Learner-centred education, democracy, and the problem of educational change


By Michele Schweisfurth

I was in New York last week, which was a very fine place to be in the autumn, or just about anytime for that matter.  I was there to attend an Open Society Foundations-sponsored meeting of some of us who have been researching learner-centred education as an imported practice in developing countries.

The Open Society Foundations were founded through the philanthropic efforts of Hungarian-American financier George Soros.  They do quite extraordinary work internationally, with the primary aims of fostering democracy and protecting human rights.  Why should they care what happens in classrooms?  In their own words:

The Open Society Foundations are committed to empowering young people by supporting efforts to increase access to quality education. From early childhood to higher education, we work to ensure young people from different backgrounds have equal access to education and to promote critical thinking, respect for diverse opinions, and free and open intellectual inquiry.(http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/)

The link between democracy and the learner-centred education agenda is clear, through the agendas of equality, critical citizenship, and open inquiry.  This is what I have termed the ‘emancipatory narrative’ in my analysis of learner-centred pedagogy as a travelling policy (2013).  In their various liberal or radical ways, writers in this tradition from Dewey to Freire have eloquently espoused the virtues of learner-centred classrooms as a foundation for the fostering of skills, knowledge and attitudes that underpin democratic societies.

Learner-centred classrooms

But narratives are not truths and to assume that simply deciding to make classrooms more learner-centred will guarantee educational and social change is naïve.  The unnegotiated import of foreign notions of good pedagogy into the developing world has not transformed these societies:  it has barely changed classroom practice, and in some cases, made it worse. 

This is now well-documented and the reasons well-rehearsed:  poor cultural fit; competing imperatives such as high-stakes examinations; teachers who have not personally experienced these pedagogies; policies which promise transformative change without supporting the process; alien languages of instruction; and resource constraints (eg 90 children in a poorly-ventilated under-furnished classroom with a couple of textbooks and an untrained teacher between them.  In the rainy season.  Under a corrugated zinc roof.  You try it).

My own view (justified in considerably more detail in the book) is that aspects of learner-centredness are worth working towards but in culturally-nuanced ways that draw on local pedagogical traditions, and with coherent attention to the other parts of the system that affect what happens in classrooms (that is, all of them).  

Learning effectiveness

Learning effectiveness, the development of democratic citizenship, preparation for the knowledge economy – these are all justificatory narratives for learner-centred education, each of which has some kernels of truth that need further research and contextualisation, but they will not in themselves create educational change. 

Above all learners have rights that need to frame any understanding of educational effectiveness:  the right to a say in matters that concern them, and the right to safety and dignity in the classroom.   These needn’t be at the expense of cultural rights.

Reference:  Schweisfurth, M (2013) Learner-centred education in international perspective:  whose pedagogy for whose development?  Routledge

Or for a short and open access summary:


About Michele:

Michele joined the School of Education, University of Glasgow, as Professor of Comparative and International Education in January 2013 from the University of Birmingham. Originally from Canada, she has also worked as a teacher, trainer or teacher educator in Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Scotland and the Turks and Caicos Islands, and has conducted research in a range of contexts internationally. More information on Michele can be found on her Glasgow University webpage

Picture: Gerd Altmann, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons Commons



We are the Network for Social and Educational Equity, based in the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow. We work with governments, educational institutions, local authorities and teachers to promote educational change.

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About NSEE

The Network for Social and Educational Equity (NSEE) is part of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change (ROC) at the University of Glasgow.

It works in collaboration with schools, local authorities, Education Scotland and partner services to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap in young people’s education.

NSEE helps schools to use appropriate evidence and data within collaborative working approaches to critically examine context and current arrangements, make changes based on evidence, monitor the impact of these changes and reflect on what they learn.

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