Bowdoin Philosopher: Where is Teacher in Student-Centered Education?

Story posted January 05, 2009

doris santoro
Doris Santoro

Where education is concerned, many people seem to think they're philosophers. In Doris Santoro's case, however, it's actually true. The Bowdoin Assistant Professor of Education is among a select group of academics known as philosophers of education—scholars who pose educational questions using philosophical texts as primary resource material and philosophical inquiry as their method.

"There are scholars who work with Plato and Aristotle, with Rousseau, Hegel, Kant. Any philosopher is up for grabs," says Santoro. "We ask the big questions: What does it mean to be a good teacher? Can we teach virtue? What does it mean to flourish? What is the purpose of higher education? How does education affect who we are as people?"

Currently, Santoro is asking some interesting and surprising questions about the hidden devaluation of women as teachers in a student-centered pedagogy. Her philosophical jumping-off point is somewhere between feminist theories of marginalization and the educational philosophy of John Dewey, forerunner of progressive education in the United States.

Santoro teaching
Santoro teaches a class, Educating All Students, which examines the implications of universal education in American classrooms.

"Student-centered teaching is a problematic shorthand for progressive teaching," notes Santoro. "We think of bringing the student voice and interest into the classroom, and of teachers as facilitators who draw information out of students, rather than using the chalk-and-talk model of teaching.

"But if you are talking about centering something, whether curriculum or student, what ends up happening is that, by default, there is a margin to that center. The teacher becomes marginalized."

Santoro argues that many people—including the teachers themselves—undervalue the amount of work it takes to bring about student-centered teaching, which renders much of the teachers' labor invisible.

Because teaching in the U.S. is a predominantly female profession, Santoro adds, a pedagogy of disappearance goes unquestioned even though it echoes a vision of a bygone feminine domesticity: "As if the teacher were vacuuming herself out of a room."

"You have a classroom where students are working together in groups, and at this point the teacher is merely walking around," says Santoro. "There is powerful learning going on, but it doesn't happen magically. This is a pedagogy predicated on teachers doing all of this labor and fading away."

Santoro recently published a paper on the topic, "Women's Proper Place and Student-Centered Pedagogy," in the journal Studies in Philosophy and Education.

If Santoro's scholarly approach is conceptual, her drive to explore classroom issues is practical and personal. Before earning her Ed.D. from Columbia University Teachers College, she spent 12 years in gritty, urban schools in New York, New Jersey, and San Francisco, working as a teacher and literacy consultant.

"I had success in those schools even though they can be depressing and difficult places. I was committed to working with those students and found ways to help them write and express themselves," says Santoro, who taught English and literature. "I love teaching Romeo and Juliet to inner-city ninth graders. When they start using Shakespearean curses down the hallway ... the challenge, their energy, the payoff is huge. Teaching is a form of service with incredible rewards."

Doris in class
"I'm never comfortable leaving my work purely in the realm of the theoretical," says Santoro. "I see my research being generated by actual teaching in classrooms, and being tested by it too."


In her travels throughout the secondary-school system, Santoro observed that many teachers were apologetic about their own teaching methods, particularly if they were giving a lecture. "Over and over, they'd say, 'I'm usually more of a student-centered teacher, but I just have to teach this thing today.' I kept thinking: Why can you no longer offer direct instruction if you are student centered?

"I subscribe to this method of teaching," adds Santoro, "but I think the fact that we have language constricted by the terms 'student-centered' and 'teacher-centered' sets up a binary where one is good and one is bad. I'm interested in having people try not to feel guilty about teaching—to have teachers feel completely able to be present and knowledgeable. To be a full person in the classroom."

Santoro is the only philosopher of education in Maine, a distinction that she says reflects the broader goals of Bowdoin's educational thrust:

"Bowdoin's education department is focused on creating dispositions to teach," she says. "It's about creating learning environments that go beyond one's classroom, about helping learners to grow, about continuing learning yourself. We certainly teach lesson planning and curriculum, but we go beyond the mechanics of how to write a plan or understand learning objectives to helping students ask larger questions about the function of curriculum and their roles as teachers.

"A lot of Bowdoin students minor in education because they love the way it makes them think."

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