Truly student-centered education would say that we don't dictate what students learn at all. In a student-centered classroom, educators know that learning is a community endeavor. There is no real reason why everyone needs to learn the same thing at the same time and show it in the same way. In the homeschool world, this is sometimes called unschooling, where kids literally choose what they will do all day (Note: that not all homeschool families unschool and this is not a discussion about homeschooling.)
In public education Common Core, district standards, and school standards, state when students need to learn specific content and skills. Some even provide daily agendas to teachers so that the entire 4th grade is doing the same thing at the same time. This is truly not student-centered learning.
In most schools, there are expectations for both content and skills that students will master each year. Teachers are entrusted to make sure their students leave their class with this mastery. So, if student-centered learning truly allows complete freedom and public education has determined specific things for students to learn, then the question becomes, how do we create student-centered learning in a traditional setting? One way is through unit projects. Another way is through station activities.
I like to use lots of stations (even with my 12th graders) to both meet content needs, skill development, and student-centered learning. Here's an example of what I did when teaching the American Colonies:
We were looking at life in the American colonies. I set up 4 stations (photos below are from the different stations):
Each station has informational text on the topic, a set of activities, and a journal prompt. I teach in long blocks, so I can do this all in one class, but stations could be set up for multiple class periods. Students are given a very brief introduction to the stations.
Students are asked to try at least one station but can do as many as they would like. Each station has multiple choices of ways to demonstrate learning about that topic.
If none of the stations are compelling, a student may propose his/her own project to learn about the topic and show what they have learned. Students rarely choose this last option, but sometimes I have a student who just feels like reading about a topic and writing about it.
A specific standard either in content and/or skill is tied into the activities such as writing a narrative from another point of view. At the end of the activities, students come together in small groups to share their experiences. This is an opportunity for students to connect their learning as well as be an expert.
To recap:- provide choice in engaging with content
- provide choice in demonstrating understanding of content
- provide choice in skill development
- bring students together to discuss their experiences and new knowledge acquisition.
Finally, and this is important, my students know that they are:
- Not going to like everything they study and
- My job is to support them with the tools so they can get to where they want to be, so they need to trust that even the "yucky" stuff is there to empower their learning.