Overall, learner-centered environments include teachers who are aware that learners construct their own meanings, beginning with the beliefs, understandings, and cultural practices they bring to the classroom. If teaching is conceived as constructing a bridge between the subject matter and the student, learner-centered teachers keep a constant eye on both ends of the bridge. The teachers attempt to get a sense of what students know and can do as well as their interests and passions—what each student knows, cares about, is able to do, and wants to do. Accomplished teachers “give learners reason,” by respecting and understanding learners’ prior experiences and understandings, assuming that these can serve as a foundation on which to build bridges to new understandings (Duckworth, 1987). Chapter 7 illustrates how these bridges can be built.
Environments that are solely learner centered would not necessarily help students acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to function effectively in society. As noted in Chapter 2, the ability of experts to think and solve problems is not simply due to a generic set of “thinking skills” or strategies but, instead, requires well-organized bodies of knowledge that support planning and strategic thinking. Knowledge-centered environments take seriously the need to help students become knowledgeable (Bruner, 1981) by learning in ways that lead to understanding and subsequent transfer. Current knowledge on learning and transfer (Chapter 3) and development (Chapter 4) provide important guidelines for achieving these goals. Standards in areas such as mathematics and science help define the knowledge and competencies that students need to acquire (e.g., American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989; National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989; National Research Council, 1996).
Knowledge-centered environments intersect with learner-centered environments when instruction begins with a concern for students’ initial preconceptions about the subject matter. The story Fish Is Fish (Chapter 1) illustrates how people construct new knowledge based on their current knowledge. Without carefully considering the knowledge that students’ bring to the learning situation, it is difficult to predict what they will understand about new information that is presented to them (see Chapters 3 and 4).
Knowledge-centered environments also focus on the kinds of information and activities that help students develop an understanding of disciplines (e.g., Prawat et al., 1992). This focus requires a critical examination of existing curricula. In history, a widely used history text on the American Revolution left out crucial information necessary to understand rather than merely memorize (Beck et al., 1989, 1991). In science, existing curricula tend to overemphasize facts and underemphasize “doing science” to ex-