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European college students are members of an umbrella organization consisting of 44 national student unions from 37 countries representing more than 11 million students. The ESU serves as the students’ voice within the European Union’s Bologna Process and most importantly the Bologna Follow-Up Group, which is something like the accountability group keeping the Process honest. The ESU members, of course, do not always reach a consensus on issues but they do speak with one voice. That voice has belonged to a Romanian student Ligia Deca, their Chairperson for the past two years.

The seminal organization, created in 1982, changed its name to ESU and rose to prominence in 2002 to consolidate several national student unions. In the United States, the American Student Union started in the Depression Era. Historically, students were united on ideological grounds for the purpose of opening academia to dissent (mostly from the left).  In 1946, the organization evolved into The U.S. Student Association with a more mainstream agenda. ESU is a mixture of the two. Based in Brussels, the ESU lobbies the European Community, just as the U.S. Student Association in D.C. lobbies the U.S. Government, but the ESU effectively represents the diverse political and ideological causes of their constituency.

One of the major concerns of ESU (and reflected as one of Bologna’s Goals) is to make higher education more “student-centered” which they express as: “teaching should no longer be seen as a ‘one way process’ from teacher to learner. Real education can only come about through ‘discussion, projects and challenging the critical mind’.

Student-centered learning is therefore about students as ‘active participants’ in the classroom, as partners who contribute to reaching the required outcomes of a course or programme.” This belief that learning is achieved through the collaborative efforts between both faculty and students may not be accepted by those faculty members claiming learning as their exclusive domain.

There’s nothing radical or unreasonable in the student’s request to have the faculty involve them in their own learning. As a professor, I am sold on the idea and practice it in all my courses. Alarmingly, 70 percent of the European faculty members do not agree that instruction should be student-centered.

In a 2010 survey of their members ESU asked students’ opinion on what should be done about student-centered education in Europe’s universities. Over 75 percent of the students rejected the idea of having national guidelines or accreditation dictate teaching method. Their point of view expressed both their rejection of regulation in general and their recognition that learning is controlled by the faculty member. Yet an impressive 100 percent of the respondents want to have freedom to help choose the content, 80 percent of the students want to be evaluated not just with an exam but on “learning outcomes” and 82 percent want to have a role at evaluating their teachers.

When I began to teach I was told to write down my lecture and read it to the students. That is what my peers did and that’s how I was taught. Fortunately for me the person appointed as my first year mentor was a retired professor who had read Vygotsky and understood that learning was a social experience, an interaction between teacher and student, an open forum where students come to conclusions rather than memorize content.

It is hard to imagine what went wrong, when a people who discovered the basic foundation of student-centered instruction, the Socratic Dialogue, abandoned it. Bologna University was created by students in 1088 as the ultimate student-centered institution. European historians tell us that most of Europe gravitated to teacher-led and content-centered instruction during the Inquisition, established in 1478, perhaps because much of what faculty said, was going to be judged severely. Faculty could not afford dealing with the opinions and questions of students.

I’ve sat in classrooms as an observer in Spain and Italy, and all the classrooms were exclusively teacher-led. Students were evaluated via a single written test and graded on seat time and the ability to remember content.

We don’t have a survey of U.S. students on the same topic but my own undergraduate  students tell me that teacher-centered instruction is the norm for them and that reading from a written lecture has been replaced by reading from a Power Point. If you are a teacher you know that it is a lot easier to arrange the experience around you and what you know. But easy is not best. I have yet to be faced with a teaching philosophy, which states that this is the way it should be. It is a practice without a theory so it must be the result of human nature, the individual’s impulse to control their lives and make things easier for themselves.

Student-centered curriculum requires teachers to be awake, to know the curriculum very well and to cultivate the ability of leading by following, as Lau Tsu suggested.

Europe is undergoing a major transformation in higher education and the biggest hurdle is that of creating learning environments out of their teaching environments. No innovation, no 3-year degree, no Tuning or anything else can compare with the benefits Europe would derive from following the students.

ESU’s members believe in large majorities (80 percent or more) that European institutions need a quality improvement system (not a ranking or accreditation system) and that students should be involved in creating these. I give them an A for holding those opinions.