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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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Jessica Piper's picture

I'm in a fight right now with the standard style teachers and my student-centered, constructivist, PBL styled classroom...a fight I can't back down from. Thanks for the edification...I needed this article RIGHT NOW=)

P.S. I linked you in my blog


Cari Begin's picture

I agree with Melanie, it is a "slow-go", any successful change is, this is why we need to keep these ideas at the forefront of our work with teachers and students. This is so important, as Jessica said, it is a fight!

In order to be successful today you have to be proactive, take responsibility and have initiative. Until we start teaching these skills to our students and not only encouraging, but demanding it, our kids are going to enter the "real world" ill-equipped. Additionally, when we implement project based learning, differentiated instruction, and student-centered instruction our students are engaged in and excited about learning.

I will also be linking this article in my blog.

Lee Schleicher's picture

In the early '70s I partnered with another teacher to create an English program that served 60 freshmen students per period for three periods a day (180 total students). Each of the students was on an individualized learning contract that they negotiated four times a year for themselves. The contract covered the amount of successful work they would complete in a marking period in each of six different learning areas. The contract was written to indicate what work would be successfully completed (80% correct responses) to earn a C grade. Grades of A or B could be earned through additional work and lower grades resulted from non performance. Progress was recorded for each student, there were multiple tests for each activity, and students could select the work areas they would spend time in each day. Students also had the option of individual or small group instruction on topics that they found difficult to understand or complete. The concept works! Our problem was we could not keep up with the constant demand for additional materials. It was well prior to the days of computers, copiers and cloud computing. Teachers can successfully create classrooms that serve individual students and move the entire class ahead in their studies. Technology can be used to keep up with student demand for new materials.

Gordon Dryden's picture

Good to see at least part of America is catching up with what most New Zealand schools have been doing for years. I continue to be fascinated that America still continues to have some of the finest research on brain-based learning, learning styles and personalized learning, but then much of its debate stil seems centered on diffeent methods of "instruction" -- and, of course, the continued pre-occupation with "standarized testing". Out here we had some great hopes that Prersident-elect Obama would appoint his election adviser on eduction, Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, as secretary of education--with her advocacy that the US should learn from the best practice in other countries. Alas, was not to be. Thanks for your good list of references. Keep up the pressure.

Heidi's picture

I have been in online education for the past few years at the high school and college level. I have found that my role has shifted from "teacher" to "facilitator". The curriculum is determined by the school, and it is my responsibility to guide the students through their own learning journey. Some students are excited and ready to take on this challenge of learning virtually while others don't like the extra responsibility online learning requires of a student. I feel that we are preparing our students for college and later life tasks by allowing them to learn and grow on their own. Each student can determine the best time, location, and way in which to learn the material. Moreover, they will be required to be responsible for their own learning if and when they enter college. I believe that we are headed in this direction and should welcome the changes in this learning environment.

Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film


Great to read that you have seen the light! I think that Donald Finkel said it best - to paraphrase - "Teaching isn't telling, it's designing learning experiences that provoke reflection."

Thanks for links to some great resources. This is a subject I blog about frequently. My blog is dedicated to "relinquishing responsibility the learner." Readers might want to start at these posts:

"Stop Worrying About Shanghai, What PISA Test Really Tells Us About American Students" http://bit.ly/eChNoY

"7 Lessons Students Learn in School" Lesson #1 Knowledge is scarce." http://bit.ly/fwNE1p

"Watch Problem Based Learning in Action: Apollo" 13 http://bit.ly/ajjVYv

James Mac Shane's picture

What I learned from my student's about their internal involvement and how that can be effectively developed is the underlying success for any teacher. Because of the scientific developments and technological developments that have been taking place over the past two centuries the human survival needs are changing from physical to intellectual and this change is a human evolutionary development that is beyond improvements. The scientific base for the natural intellectual development of all children's natural intellectual development is the understanding of the difference between internal and external motivation. That is the base problem that educator's are trying to solve that your work is pointing to. We need to step back and view our individual experience as it relates to this evolutionary perspective. Humanity has historically never had the conscious knowledge to implement this level of change. Any agree upon solution would take several generations to provide the solutions for the problems that educator's are striving to solve today. Any solution for this evolutionary development needs a different mind set beyond improvements that are based upon our ability to understand the evolutionary value of the experience that your presenting.

Dave G's picture

I completely agree that we need to do more to provide students with relevant learning strategies, project-based learning, and collaborative opportunities. The "but" here is that there is a middle ground. The teacher as "facilitator" only is completely misleading. The sentiment that the lecture is a relic of the past is mistakenly reactionary to a myriad of criticisms of antiquated teaching techniques.

Let us be careful to not advance the pendulum completely to the 100% student explorative learning trends. There are subjects where project-based learning is just not feasible - high school band/chorus being just a few. Successful groups do not "learn through discovery" - they are guided by expert directors/musicians who empart most of the information TO the students, with immediate impacts seen through student performance.

I completely understand the ideas behind this article - I agree. But when the pendulum swings completely, those of us who are relics of the past will be scrutinized for our methodology, and not through the RESULTS of our methods. Let's keep in mind the entire ideals here - student learning is paramount, teaching methodology is the vehicle to student learning.

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