Student-centered approaches in Cambodia, Mongolia and Sri Lanka

Mongolian children doing homework
Mongolian children in one of our learning centers

Monika Nowaczyk is Country Development Manager at BOOKBRIDGE and in charge of ensuring the quality of our learning center’s educational offerings. A few months ago, she wrote about the importance of quality in education. In this article, Monika covers the related topic of student-centered approaches in Cambodia, Mongolia and Sri Lanka (here you find all education quality-related articles).

Education Quality: A Tale of Two Classrooms

In classroom A, students are sitting quietly in neat rows all facing the teacher and listening to her speak. She turns to the board and writes a sentence on the board and all the children carefully copy it into their notebooks. The sentence says, What sport do you play? The teacher then shows the class several pictures of people doing different sports. She says the name of each sport, and the children repeat, in unison. Next she writes on the board underneath the first sentence, I like to play basketball. She then asks a student to stand up, asks the question and the student answers, I like to play basketball. She repeats this question and answer with each and every student in the room. To finish the class, the teacher instructs the students to write three answers to the question. One by one, each student goes to the front of the classroom and the teacher checks their writing.

In classroom B, there is chaos. Or so it appears at first glance. The desks have been pushed into the walls and the students are talking, laughing and gesturing in the middle of the room. They are playing a game. Students pair up and ask each other the target question, What sport do you play? Their partner first does the gesture of the sport, which their partner then tries to guess. If correct, their partner answers the question. They repeat this until they have spoken to at least ten others in the classroom. The teacher circulates and monitors and helps students who are shy or who forget the sentence structure. After this game is finished, the teacher reviews the names of different sports by showing the pictures and asking students to call out the names. Students draw a picture of themselves playing a sport and then hang these up around the classroom. To close the class, the class sings a funny song about tennis.

The above are examples from BOOKRBRIDGE learning centers of how different classrooms are run. Which class would you prefer to be in? Which class would you prefer for your child?

Pre-schoolers taking part in a learning activity in a Cambodian learning center
Pre-schoolers taking part in a learning activity in a Cambodian learning center

Student-Centered Approach vs Teacher-Centered Approach

The term ‘student-centered approach’ (sometimes child-centered) refers to a range of techniques, methodologies and learning activities in which the focus is on the active learning of students rather than direct instruction by the teacher. In the student-centered classroom, the teacher acts more as a facilitator than as an instructor. The student-centered approach encourages more collaboration and is more effective in enabling students to achieve learning outcomes, especially in language learning.

In a teacher-centered classroom, on the other hand, the teacher is the most active person in the room while students are passive, usually seated in rows, either copying from the board, repeating phrases or numbers in unison, or quietly completing exercises at their desks. In this type of classroom, the teacher makes all the decisions related to learning and assessment and there is little room for or attention to individual student needs or interests. Students rarely speak, or only when called upon, and are not given opportunity for critical reflection or creative problem solving.

Evaluation of Education Quality at BOOKBRIDGE

Two evaluations took place over the past 15-months at BOOKBRIDGE; in Cambodia in September 2015 and in Mongolia in January 2016. These evaluations, prepared by an external consultant, reviewed education quality at our learning centers within the UNICEF Framework on Educational Quality. One of the key findings of the report in both countries and a key constraint on quality, was that of a predominant use of traditional teaching methods over student-centered ones.

Student-centered approaches to teaching and learning have been around for decades and research in this area strongly indicates that such approaches are more effective in enabling students to achieve learning outcomes, become active learners and critical thinkers and to develop a sense of life-long learning. Such approaches are no longer on the fringe of discourse in education, but are applied in mainstream education systems around the world to varying degrees and are a key indictor in the UNICEF Framework on Quality Education. In Cambodia, the MoEYS teacher training curriculum introduces and recommends the use of student-centered approaches for most subjects, while in Mongolia the standards-based curriculum for Grades 1-12 likewise emphasizes student-centered methodologies.

“Good teaching is more a giving of right questions, than a giving of right answers.” Josef Albers

Resistance to Student-Centered Methodologies

However, despite progress in developing countries at national and policy level to become more student centered, teachers in public schools and at BOOKBRIDGE Learning Centers are generally resistant or hesitant to move away from traditional teaching methods. There are numerous reasons for this, and the understanding of which will be key a BOOKBRIDGE moves towards improving quality at the learning center level.

One of the first and overarching reasons is the the ingrained teaching culture in the countries in which BOOKBRIDGE operates, a teaching culture that prioritizes rote learning over creative thinking, memorization over knowledge creation and passive students over active ones. Added to this are the personal experiences of most teachers, who grew up within these traditional schools and school systems and have likely only ever experienced learning through teacher-led methods. For these teachers, student-centered approaches are unfamiliar and challenge their foundational understanding of teaching and learning.

Sri Lankan children participating in a learning game in our learning center Bandarawela
Sri Lankan children participating in a learning game in our learning center Bandarawela

Teaching Perceptions in Asia

For many teachers in Asia, teaching means giving information or passing on knowledge to students. Student-centered activities, many of which are naturally fun and interactive, are viewed as a break, a distraction from the real learning that happens when students engage in rote memorization or repetition. Some teachers do not recognize the natural, often joyful, learning that happens in such activities compared with the traditional methods of copying, repeating and memorizing.

For a new teacher, or a teacher new to student centered methods, such methods can seem intimidating and counter-intuitive. Teachers in many Asian countries are used to having, or at least attempt to have, complete control of their class. They view their role as the supreme ruler of the classroom. A passive class of students repeating words in unison or quietly copying words from the board, allows teachers to assert and maintain control. Student-centered activities can seem chaotic as students talk to one another in pairs, move around the classroom or participate in active learning activities outside the classroom, often at their own pace. Some teachers feel they loose control in the student-centered classroom and are fearful of this paradigm shift.

Another reason cited by teachers is the feeling that student-centered activities prevent them from fully supporting their students’ learning. For example, in an activity during which students break into pairs to practice a dialogue, the teacher cannot support each pair concurrently. Students will be speaking the target language without immediate correction from the teacher. The teacher may feel that students speaking the dialogue without their constant monitoring could lead to repetition of errors. However, it is this type of free practice that allows students to build their confidence and gives them more opportunity to practice the spoken language than if they are waiting for their turn amongst a class of forty.

An additional constraint faced by teachers in applying student centered methods are parents, as well as students themselves. Parents want to see evidence that their children are learning, and that they are getting value for their money. Usually this means looking into their child’s notebook to check for pages (and pages and pages) of copied words and completed exercises. Children, especially in higher grades are starting to look towards exam preparation and may view activities that are not strictly and clearly ‘learning’ through memorization and repetition as play and a waste of their study time.

Many teachers, especially in Cambodia, are hired at the learning center as part-time staff. They are paid only for the time they teach and it is not uncommon for them to do their lesson prep in the first few minutes of the class, or to do no prep at all as they are not paid for this time. A teacher-centered class, in which the teacher follows a textbook and students copy sentences from the board or quietly complete exercises is much easier to arrange on the spot, than a student-centered lesson which requires more planning and preparation.

Finally, a barrier to student-centered approaches often cited by teachers is a ‘lack of materials’. There is a misconception that student-centered methods require numerous and various materials and tools, which many learning centers don’t have or can’t afford. However, many student-centered activities (such as pair work, exploration of the outside environment, role-plays, etc.) do not require any additional materials at all and can be implemented with minimal resources.


As student-centered approaches are key to educational quality, engaging learners and ensuring they achieve key learning outcomes beyond memorizing and repeating facts and figures, and more importantly that they develop into independent, critical thinking adults and thoughtful, empathetic members of their communities, a gradual switch to student-centered approaches at our Learning Centers is a must. Overcoming the above barriers will be of top priority but significantly challenging and unlikely to happen within a short timeframe.

Heads of Learning Centers will need on-going support in transitioning themselves and their teachers from mostly teacher-centered to mostly student-centered classrooms. As a first step, completing a TESOL course will greatly benefit the skills and knowledge of many learning center staff and deepen their understanding of student-centered approaches specific to English language and how to apply these with limited resources and time constraints. You can support BOOKBRIDGE larning center staff members to take a TESOL course through our Professional Development Stipend Program.

To transition learning center teachers, Heads of Learning Centers will need to provide regular training and workshops for their staff on student-centered approaches. They will need to facilitate the transition with prepared lesson plans that can only be taught in a student-centered manner. Additionally, advanced preparation of materials will be required. One school in Negombo, for example, set up a special English classroom with all materials for active, student centered, activity based learning prepared and ready for use. Teachers only have to enter the room and select an activity based on the grammar point or vocabulary they are teaching, distribute the materials and monitor the students.

Most importantly, and perhaps of greatest challenge, Head of Learning Centers need to foster internal teaching cultures that focus more on creative approaches to engaging students than on following the status quo. They will need to provide a clear path for their teachers to gradually, but continuous, make the change from traditional teacher-centered approaches to progressive, student-centered approaches through positive leadership, encouragement and modeling. Vannak Pen at Tonloab learning center, for example, restructured the courses during the 3pm-5pm time period at his center in which each student rotates through four classrooms in 30-minute increments. Each room focuses on teaching the daily English objective through different methods: singing, physical movement, arts and reading and writing. Teachers are given a lesson plan and have no choice but to apply a more student-centered methodology. It is very difficult to change teacher’s behaviours, especially if they have been teaching for many years, but if the situation is restructured as in this creative example, they have no choice but to adapt to a new reality.

There are many great examples in our learning centers of teachers implementing student centered activities and projects in and outside of their classrooms. This indicates that despite the predominant teaching culture in each country, there is a strong will amongst BOOKBRIDGE teachers to apply modern, child-friendly approaches and that they are able to recognize how beneficial this is for their students. With ongoing support and encouragement, the teaching culture and approach at each learning center will slowly and progressively shift towards modern, creative, student-centered approaches that prepare and enable our students to do what they really are.

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