Photo credit: Francisco Osorio
If there’s been a single educational buzzword with traction over the past few years, “student-centered learning” certainly tops the charts. From the TED stage to experimental classrooms, an increasing number of thought leaders, schools and teachers are advocating a handover of the learning experience to the students who must do the learning.
To seasoned educators, the basic concepts that undergird student-centered learning won’t strike them as particularly new. After all, Paulo Freire’s famous critique of the “Banking Model of Education” — the model in which knowledge is a resource that students passively withdraw from the bank (teacher) without active engagement — made waves all the way back in the early 70s. Even earlier in the 20th century, John Dewey, Carl Rogers, and Maria Montessori advocated for student-driven learning, while Theodore Sizer’s 1987 book, Horace’s Compromise, advocated for collaborative learning.
And yet, while student-centered learning did take off in some places (often in private schools), it has only recently begun to take firm hold in public schools. This may be due in part to the renewed influence of educational reformers and an increased urgency to fix a struggling education system. However, the influence of the Common Core’s tough critical thinking requirements can’t be underestimated, as well as the spread of technology that is increasingly making personalized learning a reality.
If we accept the premise that student-centered learning can be a highly effective strategy for many kinds of classrooms and school populations, how can we ensure it is implemented effectively, with intelligence, and without the rigid dogma that so often leads to the failure of so many sweeping educational reforms?
At its most general, student-centered learning is an educational experience that is driven by its students. This can manifest in many different ways. In student-centered learning, students might choose what they want to learn within a set range of topics, lead their own discussions after doing research online, or complete a mixture of online classes and independent study. Student-centered learning can encompass (but is in no way limited to or defined by) project-based learning, active learning, and collaborative learning. As a personalized form of learning, student-centered approaches can mean many different things, as long as they employ that essential pivot from teacher- to student-lead learning. The core goals are to motivate and interest students and to foster critical thinking skills that employ active rather than passive engagement in the classroom. For a deeper look at what student learning is — and what it can be — we can’t recommend this guide from the Education Writers Association highly enough.
Using a struggling New Hampshire school as a case study, the recent Atlantic article, “What Happens When Students Control Their Education?” provides an excellent review of what proponents see as the benefits of student-centered learning and critics see as weaknesses. Here are the key takeaways for overcoming obstacles and successfully making this shift in your classroom or school.
Critiques of student-centered learning often focus on the unruliness that may result when a teacher is no longer firmly in control. But a true student-centered approach in no way means taking the teacher out of the process. Rather, the teacher remains key as a coach and facilitator — the person who puts the structure in place and then makes sure it is maintained as students move within it. This is different from traditional approaches, in which the structure in itself can often feel like an end rather than a mean, but, when done correctly, it should not be a free-for-all.
Importantly, the teacher should also act as a guide to deeper insights, whether that means refereeing so that every person’s input is heard and not just that of the most vocal students, or asking students probing questions at the right moment to prompt them into thinking deeper. This kind of intervention is key in ensuring students move beyond the simple gathering of information via Google search to ingesting and examining it at a deep, integrative level.
Similarly, it is important that the guiding doesn’t stop at discussion and analysis. As the next step in the learning cycle, it is crucial that students then apply their knowledge in new settings. Students should again drive this process, whether it’s determining what kind of projects or further investigations they would like to do, or it’s choosing from a number of choices a teacher has provided. This can also be combined with collaborative learning as a group project.
When student-centered approaches don’t work, it’s often because teachers are simply given a bunch of new jargon to imbibe that is indecipherable from previous jargon, and then are sent out into the wilds of the classroom. Schools that are interested in implementing student-centered approaches should provide ample professional development opportunities, workshops, and mentoring on the subject. This should cover both the deeper philosophical shift at hand as well as specific, concrete lesson plans and coaching techniques. Teachers should also be given training on using individualized classroom devices like iPads to foster a personalized learning environment.
Keep in mind that supporting teachers is also about finances. A 2012 study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that new student-drive programs worked best in schools that reallocated resources in that direction. Even better were schools that generated revenue through private-public partnership — though that financing approach, of course, comes with its supporters and detractors.
Similarly, teachers should take the time to explain the coming changes to their students before implementing them. In doing so, they should of course gather student input, but they should also set boundaries — including the crucial point that this is not about “doing whatever you want” so much as it is “asking your most burning questions” and “exploring topics in which you’ve always been interested.” Students will need to fully buy-in to the idea in order for it to be successful.
When leading a discussion group in particular, teachers may want to experiment with setting and enforcing firm moderating rules that still put the students in charge without letting a minority of vocal students dominate or derail the discussion. These rules can be set by students up front. Alternatively, you might try having one student become the teacher for a session, putting all of the research on the topic at hand onto the student’s plate, and then having them lead the discussion, with each student stating what they’d like to comment about beforehand, and the student determining whether or not they find the comment relevant for discussion. This is a very regimented approach, but it can be highly effective in keeping chatty or unruly classes on track, while still putting control of the discussion firmly in student hands.
With a student-centered learning approach, grades should no longer be the primary learning metric. Comments and in-depth discussion can be far more useful in terms of learning, especially on written assignments. However, many students will still need a more concrete approach, and schools will still need a way of tying competency to Common Core standards. The New Hampshire school featured in The Atlantic article addressed this problem with “competency matrices,” which detailed a number of skills students should master in each class, ranked on a scale of 1 to 4. This allowed the school to provide much more comprehensive and useful feedback than a simple letter grade, but could still be easily translated into traditional grades for transcripts.
Alternatively, in flipped classrooms that have students doing the bulk of their knowledge intake on their own time, quizzes and tests are still relevant and useful, especially in terms of gathering highly specific data to pinpoint where a student needs help. Feedback here can come not only in terms of a number grade, but also with a requirement that the student re-approach questions they missed until they demonstrate proficiency. Overall, tracking growth in a student-centered classroom is crucial to ensure learning is still on track.
Student-driven learning requires an increase in student accountability and motivation. In theory, a student-centered approach will intrinsically draw these qualities out of students. In practice, many students will need coaching and support at home, especially in younger grades. Parents may also need education themselves in just what a student-centered approach is to ensure there is maximum buy-in at home.
Student-centered learning isn’t bounded by a school’s cinder block walls. Whether it’s time in a Maker studio, online courses or an externship or shadowing opportunity for a motivated student who wants to see what life is like outside of academia, giving students the chance for multi-modal, experiential learning is an effective way to broaden minds and teach specific skills — all while putting student choice at the forefront.
While increased test scores will certainly remain an important measure for student-centered schools (at the very least, in terms of funding), it is essential that the definition of success is broadened to include increased graduation and college enrollment rates, as well as any other indications of improvement. This point applies beyond student-centered changes, and is important to keep in mind for any major shift to an educational approach.
Big educational reforms often fail when there is complete orthodoxy about how they are implemented, as well as a universal application to areas for which the given reform may not be the most effective strategy. As such, keep in mind that a student-centered approach may not be the best strategy for every kind discipline or subject area, nor for every student population. The Common Core standards can often be a great navigation tool in terms of determining appropriate areas for a student-centered approach, especially for areas that put a strong emphasis on critical thinking.
As some schools are finding, student-driven education may very well require a rethinking of the principal role. In the New Hampshire school, the single principal was replaced with two deans, one in charge of building management and the other in charge of curriculum and instruction. At least throughout the long transition process, this seems essential for ensuring such a monumental shift in approach is given the resources and attention it deserves.
Student-centered learning represents an important, fundamental, and exciting shift in education. But it is still evolving, and it is not without its detractors. What have your experiences been so far? What has worked for you, and what hasn’t? How would you like to see your school or district better support throughout this transition? Let us know in the comments below and also through Twitter @Edudemic!