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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.

Comments (62)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ann Sisko's picture
Ann Sisko
Emeritus Classroom Teacher (grades 2/3 - 7/8) in South Brunswick, NJ

"The education council wants the rote method of learning which is being used for so many years to cease, therefore a new initiative towards this was embarked on along with teaching of English."

Marcia, as other posts have noted, there is a middle ground. The education council must be careful not to toss "rote" strategies that are appropriate and that work.

That would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And it would start another cycle that would end up right back to where we are now.

They need to take a careful look at what works and what doesn't. And they can do that by listening carefully to teachers, both experienced and new.

My own experience has been that there is value in using different approaches. My students and I spent much of our time investigating, thinking, discussing, responding. But in certain spots I'd have them memorize a poem or a date or a passage from a primary source.

So if you are in any position to make suggestions, you may want to steer them away from knee-jerk actions and toward thoughtful recommendations.

Carly Sewell's picture

As a pre-service teacher, I've had the opportunity to observe many different classrooms. A majority of these classes were definitely "teacher-centered." As described in your post, the teacher would stand in the front of the room, explain worksheets, etc, and the students looked bored out of their mind. I actually interviewed several first grade students last semester and most said their favorite subjects were recess and lunch because they were able to talk with their friends.

Social interaction is a huge part of the learning process and students should be encouraged to work together and collaborate. I love that you said "education is both their responsibility and their right." These students have the right to education and they, I believe, should also have the right to explore things of interest and be encouraged to explore with their creativity. Thank you for the wonderful post and great ideas. I know I will apply some of them in my future classroom!

Kerri's picture
Seventh Grade Language Arts Teacher

I agree that student centered learning in key to the success of students. I try to keep students interested and motivated by having group activities, student teaching, and projects. I feel like the students enjoy this, but they get off task quickly. I also feel like I must use direct instruction to present new content. Middle school students are not always willing to do research work. I know that the teacher in front of the classroom all period is boring, so I move from task to task and use a variety of strategies. I would love to use student centered teaching/learning more and differentiated instruction. I can read articles and practice new ideas, but I feel like I need more information and/or training. Any suggestions on where to find good information or get help with student centered learning and differentiated instruction?

Dan Fulton's picture

Bulletin Boards and Displays?
Involve the students in the creation.
Show student work and production.
Use to reinforce and review.
Include in teacher and student presentations.
Be creative and "recycle." A refrigerator shipping box can
become a colorful collage of many pictures on a theme.

Rebekah Gray's picture

I love to teach but sometimes it is hard to get the students motivated to learn, especially when it is not an interesting topic or it is a hard topic to learn. I agree that if you put more emphasis on student involvement and hands on activities they would want to be more active and want to learn. Whether it be a game or an experiment that the students can perform with their peers, I think this will make learning fun.

Kym's picture

I agree as well that students should take ownership in their education. Student-centered learning is fastly approaching and the education system is requiring differentiation within the classroom which reflects student-centered learning.

Rebekah Teusink's picture

Thinking of a teacher as a video-game designer is fascinating and new to me, but makes so much sense! So often we struggle in education with the battle between the way that it has always been and how it must be now. If we could design our curriculum and educational experiences to be compelling enough for students to wish to reach the "next level", what a change we would see in how all approach the school day! Thank you for helping me get out of my comfort zone and aspire to be the best teacher that I can be today!

Stan R's picture

I agree that the roles of educators are changing. Not only are we expected to teach, but we have so many other duties and responsibilities (many that used to be the responsibility of parents) and it is difficult to be as effective as we once were. While student-centered learning environments sound like a perfect strategy, and one that requires little effort from the teacher in regards to teaching, the added duties and requirements may prohibit teachers from creating quality, effective individualized instruction. It is time-consuming enough to plan lessons for the whole group and assess. I do like the idea of student-centered learning, but I teach math. I feel that students first need a foundation of the concepts before they can be let on their own. I would greatly welcome any suggestions as to how to balance the current duties and implement a student-centered learning environment in math.

Angie's picture

I agree with the other posts in that I have always thought of myself as a teacher and compared to a video game designer. After reading these posts, I see the comparison. When I think of my best lessons, it is hands down the lessons were my kids were able to explore and problem solve a great deal on their on. If I am teaching and my kids start to get confused many of them stop listening and focusing. When they are able to explore and try to solve in groups, etc they don't give up or stop focusing. Instead, they become more determined to try to find the solution or work it out correctly.

Renee's picture

I agree that student-centered learning environments will build successful, active learners. I appreciate the variety of different techniques and links posted. Solid core instruction needs to be a part of the equation in student-centered learning in order for accelerated learning as well, just as Kerri and Stan noted. How much this instruction plays in student centered learning is interesting to view across the varying responses. I look forward to checking back to see posts and ideas for additional ideas to efficiently and effectively try this across the grade levels.

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