I have been thinking a lot about how organizational cultures change and the challenges that are part of adopting and developing new cultural practices and norms. It is clear to me that culture change requires attention over time, reflecting on what is working and what is not, and a co-creative approach to help make it stick. But I have a cautionary tale about imposing processes that we believe in on people who aren’t ready.

This is a story from my years teaching at Sonoma State University, when I first began teaching a core curriculum course in humanistic psychology to undergraduate students. This was when I encountered an interesting culture change challenge, symbolized by moving chairs.  

What Is Student-Centered Learning?

When I was an undergraduate at Sonoma I had the privilege to experience a student-centered, humanistic approach to learning. I was eager to bring this approach to my students.

The concept of student-centered learning is one of the significant contributions of Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology. In this approach, students and their learning interests are at the center of the learning process, rather than the prescribed curriculum, the teacher’s interests, or the institution, as is often the case in mainstream academic institutions.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, student-centered learning in its purest form was a radical idea. In fact, it still is, although adult learning theory recognized long ago that adults learn best when they are able to put their learning focus on topics relevant to their current situation and interests.

In a student-centered approach, the student’s learning goals drive the learning process. Teachers function more as a resource, helping decide on the approach and offering guiding questions much as a good mentor or coach would do. In these situations, the typical hierarchy between the teacher and learner is more in the background. The learner rather than the teacher is in the driver’s seat of the learning process.

Applying Student-Centered Learning

Inspired by these ideas, I sought to bring those student-centered approaches to life. Instead of sitting in rows with the teacher in front, symbolizing a more teacher-centered approach, I asked students to sit in a circle, emphasizing what they could learn from and with each other rather than just me as the professor.

In addition, rather than offering extensive lectures which would reflect a content-centered approach, I did mini-presentations to introduce topics, then set up highly interactive small- and large-groups that explored topics of interest to the students. Learning teams would form to explore these topics further and share their learnings with the rest of the class.

This process modeled learning as a process of discovery, showing how a topic could be approached through the lenses of the other learners rather than just those of the teacher. What I did not do was lecture and give frequent multiple-choice tests.

Baffled by Student Evaluations

As a designer of learning experiences, designing and facilitating this format was not difficult for me. While I found that students initially were a bit surprised and disoriented about what they were supposed to do, after a few sessions our class times came alive with explorations. I was also satisfied with their projects and reports.

However, the class evaluations baffled me. They were quite a few comments like “the class lacks structure,” “the class is too organic,” or “I did not know what was expected from me,” and “the class is fun, but I am not so sure what I learned.” Wow. I was surprised. Then it occurred to me that the very thoughtful structure I was introducing might be so foreign to my students that they did not recognize it as a learning structure or something they would associate with being in college.

I discussed these comments with one of my mentors, Arthur Warmoth, from whom I learned quite a bit about student-centered learning. He suggested that the next time I teach the course I should introduce this approach slowly rather than all at once at the beginning of the semester and see what happens.

Doing Things Differently

Following Art’s advice, here are some of the things I did differently. I taught the first two classes standing in front lecturing, as most of the students would expect a professor to do. I offered to stop lecturing as soon as they would let me know that they wanted to do something else, which they did in the third class. I also told them that they could turn their chairs into a circle so that we could better see each other while we were talking as a big group. Then at the beginning of class, I let them choose if they wanted to sit in rows or in a circle.

We went back and forth several times, eventually settling on a three-quarter-circle format. This then gave me a chance to reflect with them why the seating structure, as well as other design decisions I had made, mattered so much, and how decisions related to student-centered learning. Sure enough, those baffling comments pretty much disappeared from the evaluations.

Rather than assuming the students would adopt the norms without hesitation or confusion, I realized that a gradual introduction would bring them along and give them a chance to make the changes their own. We created our own classroom culture that was somewhere between my aspirations and what was a comfortable stretch for them. It still yielded the insights I was aiming to emphasize, and ultimately, the students benefitted from a more student-centered format.

Insights for Introducing Change

I hope this story helps to highlight the kind of unexpected or less visible responses that can be evoked by imposing versus gradually introducing new social norms and processes, however well-intended. The story also underlines that involving a group in co-designing and examining the efficacy of a new process can lead to greater buy-in and an approach that is better suitable for the overall context.

The principles of student- or learner-centered learning continue to permeate many aspects of my approach to clients and practitioner development. However, whenever I introduce a new practice that I feel is way outside of the cultural norms of a specific group, I am careful to introduce it gradually so as not to ‘shock’ anyone, or I first ask for permission to introduce it. I have learned this works very well. Gaining permission is often easier then dealing with the confusion and even resistance that otherwise may arise.