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Student-Centered Learning Environments: How and Why

Paul Bogdan

Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher
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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

Kim Starnes's picture
Kim Starnes
First year teacher

As a new teacher, I strive to ensure my classroom is student centered but face many challenges. I agree with Peter that we must give students the tools needed to be able to develop higher order intellectual skills. Without these skills, many of our students will not be able to succeed in the classroom. With education rapidly changing, we must strive to make our teaching style effective to all our students. By teaching these skills, we will ultimately make a difference in their lives. As I previously stated, I am currently facing some challenges in my classroom. I have a few students that are very unmotivated and am struggling to get them motivated. I have talked with them one on one, called parents, and tried a variety of strategies in my classroom with no success. Any ideas and tips are very appreciated. Thanks!

Christy Lawson's picture

I agree students should learn to use many authentic strategies that apply to life-skills. Self-monitoring is crucial to all people, and students often do not understand how to properly do this. I always ask my students to think about their learning. I have them ask themselves: Does this make sense? Is there a better way to do this? Did I understand what this meant? Should something be changed to become more efficient? What could have been done differently? I also have students question their text; they know Pluto was a planet but is now a dwarf planet because someone questioned the findings. I want them to think for themselves, but it is very hard to keep them going. I was wondering, can centers be implemented in sixth grade? Can someone please be more specific concerning strategies to help students take control of their learning. I am a first year teacher and want desperately to help students take responsibility for their learning.

Julia's picture

When I first started teaching student motivation was really difficult. What worked for me is exactly what the article and everyone else has been stating. Use technology in your lessons but use technology in a way that realtes to your students and what they are interested in.

Jeannie Beasley's picture

I love the reference to video games. That is something that my studente enjoy, but like you said no one forces them to do it.
So many of my students do not want to be forced to do anything. Also, when they figure things out on their own, they are much more proud of their work.
I have a hard time motivating my students sometimes, and I think this article really brings up some valid points. I see so many teachers on every range of this spectrum. Some teachers are the kind that control their classroom with an iron fist, and some teachers that let the students run the class. I think that I need to find a happy medium. Thanks for the information!

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

Dear Gordon,

I, too, wish that President Obama had named Linda Darling-Hammond Secretary of Education. Arne Duncan is a disaster. His approach to education is frightening. And the whole 'charter school' movement is turning into a corporate grab for whatever education money is available -- an attempt at privatizing America's public schools.

Melinda Rachford's picture
Melinda Rachford
6th grade teacher from California

I agree with you on this method of teaching. As a middle school teacher, I have learned the importance of getting the students excited about learning. I know that if I were to stand at the front of the room and lecture, I would instantly lose the students' attention. As teachers we need to make learning fun so the students will take that more active and independent role in their education.

Misty Corbinj's picture

The roles of educators are changing. I like the student-center curriculun and the use of technology in the classroom. I feel at times teacher are given to many titles and responsibilities and are not able to do their job effectively. I try to engage my students in every lesson I teach and allow my students to take responsiblity for their learning.

Misty Corbinj's picture

The roles of educators are changing. I like the student-center curriculun and the use of technology in the classroom. I feel at times teacher are given to many titles and responsibilities and are not able to do their job effectively. I try to engage my students in every lesson I teach and allow my students to take responsiblity for their learning.

marcia meredith's picture

Student centered environment is the way to go. I am in a new setting where there is an education reform. 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. I am totally in support of this and believe students must take control of their learning and teachers must only act as facilitators. No wonder we sometimes feel burnout and blame the system. If students feel a part of the teaching /learning process then they will be motivated to learn. Also, the tasks would not become so boring at times. Let us as educators continue to delve into student -centered teaching and learning and become active in helping educators to see the importance of it.

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