

Beyond pointing out the somewhat contrary nature of student-centredness and constructive alignment, my contention in this chapter is to suggest that the understanding of student-centredness is advanced by thinking of the very motif of centredness, the centredness of anything, which is always relative to parameters that include other entities and other centres. Whatever else it involves in its tellingly paradoxical history, centredness in our environment involves two people: a learner and a teacher. For students to own their learning and enjoy their due margin of creativity, they need maximum licence to engage their powers of interpretation and invention; but for this autonomy to be realized, they need the support of a teacher, a person who eyeballs their attempts at speaking, their plans and their efforts, and gives them confidence in the worth and growth of their intellectual integrity. In education, the centre moves constantly and it makes little sense to pretend that it is fixed in the student any more than it might be fixed in the teacher. This mobile, dynamic perspective is at the heart of a post-constructive paradigm of learning and teaching.


1 Kimberly Overby, ‘Student-Centered Learning’, ESSAI: Vol. 9, 2011, Article 32. Available at: http://dc.cod.edu/essai/vol9/iss1/32.

2 Iliad 23.387, cf. 430, Aristophanes, Clouds 1297, Xenophon, Cyropedia 7.1.29 (examples from LSJ).

3 Sophocles, Oedipus the King 809.

4 Sophocles, Oedipus the King 1318.

5 Plato, Laws 777a, Herodotus 3.130.

6 Pindar, Fragments 124.4, ‘πόθου κέντρον’ in Plato, Republic 573a, or κέντρα καὶ ὠδῖνες’, in his Phaedrus 251e; ‘κέντρον ἐμοῦ’, a desire for me, Sophocles, Phoenecian women 1039.

7 Aristophanes, Wasps 225, 407, Aristotle, Parts of animals 683a12.

8 Sophocles, Antigone 1030.

9 Shakespeare, The winter’s tale 1.2.

10 ῥακτηρίοις κέντροισιν, of oars, Sophocles, Fragments 802.

11 Plato, Timaeus 54e, Aristotle, APr.41b15, al.; ἡ ἐκ τοῦ κ. (sc. εὐθεῖα) radius, Euc.Opt. 34; ‘ὥσπερ κύκλον κέντρῳ περιέγραψαν τὴν πόλιν’, Plutarch, Rom. 11.

12 ‘τὸ κέντρον τᾶς σφαίρας’, Ti.Locr.100e.

13 ‘τὸ κέντρον τῆς γῆς’, Ptol.Tetr.52.

14 ‘Sappiam pur chiar che son oggi nel mondo / Uomini sotto a noi, e che, del centro / Forza e virtù si volge pianta a pianta;’ Agnolo Firenzuola, Rime 79.92–94.

15 A midsummer night’s dream 3.2.

16 ‘E come pietra, o qual sia cosa grave / Non può passare il centro della terra’, Agnolo Firenzuola, Rime 92.164–65.

17 ‘Risguarda me, Ti prego, in questo centro / terrestre afflitta, e, come sempre sòle, / la Tua pietade al mio scampo proveggia’, Vittoria Colonna, Rime spirituali 88.9–11.

18 ‘Dal basso segno omai non volge altrove / per me l’instabil rota, e s’affatica / tirarla al centro, e ’n Ciel stella sì amica / non sent’io che s’opponga a le sue prove,’ Vittoria Colonna, Rime amorose disperse 26.5–8.

19 ‘Io, io devea allor allora essere sommerso e abissato nel centro de la terra!’ Matteo Bandello, Novelle 4.5.

20 ‘e penetrar la terra fin al centro, / e le bolge infernal cercare intorno.’ Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso 34.5.3–4.

21 ‘t’apristi insino al centro’, ibid. 43.140.7–8.

22 ‘perché così come è difficile nel circulo trovare il punto del centro che è il mezzo, così è difficile trovare il punto della virtù posta nel mezzo delli dui estremi, viciosi l’uno per lo troppo, l’altro per lo poco’, Castiglione, Il libro del Cortegiano 4.40.

23 Castiglione, Cortegiano 4.57.

24 ‘l ciel rotondo, ornato di tanti divini lumi, e nel centro la terra circundata dagli elementi e dal suo peso istesso sostenuta’, Castiglione, Cortegiano 4.58.

25 Troilus and Cressida 4.2.

26 Romeo and Juliet 2.1.

27 Titus Andronicus 4.3.

28 King Richard III 5.2.

29 1 King Henry VI 2.2.

30 Shakespeare, Sonnets 146.1.

31 ‘Ou t’enfoncer tout vif au centre de la terre’, Pierre Corneille, L’Illusion comique 3.9.

32 ‘on n’a point vu de roi qui, à l’âge d’Alexandre, ait fait paraître la conduite d’Auguste; qui, sans s’éloigner presque du centre de son royaume, ait répandu sa lumière jusqu’au bout du monde’, Racine, Alexandre le Grand, address au Roi.

33 ‘Era nel centro / dela sua rota il giorno’, Marino, Atteone, Idillio 2.266–267.

34 ‘sì come il centro / del cor più volte dal tuo dolce figlio / saettato t’apersi, / così gli arcani interni / de’ più chiusi pensier convien ch’io t’apra, / con quanto di secreto / dentro l’archivio cupo / dele leggi immortali ha scritto il Fato.’ Proserpina, Idillio 5.37–44.

35 ‘Le dolci fiamme ch’a la prima etate / M’arser il sen, poi che il mio ben fu assente, / Non furon punto intepedite o spente, / Ma nel centro del cor chiuse e celate.’ Scipione Errico, Sonetti e Madrigali 14.1–4.

36 ‘L’imagin tua, che ’n dono or mi concede / Claudio, affetto cortese, è quella istessa / che nel centro del core io porto impressa, / e che de’ miei pensieri in cima siede.’ Ringrazia Claudio Achillini del suo ritratto mandatogli 1–4.

37 ‘perch’al centro del cor premendo il dardo / su la cima d’un labro accoppia l’alme.’ Adone 8.127.3–4.

38 ‘Aprimi il petto e cerca il cor nel centro’, Adone 12.86.7.

39 ‘e dal centro del cor trasse un sospiro.’ Adone 5.91.2.

40 ‘dale parole / che dal centro del cor m’escon di foco.’ Adone 16.25.6.

41 ‘nel centro allor del’ampia selva ombrosa’, Adone 4.257.7.

42 ‘Nel centro dela sala un vasto atlante’, Adone 5.119.1.

43 ‘passando al centro / il caratter del suon vi stampa dentro.’ Adone 7.15.7–8.

44 ‘un secreto bagno / che nel centro del bosco è fabricato.’ Adone 8.26.5–6.

45 ‘Un Parnasetto d’immortal verdure / nel centro del pratel fa piazza ombrosa’, Adone 9.94.1–2.

46 ‘Quel fonte è il centro onde la linea piglia / ciascuna dele vie che dianzi ho detto.’ Adone 12.162.1–2.

47 ‘e nel centro il piantò del suo giardino / tra mille d’altri fior schiere diverse.’ Adone 19.420.5–6.

48 ‘Centro de’ miei desir’, Adone 15.102.1.

49 Montesquieu, Lettres persanes 16, 98 centre of circle.

50 ‘il centro di virtude, l’idea del vero amore.’ Carlo Goldoni, Ircana in Ispaan 3.10.

51 ‘Piazza o sia centro della Fiera con varie botteghe, fra le quali una bottega di caffè, una di chincaglie, una di panni e sete ecc. Da una parte locanda con finestra, dirimpetto alla bottega da caffè.’ Carlo Goldoni, La fiera di Sinigaglia, description of opening scene.

52 ‘La Corte è il centro della Nazione dove l’aria usa più di cautela, ma dove si sviluppano meglio le verità.’ Goldoni, La buona madre, preface.

53 ‘Io son per grazia vostra, per amor vostro io sono Quella che rappresenta in questo centro il trono.’ Goldoni, La donna sola 5.8 final scene. See also ‘Nel centro della terra da me non sei sicuro.’ Goldoni, Il filosofo inglese. 4.9; ‘Parte di voi coll’armi formi nel centro un forte, Altri i giardin difendano, altri le doppie porte’, Ircana in Ispaan. 2.1; ‘Favoritemi dire come formisi il centro vuoto’ (a military term for entrapment) Goldoni, L’impostore 1.13.

54 ‘Ed è poi palpabile che da un mezzo secolo in qua non v’è barcaiuolo in Venezia, non fricti ciceris emptor in Roma, né uomo così idiota nell’ultima Calabria o nel centro della Sicilia, che non detesti, che non condanni, che non derida questa peste che si chiama fra noi secentismo.’ Pietro Metastasio, Lettere 53, A Francesco Algarotti, Vienna, 1 August 1751.

55 Gilles Deleuze et Félix Guattari, Mille plateaux, Minuit, Paris, 1980.

Creativity Crisis

   by Robert Nelson