In both developed and developing nations, students go to school everyday, quietly sit in front of their teachers, and listen to the teacher explain an idea or concept. They copy down notes and complete teacher-determined assignments. Some ask questions when they do not understand the material, but most do not. In practice, schooling remains a teacher-centered activity throughout most of the world.

Student-centered education (SCE) – the idea that learning should be centered on students’ interests and abilities, and linked to their lives outside of school – has been on the rise around the world, and is increasingly included in national curricula and textbooks (Schweisfurth 2011).

Schweisfurth (2011) finds 72 articles, published in the International Journal of Educational Development alone, that focus on student-centered learning in developing countries. These articles all shared “a concern for the pedagogical, assessment, or curricular implications of change away from ‘teacher centered’, ‘didactic’, ‘frontal’, ‘chalk and talk’ teaching focused on rote learning” (426). In general, student-centered learning draws from the progressive or constructivist approaches to learning.

However, despite changes at the policy level, in the vast majority of classrooms, particularly in the developing world, pedagogies and classroom practices remain highly didactic and teacher-centered. Researchers have found that SCE is difficult to implement for a variety of reasons: technical and resource constraints, a lack of teacher training, and cultural issues. This means that despite changes in official educational policies claiming to be student-centered pedagogies, students are still passive receivers of teacher knowledge.

In our research, we envision classrooms where students are active agents in their own learning. Our research agenda is premised on a very basic question, but one that we believe has the power to fundamentally change educational practice in the developing world:

What if students were the ones asking and answering the questions in school?

What would classrooms look like, if teachers did not direct the majority of instructional time, and students had the ability and the tools to create connections, explore ideas in depth, and test each other on their knowledge of the course’s material?

I have been working with Seeds of Empowerment and Paul Kim to develop the concept of inquiry-based learning, and specifically the SMILE project, which stands for Stanford Mobile Inquiry-Based Learning Environment.

The SMILE project has been carried out in many regions and classrooms already, but I am getting my first opportunity to do research on it in Tanzania…

Please read the concept paper and leave feedback!

SMILE Concept Paper


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