Student-Centered Classroom: What Student-Centered is not

GigSchools is located in a converted retail space in the middle of a busy city. The open space is subdivided with low wood cubbies and open shelving units. Area rugs placed strategically on the floor designates particular spaces. There are three small tables for working at, two ottoman cubes, and a sofa by the reading nook. A long white board covers nearly the entire length of one wall. It is mostly empty. There are some drawings on one end of the board.
GigSchools touts it's student-centered curriculum.  Preceding my observation days, I am told by their spokesperson that it is a student-driven, student-focused environment where students are excited about learning.  During my visits, students carry tablets everywhere.  The tablets are the primary means of communication within the school. 

Some younger girls are writing recipes.  The teacher has told these two that they need to find a recipe and copy it word for word.  When the recipe is done, the student takes a picture of  the recipe with her tablet and sends it to her teacher. This is how teachers assess what students have finished.

While the teacher works with the one girl on fractions, boys in a different area are working on their "playlist", which essentially is a to do list. They are drawing cartoon figures from a picture in front of them. There is a lot of talking and very little drawing. 

On the opposite side of the space, the older group, also mixed-aged, is working. The teacher is sitting at a round table with a computer in front of her. She can see everyone’s to do list. The teacher calls over students to review their lists.
Each conference lasts five to ten minutes, and then  students return to their lists. 

I was told the playlists were customized to student interest. I later check in with a boy who is writing about the American Revolution, and he expresses how boring it is. When students are not in the conference with the teacher, students seem to spend much of their time wandering around, watching what other kids are doing, or just doing nothing. 

The teacher repeats often that she wants certain things done to each child. This does little to motivate them. In fact, students seem little engaged in their work. 

There is a real danger in thinking that technology can replace teachers and make education cheap. If education was easy, it wouldn’t be struggling so hard. And you can’t just fix it with the technology silver bullet. There is a danger in thinking we can just drop forty kids in a giant room with a bunch of computers and call it education. We also cannot just say that because our curriculum is customized to students that it is student-centered.  Essentially, that’s what we see at GigSchools

And that is not student-centered education. That is not engaged students. That is not empowered children. 

This excerpt is based on several observations and interviews conducted as part of research for an upcoming book.  The names of students and the school are pseudonyms to protect individuals.  You can read more about student-centered teaching on this blog.

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