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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Student Centered Is Your Classroom?

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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A photo of an elementary-school boy in front of a green chalkboard, smiling.

In the education world, the term student-centered classroom is one we hear a lot. And many educators would agree that when it comes to 21st-century learning, having a student-centered classroom is certainly a best practice.

Whether you instruct first grade or university students, take some time to think about where you are with creating a learning space where your students have ample voice, engage frequently with each other, and are given opportunities to make choices.

Guiding Questions

Use these questions to reflect on the learning environment you design for students:

  • In what ways do students feel respected, feel valued, and feel part of the whole group?
  • In what ways do students have ownership of the classroom? Do they ever make decisions about resources, environment, or use of time? When? How often?
  • Do they have ownership in their learning? Do they have choices and options for projects, assignments, and partners for group work?
  • When are students comfortable with expressing who they are and their thoughts and ideas? When are they not?
  • When do you inquire about the needs of your students? How often do you do this? How often do you check for group understanding and adjust the instruction accordingly?
  • How are desks arranged? Are students facing each other? Do they have multiple opportunities each week to share with fellow classmates, and to share with a variety of classmates?
  • As the instructor, what is my "air time" each class session? How much direct instruction is there? How might I change some of that directing teaching to facilitating? (Here's a post I wrote on this topic, How to Transform Direct Instruction.)

Balancing Teacher Roles

So let's talk about that last question, and specifically, direct instruction versus facilitation. When considering various teaching approaches, balance is the key word. If we turn to the work of educational researchers Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and their seminal book, Understanding by Design (UbD), they suggest educators reflect on the ways they balance the following three teaching roles:

  • Facilitation: open-ended questioning, problem posing, Socratic seminar, and guided inquiry
  • Direct instruction: demonstration, modeling, and lecturing
  • Coaching: providing feedback, conferencing, and guided practice

How do you decide on how much of one role and not enough of another? Well, when designing learning for your students, keep this is mind: There needs to be a healthy balance between student construction of meaning and teacher guidance.

In other words, yes, you need to tell them stuff and show them how to do things, but you also need to let your learners discover, experiment, and practice even if they miss the mark or target. Educational research tell us time and time again that all learners (young or old) need time to muddle through and make meaning of new content, ideas, and concepts with some coaching and guidance, but also independently.

In the comments section below, share with us your ideas and practices for fostering a learning environment that is student centered.

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Comments (24) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

rosalinda's picture

This article was very resourceful and helpful and it should be implemented in every classroom. As a teacher, we sometimes could get off track, but there is time to recover and remember that our classroom needs to be student based. A teacher's role is to show and demonstrate how to do something, but then it's up to the student to discover and create their own sense of an idea or problem solving skills. When students feel that they are being involved in a decision as a classroom, it makes them feel important and wanted and it also strives for them to succeed in the class.

Jennifer's picture
Parent of 1 elem, 2 middle and 2 high school public school students in MD

As a parent, I really like to see my kids' teachers incorporate student-centered learning activities in the classrooms. Kids seem to be so much more motivated towards school in general. In our school district, they use a program called Touchstones Discussion Project which they love!

Susan Chen's picture

I have been retraining both myself and my students about our respective roles in the classroom. I find opportunities to vary how a lesson is conducted. Both my students and I take turns being the facilitator, instructor, and coach. My students enjoy taking on these roles when doing partner work and small group work. They are more actively engaged when they are in charge. I am currently reading up on project-based learning to challenge my new class of students this fall.

hejames1008's picture
A former educator who will always remain interested in the field and have an opinion.

In my high school English classrooms, I always asked my students to rearrange their desks into a circle whenever it was possible. Unfortunately, this wasn't always the case, as I often had to share a classroom with other teachers (and I was usually the one who wasn't "based" in the room). Arranging students by rows and columns isn't the best arrangement for any subject. It separates students from each other, even though they may be just a good apart. Plus, it certainly walls off educators from their pupils. My high school students loved it when I sat in a desk with them, not in the middle, not on top of one, hovering over them; but in the same desk as they in the same circle.

Will M.'s picture
Will M.
Traveling the world to learn about education

In this past year as an instructional coach one of my favorite resources was a list from Advancing Youth Development about what you people need. Not only does it include the importance of being part of a community but also of being able to contribute to that community and having a sense of ownership pertaining to it.

Also, this reminded me of something else I would say a lot. 'Students don't generally learn a lot while the teacher is talking.'

Kerrice Henry's picture

Creating activities base on your learners is an interesting way of getting students actively engaged in lesson. When materials are preplanned for topics it aids the improvement of building child centered classrooms. Especially when activities tenured to students style's of learning.

arie95's picture

Ms. Alber,
I am currently a college student going to school to become an elementary school teacher, and have heard from several teachers the importance of student-centered classrooms. I have even completed classroom observations where teachers do not practice student-centered teaching and believe students learn better during direct instruction. I would have to say that a student-centered classroom needs a teacher to be a facilitator and coach at the same time. I believe in student desks being in groups rather than just facing the front of the room or teacher desk. Groups help students learn from their peers as well as allow them to problem solve on their own. I believe teachers should assist students every step of the way and allow them to make decisions as well. Especially since I am focusing on elementary school I feel that students needs should be the most important thing, and allowing them to have input on the activities they conduct can help students feel in charge. As mentioned above some students enjoy and learn better when they have a chance to feel in charge. I love this article and will keep it in mind when I finally obtain my degree.

Thank you!

Lori C.'s picture

I really enjoyed reading the above article. Providing a learning environment that is student-centered is essential to the student's academic achievement. When I was in middle school and high school, the instruction was mainly lectures that were so boring. I barely remembered anything that was taught to me. That is why student-centered learning environments are important. This type of learning encourages students to become independent learners which leads to them taking ownership of their education. Students will be more motivated to learn when they are actively involved in the learning at hand.
When I first started teaching five years ago, my students did not have much input in the classroom. I was the teacher, and they did as I said. I now provide a much different learning environment. I want my students to feel that the classroom is "ours" not "mine." I do this by giving them the options to make choices in the classroom. Sometimes I will override their request, but as long as they are not asking something that will cause a distraction, I usually allow them to freedom to make their choices. I arrange my students in groups of four to form partnerships with each other. This type of sitting is beneficial for cooperative learning. Also, when it is appropriate, I will often times allow my students to choose the book we will read, activity to complete or video we will watch. I usually do this by allowing the students to vote. Majority wins.
I love my students feeling as if they have a say in their classroom. I want them to feel comfortable, and I like to encourage them to let me know what they are thinking and how they feel about something. I like allowing them to make choices so they will feel more involved in their education. Ever since my classroom has become a more student-centered learning environment, my students have increased in academic success as well as grown and matured in more ways than when the learning environment was geared more towards a teacher centered classroom.

nyche's picture

I think that student-centered classrooms are vital to helping students achieve and experience belonging, positive self-esteem, and self-actualization, the upper levels of Maslow's Hierarchy. I agree with all of the comments about sitting students in groups to collaborate on activities. As a student myself, I am learning a lot about how self-guided discovery and group communication is essential to building meaningful learning experiences. I am wondering how best to implement this in the classroom, however. What classroom expectations are put in place to allow for this kind of engagement? How do teachers best support students in individual or partner work? What kinds of interventions are in place when students struggle with their motivation to collaborate with peers? Has anyone found that certain types of technology are best for student-centered learning? Thanks so much for all of your input! I'm looking forward to learning more about how to utilize these approaches to become an effective teacher.


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