When I was first introduced to student centered learning, it was very much “trial by fire”. We were told to do it, but we weren’t told HOW to do it (sound familiar?) Over the years, I began truly seeing the value in learner centered education and was determined to get it right. When I would hit a home run, the kids loved what we were doing and were learning SO MUCH MORE than I could have ever taught them in a teacher-centered environment…but when it bombed, it BOMBED. Why wasn’t there anything out there that explains how to be student-centered every day…all the time?? Fortunately for you, now there is. Welcome to Student-Centered World, where we focus on all things learner centered education.
What is student centered learning?
In a traditional classroom, a teacher directs everything that goes on in the classroom. It puts a LOT of pressure on them to get it just right…and given the laundry list of demands that seem to show up each year in larger amounts than the last, this creates an environment ripe for burnout. In a student centered classroom, while the teacher helps to facilitate everything and make sure each and every lesson is perfectly targetted to hit whatever recommended standards are required, it is the student who is responsible for the execution of that (and would you believe me if I told you that not only do they do this once they understand how it works, but they enjoy it??). A learner centered education empowers your students with soft skills that today’s Generation Z has a tendency to lack and it helps them to learn independently. Gone are the days where we can talk at our students….the average 20-minute attention span has been reduced to 7 seconds (yes seconds…that isn’t a typo). Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to make sure they’re actually learning the way they do best….not the way students in the past have?
The Student-Centered Model boosts lifelong learning because it teaches the student HOW to learn, not just WHAT to learn. It creates an environment of critical thinking, not passive learning. This is all manageable (no matter what demographic you are working with) because the needs of the student come first. While yes, there’s a written curriculum and specific standards each student must master, they can do so in ways that interest them or at a pace or level that fits them best. Student-centered learning naturally differentiates for each and every student in your classroom, and as the teacher, once you have it set up, it runs on auto-pilot.
Differences Between Learner-Centered Education and Traditional Learning
We ALL learned in a traditional model, even if your school was progressive, at one time or another. When you think of a stereotypical classroom, that’s it. You have rows of desks, all facing the “sage on the stage”, who tells you what you need to know, expects you to write it down, memorize it, and then spit it back. The pace, content, and methodology are all dictated by the teacher. TODAY’S STUDENTS DON’T LEARN THAT WAY! They respond best when they feel they have a vested interest in what they are doing. Projects or specific work set by the teacher is NOT student-centered learning! However, in the learner-centered education model, the responsibility, pace, and execution is all in the hands of the student.
But wait…how in the world do you make this possible? There’s a GREAT article by Literacy and Language Center Media titled, “What exactly is student-centered learning?” that really does a phenomenal job breaking all of this down. One particular section titled “How can a child’s interests be incorporated into their education?” explains it with perfection. They state:
There are a myriad of ways that interests can be incorporated. That interest in their favorite video game or cartoon can easily be incorporated into a points sheet, reward system, or other instructional materials. Have a student with a taste for all things Minecraft? You can make Minecraft themed flashcards to review common reading and spelling rules. This helps students buy into their learning process.
Fascinations and interests easily lend themselves to fun projects and reward systems, just as they lend themselves to the development of literacy via an ever-present thirst for knowledge. Educational and research tasks can be centered around topics that a child already holds a high amount of interest in.
Once you get to know your students, this becomes easier and easier to accomplish. By the end of the year, your classroom is a well-oiled machine.
The student-centered learning environment
The most simplistic way to put it, a student-centered environment needs to encourage collaboration and movement. Flexible seating should be available for students who need to move around or engage in different seating arrangements to be the most productive. As a (comical) rule of thumb, if you can ask your students where the front of the classroom is and they can’t figure it out right away, you’re doing it right! Having a fully student-centered classroom environment is much easier than you think (and does NOT have to be expensive).
(Interested in some of the items above? Check out our article: Top 10 Teacher Supplies YOU NEED)
Best Practices of Student-Centered Learning
There are a lot of myths that surround learner-centered education One of the biggest ones is that the teacher just kicks back and does nothing while the students do all the work. This is so far beyond not true it’s frustrating to hear. There is a lot of planning that goes into a well-executed learner-centered lesson. The learner must know lesson goals and skills on how to reach them. These aren’t just pulled out of the air. There is a lot of skill work that goes into it. Activities must consistently reflect high-order thinking and address the interests of the students on a consistent basis. Those activities should also reflect outside of the walls of the classroom. Have a great project? Invite other classes to watch or have your administrators come in. Display the work in the hallways so other students can take a look. The possibilities are really endless.
Assessments are also very different. While some traditional testing works, there are multiple, varied assessments that go on on a daily basis so the teacher can truly know if a student is grasping the content or not, and it allows the teacher to revisit elements as necessary for specific students. One of the biggest questions asks how a teacher can be certain that basic content is learned amongst all students if they don’t lecture or otherwise give them that information. I’m a HUGE promoter in the flipped classroom, which is another model that goes off like a well-oiled machine once it is implemented appropriately.
So Yes, Learner-Centered Education Works
The number one hang up people normally have when switching to a student-centered model is the idea that “this would NEVER work in my classroom”. I assure you, it will. For the last several years I worked at a Title-IX school where graduation rates were mediocre at best and most students went to school just to get away from home. That right there is one thing that always kept me going….they were at school, which is half the battle. It takes a minute to get buy-in, but once the scales tip and more students are “in” than aren’t, it really begins to fall together. I’ve had so many students who have come up to me at the end of the school year telling me how much more they’ve learned in my class than any other class they’ve taken before. I’ve had students tell me that my class is the only one they didn’t have to study all hours of the night before an exam because they were confident they already knew the material. I’ve also had students that everyone else had given up on, but because of the nature of my class, they saw me as a confidante and I was able to watch them graduate when all the odds were stacked against them. If you’re in the business of teaching to watch your students thrive and succeed, then student-centered learning is the direction you want to go.
Student Centered learning is learner facilitated, which implies the student has just as much of a vested interest in their education that a teacher, parent, or administrator would have. It is up to THEM to ensure their achievement. It is solely directed by rubrics and general criteria for the assignment (think: how will this help show a learned standard) and is the only consistent pieces that should be consolidated into all students work. Your students will finally take pride in what they are doing because they have a vested interest in it, and yours will be the class they all want to be in.