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Student-Centered Learning Environments: How and Why

Paul Bogdan

Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

Editor's Note: Paul Bogdan was once an old-fashioned lecturing teacher centered secondary math teacher who left teaching for 14 years to build computer systems. He has come back and is reborn as a student-centered teacher trying to make a difference and trying to figure out what works in today's classroom. (Updated 01/2014)

Education in our middle schools and high schools these days is rapidly changing. The old notion of a classroom where the students are sitting quietly and neatly in their seats, while the teacher is up front pouring pearls of wisdom and knowledge into their brains is absurd.

Reality in the 21st century is quite a different story. Students seem to know that once a teacher stands up in front of the room and starts "teaching," not only is their life going to get very boring very quickly, the end result will be that there will be more quizzes and tests to fail and more opportunities to end up feeling dumber and dumber. So, how do they cope? They text their friends or get some sleep, or interrupt the teacher with a myriad of cleverly constructed distractions. The teacher who intends to stand in front of a high school or middle school class and "teach" is in a constant battle.

Unfortunately, not all problems have easy solutions. Our students come into the classroom with the same attitudes and expectations as the society in which they live. How could it be otherwise? For many people in America, the Dream Job is one in which they are required to do very little work and get paid mega bucks for doing it. The main objective at work for some people is to avoid work. By example, our youth are taught these same values, or lack thereof. They simply do not understand that education will not occur if they don't get involved. They don't understand that their education is both their responsibility and their right.

The good news, however, is that not all students are so unaware. More and more of society at large, and consequently many students, are demanding an educational system that works for and with them. These students are not bored. They are very curious, eager to learn, and willing to do whatever it takes to learn. I believe that the student-centered learning environment enables an educator to deal effectively with all types of students in the same classroom. A student-centered learning environment encourages students to become independent learners and ultimately to be in charge of their own education.

Are teachers obsolete? Absolutely not. But, an educator's role is changing from the traditional "imparter of knowledge" to that of coach and consultant. There are many exciting examples of successful strategies and programs in which the students are not only allowed, but encouraged and required, to take responsibility for much more of their learning than ever before.

Do-it-yourself, student-to-student teaching, project-based learning, and student-centered learning environments are some of the more encouraging programs. Also, the integration of technology into every subject and at all grade levels allows unprecedented levels and types of exciting collaboration and learner to learner connectivity.

The following are some links to posts by authors who have written about these methodologies.

Do It Yourself (DIY)

Empowering Teachers with DIY (Article, Edutopia)
Room to Learn: An Italian Makeover (Article, Edutopia)
Open Source: A Do-It-Yourself Movement to Change Education from the Bottom Up (Article, Edutopia)

Student-to-Student Teaching

Report from EduBloggerCon at ISTE10: Trends and Tools (Article, Edutopia)
Does your school have a student-to-student mentoring program? (Poll, Edutopia)
Wisdom of the (Multi) Ages: Students Learn by Teaching (Article, Resource)

Project Based Learning (PBL)

PBL Resources (Edutopia Resource)
Introduction to PBL (video)
Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement (Article, Edutopia)

Student-Centered Learning

Student-Centered Learning Strategies for Math and Other Subjects (article)
Student Centered Teaching and Learning (Article, North Carolina State University)
Susan Sample and Student Center-Learning (Video)

Integrating Technology

A Day in the Life of a Connected Classroom (Article, Edutopia)
How Will Technology Change Learning -- and Teaching? (Article, Edutopia)
The Right Way to Use Technology in the Classroom (Article, President Kahn Academy)

"I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn." -- Albert Einstein

It takes a giant leap of faith for a teacher to think that their students can learn the material on their own. Teachers become teachers to teach. It is natural for the teacher to want to force the student to learn. But, this is similar to trying to force the proverbial horse to drink. Think about how many video games people have learned and won, on their own! No one had to "teach" them how; no one had to force them to play. Tina Barseghian wrote a great article about video games and the wisdom that educators can glean from them. In this article she writes the following.

REDEFINE TEACHERS AS LEARNING DESIGNERS. Game designers create well-designed experiences and social interactions. Teachers are designers of learning, and can create experiences tailored to suit their outcome. If we "re-professionalize" teachers as designers, they can create their own scripts for what they want students to learn.

When educators can design learning environments well enough, students will be able to learn mostly on their own. In an environment where the educator is respected for their expertise, and appreciated for their faith in the student's abilities, they will be asked for their help, encouragement and clarification when the student needs it. In turn, the students are appreciated for their willingness to take responsibility, become involved, and do the work needed to succeed. Mutual trust and respect is created rather than confrontation. Change is inevitable and there is a bright new hope on the educational horizon.

A secondary math teacher, Paul Bogdan has over 10 years of experience in the classroom, as well as 8 years in the field of computer systems design. He has a BA in Mathematics and a MA in Multidisciplinary Studies. He grew up in Buffalo New York, and has taught in NY, California, and recently got a credential to teach in Oregon.

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Jen Houle's picture

I strongly believe in a student centered classroom and utilize as many collaborative and interactive lessons as possible. I love the comparison of a teacher to a designer. While a student centered classroom puts much of the responsibility for learning on the students' shoulders, it is not possible for learning to take place without a carefully constructed path. The power of a student centered environment is that many of their connections and their learning seems surprising and amazing and startling. The students often shock themselves with the knowledge they seemingly unfold on their own. In my classroom, most of the time this learning does not happen by mistake. It is as a result of my "design".

One of our main responsibilities as educators is to support our students to help them reach our high expectations. By stepping back in the classroom and allowing peer to peer interactions to take place, we are not taking away this support. Rather, I believe, we are allowing them to forge strong connections to the content and meaningful learning can take place. In order for teachers to step back and feel comfortable with allowing their students to independently discover concepts, it requires TRUST and a letting go of control. As teachers, I feel that most of us are control freaks by nature. Allowing our students to take control of the classroom can be scary, but by having trust in them and their abilities, it is amazing what can happen!

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher
Blogger 2014

Your comments are all very much appreciated (keep them coming). Even though Peter doesn't agree with or like the techniques I present I greatly appreciate his comment and would love to hear more from him. There was a math teacher who commented on my last blog who had similar concerns about teaching higher level thinking skills. I think that student-centered learning can be a very big challenge for many students and it is much easier for many students to sit and listen instead of doing and learning. The students who succeed using student-centered learning do it so thoroughly and at such a very quick pace that I know it is perfect for them. I am going to work much more next year with the struggling students and I will be doing more direct instruction with them. Right now I think of them as unmotivated and lazy, but there is most likely more to it than that and the fact is I have to figure out how to get them to learn (how to teach them) regardless.

Hey Stan; I am a math teacher also. My students learn to do the math by following examples in the book and trying to do it without me explaining first. Then, they ask me to explain rather than me force them to listen. There is a sample Geometry lesson in my last blog. Tell me what you are teaching and I can get you started on a lesson plan.

Ritchie's picture

I agree with Stan. It is extremely time consuming to plan student-centered learning environments that are productive. Measuring student learning can also become subjective. This is where I have problems with students as well as parents. Parents are accustom to questions with right and wrong answers. I teach fifth grade mathematics and the standards that I am required to teach are far more advanced than the concepts parents were taught in the fifth grade. Many parents have a hard time comprehending the material their child is learning therefore it is hard for them to develop an understanding of a subjective grading scale. I also believe that student-centered learning is a great concept. But, in many cases it is impractical without prior understanding of the foundations needed to complete task.

Peter's picture

Again, you posit assumptions here that seem to have gone unexamined. You are assuming that if students sit and listen that learning doesn't take place. You further assume that only "doing" is real learning. First, if a student is listening and is organizing information in their mind, linking it to what they've learned before, and formulating questions about what is to come next, that's learning. They are "doing" the learning cognitively, and they can demonstrate the learning in performance if requested. But just because you can't see it doesn't mean it isn't happening. On the flip side, just because students look active doesn't mean they're learning anything. Worse, they could be learning the wrong lessons.

Learning is defined as a change in behavior, a change in attitude, or a change in one's mental representations. We shouldn't confuse "doing" with "learning." It is possible to learn by doing, but it is also possible to do for the sake of doing and to learn nothing in the end. Busy-ness is not learning. Activities are not learning. Fun is not the proper mood for learning. The terms we're looking for are engagement, which means being attentive to the task; satisfaction, which means taking pride in work done well; perseverence, which means seeing a task through to completion; rigorous, which means the task must aim for critical analysis, evaluation of evidence, and logical reasoning; and inquiry, which means the task is keyed to questions that are worth asking and that it leads to questions that are worth pursuing. The task ought to be keyed to the structural components of the discipline, and it ought to lead to deeper understanding of the basic stucture of that discipline.

I agree with your statement about the importance of instructional design and believe, as I gather you do, that "teach, test, and hope for the best" is not the right approach. Ultimately we should enable students to become independent learners. And maybe there are occasions when the "student-centered" learning of which you speak can be used fruitfully. But we must always ask the question, "to what end?"

All learning is student-centered, which is different from student-directed, the term I think you meant to use in your article. What I am arguing is that teacher-directed learning is not bad, as your article seems to suggest. Students need a trained teacher to direct them toward higher-order thinking. Students need a trained teacher to help them probe their thinking. Students need a trained teacher to help them understand the structure and logic of the discipline. "Student-centered" learning as you have defined it seems to leave these deeper understandings to chance. If all you want to do is cover content in a random, superficial way, then that approach might work. But I think our goals ought to be more sophisticated. We ought to be striving for deep understandings. These are what students will carry with them in long-term memory and which will be most useful to them for active citizenship, for making a good living, and for life-long learning. Only a well-trained teacher, not the student herself, has the qualifications to organize and direct the instruction to teach deep understandings. We shouldn't assume that if students are listening and thinking that learning isn't happening.

Benjamin Stewart's picture

..."if a student is listening and is organizing information in their mind, linking it to what they've learned before, and formulating questions about what is to come next, that's learning"

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

I think most would agree that learning can occur in many different ways, including instances where students are thinking to themselves. But if they don't interact in some way, or provide various forms of evidence of their understandings, we'll never know what they know.

I would even argue that learning by oneself can happen but is limited if not compared to other perspectives that can only occur through social interaction. Another example, what's better, reflecting to oneself or sharing one's reflection with others. I would argue the latter.

Jaclyn's picture

I found your blog post very enlightening. As a teacher who stepped away from teaching too, this type of thinking is refreshing to those of us who are burned out from being the typical old school lecturing teacher. As culture changes it is important to keep up and change with it. Even though the message may be the same, the methods will be different. The classes and teachers that I remember most from being in school were the ones that were designed like this...being student centered in it's learning method. Great post and encouraging reminder.

Peter's picture

Thank-you for your comment, Benjamin. I think you may have confused learning with assessment. Please consider the last part of my next sentence: "and they can demonstrate the learning in performance if requested." Performance assessment can take many forms: Socratic dialogue, selected or constructed response tests, essays, projects, and much more. What I'm trying to get across is that activity occurring in one's mind is , by definition, not passive. Therefore we shouldn't assume that external busy-ness necessarily means that the student's mind is on -task and actively engaged, nor should we assume that listening to a speaker or a class discussion is passive and therefore "not learning." Well-designed direct instruction, which is still student-centered, can cause learning, just as a poorly designed student-directed activity can impede learning. The key is design, not the mode of instruction. And the design should lead students to deep understandings of the discipline. I don't believe that student-directed instruction can achieve that, at least neither well nor efficiently, because students do not have the wisdom and expertise to perceive those deep structures without guidance and direction from a well-trained, experienced teacher.

Benjamin Stewart's picture

Enjoying our exchange, Peter.

You say, "we shouldn't assume that external busy-ness necessarily means that the student's mind is on -task and actively engaged, nor should we assume that listening to a speaker or a class discussion is passive and therefore "not learning".

The greatest assumption of all is that students are learning if I am lecturing. This is precisely why we cannot talk about learning without assessment...what's the point. When students are exhibiting "external busy-ness", we (teachers) are able to better assess what students know and can do because we have more measurable evidence.

You say, "Well-designed direct instruction, which is still student-centered, can cause learning, just as a poorly designed student-directed activity can impede learning."

The following saying comes to mind: "Well I taught it, why didn't they learn it? Again, yes, students can (and do) learn from direct instruction...but what percentage of students are learning and to what degree? In my view, I don't draw a line between learning and assessment, nor do I between instruction and assessment; assessment itself is an essential part of the learning (and instructional) process.
Student-centered versus student-directed: I'll avoid using these terms (and their infinite meanings) and say that curriculum, assessment, and instruction should consider the students' needs, interests, and learning preferences in a way that promote critical, creative, and caring individuals, allowing students to take more responsibility for their own learning depending on the educational context (i.e., subject, maturity level, etc.).
My main argument is this. We learn by externalizing, interacting, connecting with others, recognizing patterns that have relevance and meaning, and reflecting all of these throughout our personal learning network. The content or input we receive is of little significance, it's what we do with it that matters.

4th grade's picture

I agree I too use a variety of strategies in the classroom and the problem I need help with is differentiation. I differentiate by reading level and multiple intelligence. I teach reading so my question is, how do I have the students demonstrate their understanding using multiple intelligences, other than lingusitic and visual (illustrations)?

kelsey's picture

Im a senior in high school and my senior project is on how the different styles of teaching affect the student learning outcome. I was wondering how you would know what teaching style a teacher is using in a geometry class..

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