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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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

Lindsey's picture

I completely agree with the idea that a student-centered learning environment enables educators to deal effectively with all types of students in the same classroom. I teach in a Title 1 school, where my students come to me with different experiences, different background knowledge, and wide-ranges of learning levels. My student-centered learning environment allows me to differentiate my lessons to effectively meet the needs of all of my learners. The students are responsible for their own learning. The meaningful conversations that happen in our classroom enable the students to make sense of their own ideas and create their own learning all in a risk-free learning environment. Student-centered learning environments create engaging, meaningful experiences, lead to comprehension of the subject matters, and build confident and competent thinkers for the future.
Thank you for the links to the articles. I will definitely spend time reading and reflecting on them.

Rachel Robertson's picture

I am in total agreement that classrooms should be student-centered learning communities. I teach in an elementary school and my classroom environment shouts "student-centered!" The desks are arranged in groups and I have centers all around my room for my second grade students. I know your blog is geared toward middle and high school age, but I wonder if centers would work in the upper grades? I believe centers can work in any age group; the centers have to be age-appropriate and engaging. My students are responsible for their learning and coming back with a finished product of their choice. There are always some students I must guide and I am constantly monitoring everyone's progress. I also use Big 6 and Super 3 projects for my learners, depending on the level.

James Mac Shane's picture

I really appreciate the responses that this article has developed. In my earlier response I pointed to an evolutionary perspective but the responses are focused is on the reality of practical solutions for today. The educational value and growing respect of student's natural intellectual development potential has not been historically recognized. It is this growing understanding that is reflected in the responses. They are presenting successful practical experiences for today's educators at all the K-12 levels. Even if we could agree upon the evolutionary change from external to internal motivation today the scientific reality would still take several generations for the affect to become significant. My hope is that the scientific evolutionary
consciousness of the problems that we are dealing with to day will be able to provide personal insights for the experiences that you are having with your student's today.

Gordon Dryden's picture

Thanks, everyone for the great stimulus, especially the excellent historical backgrounder from Ann. Thanks, Paul, for starting it. I note there is talk in the U?S about a "national curriculum". If that gets anywhere, why not propose the International Baccalaureate PYP (Primary Years Program) as an optional alternative available to any state, district or school. Certainly in New Zealand (the same population as an average US state) we've found it best to have "national curriculum 'guidelines'", leaving schools and individual teachers to innovagte within those. And the IB PYP has been one strong stimulus in framing elementary guidelines. In each year of elementary school, the year's PYP program is basef around six global-local themes, for each class to investigate, research, and synthesize their findings--integrating all "subject tools" and interactive-digital tools into both the "inquiry-discovery" process and in presenting multimedia answers.

Jaymes's picture

It does take a lot more student motivation to use student-centered learning activities in the classroom. I have started utilizing different motivational strategies based on each student and that has seems to help with student motivation. Students seem to work harder when they have students pushing them as well.

Kristin Horner's picture

I recently attended a professional development on differentiated instruction, which the student centered learning correlated. I feel that students are the most successful when they are engaged and learning to their individual needs. Through differentiated instruction you can use different tiered strategies with assessments with a variety of grouping. Differentiated Instruction is a concept that makes it possible to maximize learning for ALL students. It is a collection of instructionally intelligent strategies based on student-centered best practices that make it possible for teachers to create different pathways that respond to the needs of diverse learners. Personally, in my classroom I utilized differentiated instruction/student centered groups daily to allow my students to grow independently, allow independent teacher instruction. Through certain testing at my school we have broken down the test into strains. These strains are then used to create these student center workshops that is differentiated for each student. I feel that my students have gained a lot of knowledge and information through student centered instruction. I am excited to read more information and ideas that everyone has about student center activities.

Leslie Morgan's picture

I completely agree with you Rachel! I am a new teacher and know the value of this type of classroom, however, I do not have anyone to lead me in that direction. I also teach 2nd grade and if you could help me with ideas for centers and activities that your students do or give me a place to go for resources that would be amazing! Thank you for your post!

Peter's picture

Isn't all learning student-centered? What are the unexamined assumptions underlying the argument that a direct-instruction classroom is teacher-centered, not student-centered, or that "student-centered" learning of the type suggested in this article is necessarily better?

It seems to me that we should focus on developing within our students such intellectual habits as critical analysis, evaluating evidence, reasoning inductively and deductively, and pursuing arguments to their logical conclusion, to name a few. All of these higher-order thinking patterns require an experienced and trained adult who knows how to lead students through complex intellectual exercises, how to redirect students when their thinking goes astray, how to help students monitor their own thinking, how to pose questions that invite students to challenge or corroborate their conclusions, and more.

This article merely addresses the mode of learning. It says nothing about the substance of the learning, nor the learning goals to be achieved. The mode of instruction, whether direct or "student-centered," is not an end in itself. In fact, learning content is not an end in itself. What ultimately matters is the cultivation of higher-order intellectual skills. All content should be designed with that end in mind. A free, pluralistic, and enlightened society such as our own requires it. Teachers should live up to that high standard and avoid these wooly-minded techniques that masquerade as "cutting edge." They are not only pedagogically sloppy, they are anti-intellectual and represent an unenlightened reaction to the noble tradition of Western education. We can, and should, do better.

Kim's picture

I agree with you 100% that the roles and responsibilities of teachers are changing. I am currently teaching at an international school and the curriculum is very much student-centered and inquiry based. I learned a lot of wonderful techniques in university and from my mentor, however, a lot of the things learned during university were very much 'lecturing' methods. A teacher standing up at the front of the classroom teaching does still have a place in education, but it needs to be used with caution. At the moment I am in a grade one classroom where student based learning very evident in the classroom, it also works! Previously I never would have thought students this age were capable of asking such wonderfully mature and responsible questions. And I have found that if the students are making the questions they are much more likely to be engaged and retain the information that they seek out. I support student-centered learning because it develops characteristics in students which helps prepare them for the 'real world'. They know how to ask the right questions and how to try to solve those questions themselves. Thanks for the insightful blog

Kim's picture

I agree with you 100% that the roles and responsibilities of teachers are changing. I am currently teaching at an international school and the curriculum is very much student-centered and inquiry based. I learned a lot of wonderful techniques in university and from my mentor, however, a lot of the things learned during university were very much 'lecturing' methods. A teacher standing up at the front of the classroom teaching does still have a place in education, but it needs to be used with caution. At the moment I am in a grade one classroom where student based learning very evident in the classroom, it also works! Previously I never would have thought students this age were capable of asking such wonderfully mature and responsible questions. And I have found that if the students are making the questions they are much more likely to be engaged and retain the information that they seek out. I support student-centered learning because it develops characteristics in students which helps prepare them for the 'real world'. They know how to ask the right questions and how to try to solve those questions themselves. Thanks for the insightful blog

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