Student-Centered Classroom: Getting Started

This is a first in a series of posts related to student-centered learning. Posts will include recommended reading, logistical nitty gritty and more. Below is just an introduction to get you started. 

In a teacher discussion group, there has been a lot of discussion about student- centered learning, and more specifically the how tos of implementing it in your classroom. I've been student-centered from day one and worked with students from 6 year olds to graduate students.   Given all the questions I've seen, I thought I'd put together a couple of quick ideas and thoughts. 

  1. You have to let go: Student-centered means just that - the student is leading the study not the teacher. The teacher is a guide and mentor. This requires a serious mind shift of the teacher (not to mention administrators, parents, oh yeah, and students). 
  2. Students may be a bit lost. Students' previous experience is likely to have been to follow the teacher. I researched a school in which several students told me that being a good student meant sitting in learning position and not asking any questions. For many students going from a teacher-centered learning environment to a student-centered learning environment is challenging. Having choice can be remarkably difficult, at first. 
  3. Scaffolded support is key - a student may want to do a project about Leonardo DaVinci. Great. You have a student who is inspired and interested, now what? Providing the tools for students to organize their ideas is key: 
    • What's the plan and potential product or learning goals that will come out of this?
    • How will they organize their research?
    • How will they present their learning goals?
    • What specific skills or content does this student need to develop? 
    • How can some of those be coordinated into this project
    • These are important pieces that you and the student work on. Additionally, over the course of learning there is checking in with students, having students work with each other, sharing of ideas and challenges, and more
  4. Balancing skills and content. Until we rethink the way we view education, we can never truly create student-centered learning (I write in great detail about this in my upcoming book). So in the meantime, student-centered learning requires a balance of skill development and prescribed content. The common core standards, state standards, and districts prescribe the specific content and skills needed for different grade levels: 4th graders should master multiplication, students should know about the Renaissance by the end of 7th grade. So your student-centered classroom has to work within these confines. I call this balance "building foundations"(skills) and "designing bridges"(Student-led curriculum). 

Student-Centered in Practice:  What this means in practice is differentiated mastery learning in the foundations and student choice and design in designing bridges sometimes within the confines of specific content. 
  • Building Foundations (skills): the foundations are
    the skills students need which includes everything from how to take notes and writing a research paper to understanding and applying Pythagorean's theorem.  My math class is 100% differentiated.  Some students are working on linear equations while others are exploring logarithms.  I have huge amounts of curriculum and students go through and track their progress.  Students are empowered in the pace at which they learn, but what they learn is prescribed. They cannot skip ahead without mastering earlier concepts.  
  • Designing Bridges (student-led curriculum)  In designing bridges, students use these skills for lots of choice even when we are working within prescribed content. Building in these opportunities means creating open-ended projects with broad parameters that students can work within - building a medieval village in
    math, applying trigonometry to architectural problems(one student designed a rock climbing gym!), or designing a project about World War II.  The bulk of any unit of study is the student projects. Once students are oriented to a topic, I introduce the student project which has suggested topics (students can make their own) and formats (students can make their own). This is where the students take off. Every unit I teach, I learn something new about that content area because of individual student interests.  Student-centered learning is extraordinary! 
  • A note about designing bridges, the timing is important.  Station activities on individual topics introduce the overall idea or skills needed for students to have the foundation to design a project that is meaningful to them and fits the unit of study.  If I start by saying we are studying World War II, what do you want to learn about, students have no idea about where to begin. 
This is just a brief introduction. Student-centered learning is in many ways ten times more challenging than traditional teaching, but it is also infinitely more valuable and rewarding for both teachers and students. 

You can learn more about student-centered learning here.