Student-Centered Learning: Baby Steps

When Lindsay school district, a small rural district in Northern California, switched to mastery learning, they did it slowly. They started with just a subject. They knew that the move meant a complete mind shift for parents, teachers, administrators and students.  And although they have seen great success in terms of achievement and student engagement, it was not an easy transition.

Creating a student-centered classroom also can be done with baby steps. A student-centered classroom requires the teacher to guide and support students but ultimately to empower students to take charge of their learning. Both teachers and students can struggle with this. You may be surprised at how difficult it is for students in the beginning.  After experiencing school largely as a place in which they follow steps, students can be a bit lost in creating their own steps.

Journal created as part of Leonardo DaVinci Project
One way to move towards student-centered learning can be with a student-centered projects. Students are given potential topics (but can choose their own) and potential formats (but they can design their own).  That's it. There is a deadline and the rest is their choice.  I like to scaffold in supports like organizers for their research and project planning sheets.  I leave most of project work time for in class so that I can support and guide as well as provide small whole class mini-lessons to support project development.

For example, some students benefit from breaking their project down into parts and forming a checklist.  I'll present this idea in a mini-lesson before we work on our project.  I also light do a mini-lesson on presentation skills.  Because we are working on projects in class, students can practice presenting to each other before they finalize the project.

The first student-centered project often yields some generic posters, because, well, that's what students have always done. But there are always a couple of students who are so excited by their new found freedom that they create stop motion films connecting genetics and probability or tell the story of George Washington's crossing of the Delaware in full costume.  And those students inspire the other students.  And with each unit project students stretch themselves further...because now the project is not about what the teacher wants, its about what students can do.

Next baby step...student-centered station activities.
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  1. I love this! I have also been pushing student centered projects. I always give four choices to get them going (and because there are kids who don't feel creative enough to come up with something on their own), but then I always say but if you want to do something else go for it! I have gotten great results like that, largely because if the kid is excited about how they're doing the project, the better the chance is that they're actually learning! (and a perk is that I'm not grading the same type of assignment over and over, haha)

    1. Sounds like you are already loving student-centered projects. The students are so creative! Thanks for sharing your experience.


  2. I love this idea and, as my school has an ideal goal of project-based learning, I would love to start doing this in my classroom. How do you envision this working in a third grade classroom toward the beginning of the year when, as you said, these kiddos have always been told what to do and how to do it? Do I choose a subject, then a topic, then have them show me what they know? I'm just not sure where to begin. I'd also be very interested in making projects cross-curricular. Great blog, by the way!

  3. Hi Dawn,

    So the youngest grade I have taught is 4th, but I think in a 3rd grade classroom you probably want to do something such as: Choose an overall subject and maybe give the student 4-5 topics within that. For example, I do an Iroquois (native american project) where students select from about 20 topics, but you could easily narrow it down to a few. Then have the students have certain things they need to share - for example the project must explain what the topic is and why it is important to the Iroquois. So students might choose the three sisters legend and then explain how that is an important part of the Iroquois lifestyle. Students can present this information in multiple formats such as: a poster, a short story, a book cover, and a puppet show. Then you have students present science fair style. Alternatively, I might start the year with station activities where instead of you telling students they have to spend 10 minutes at each station, the students get to choose which station and even have choice when in the station. For example, I have 5 stations set up when I do Colonial America lifestyle. At the station related to tradesmen, there are 3 possible activities can choose from after reading the informational text. This teaches students how to take ownership of their own learning as you ease into student-led class. I will be posting about station activities for student-centered learning later this week, so you might want to come back for that or follow the Facebook page. I usually cross post up there.

    1. Thank you for the helpful reply! I've sent a friend request on Facebook so I can follow you there as well. I think I just need to jump in and try a student-centered approach early on this year. I have a little trouble relinquishing control, so this is about getting over my own fears. Thanks again!


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