George Lucas Educational Foundation
Schools That Work
Student Engagement

Student-Centered Learning: Building Agency and Engagement

Peek inside a high school where teachers act as facilitators and students are directors of their own learning.
This is part of our Schools That Work series and features key practices from Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut.
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Student: So we're testing if it's soluble now. We'll test conductivity, density, and then make a diamond table after.

Brenda: I feel really good about what's happening in my classroom. The students are really engaged. I don't have as many students off task because they're really interested in what's happening in the classroom.

Patrick: The vision of Maloney High School is to create student centered environments where kids have more opportunities to prove their learning, to explore their learning. We want students to be problem solvers.

Brenda: To make your lessons more student centered, you want to think about what your role is. You as the teacher act more as a facilitator or a coach, rather than the person who disseminates information. We have some student centered learning tactics that we want happening in our classrooms. They're a really great way for teachers to plan their lessons.

Patrick: The first approach is to find ways that the lesson can engage student to student discourse. How can students work together?

Lindsey, group one, right there.

We want kids to be in groups that will make them successful, where students can not only express their ideas, but also learn from each other. We're trying to get every single student to have some hand in the learning.

All right, so we'll do what we usually do with the poem. We'll read it out loud together first, and then you're going to react. Did you like it, did you dislike it? What do you think the poem is about? "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

Ethan: Today we analyzed sonnet eighteen from Shakespeare. Having a few students around me is extremely helpful. We'd analyze it and pick apart even the smallest things that I would never look at.

Mia: I don't get the middle, like--

Jake: The beauty of winter's going to go away eventually, like her beauty will never.

Mia: Anyone can interpret a poem differently. When you're in a small group and you're just with your peers, it's less intimidating. It's like, okay, I can share my ideas and not be afraid of being wrong. And when you're talking that way, I feel like you understand it.

Patrick: Student choice and student ownership over the work is also a curricular element of student centered learning. Step two of the lesson, students were responsible for deconstructing each scene from act three of "Hamlet."

Do you guys want to work like, in pairs or you want to do something each individually?

One group did a mind mapping exercise, where they took the key elements of the scene that they were assigned. Another group decided that they wanted to do their own performance.

Mia: When a woman takes a second husband, it's because she killed off the first.

Jake: Harsh.

Patrick: So the students had ownership. They were able to explore what they wanted to explore. At the heart of it was analysis. Do they understand what these characters are going through? Do they understand what Shakespeare is trying to get across.

Jake: He runs away because he's guilty.

Mia: End scene.  

[applause]

Brenda: It's easy to have everybody sitting down quiet and taking notes. It's hard to get everybody to think outside the box, but that's what's going to happen in a student centered classroom. It's going to look a little bit chaotic, because not everybody's going to be doing the same thing at the same time necessarily. So we've been learning about chemical bonds, and now what we're going to be doing is an enquiry lab.

You're giving the students all the tools that they need, but then you're asking them to come up with their own lab. You're really figuring out what they've understood.

You have six unknowns. You might think you know what they are just by looking at them, but now you're going to have to use your knowledge of chemistry to prove what they are.

Jake: All the substances look exactly the same. They were white, they were powdery. Right off the bat we knew, well, they're not malleable, they're not ductile, can they be conductive?

Brenda: My role is to facilitate what they were doing, so I would listen to their questions, maybe answer their question with a question to have them delve further into their knowledge?

What do you think you have to do with it?

Jake: I'm guessing you've just got to stick the end in.

She gives us a little bit of direction, but she doesn't give us a lot of direction, and it's frustrating in the beginning. But as you dig deeper and deeper and deeper, like, it becomes more fulfilling than if she told you what exactly to do, because you feel like you're being a scientist yourself.

Oh, it went up...

Brenda: Another student centered approach is authentic tasks. So what the students did was something that a chemist might do in a lab. Some students created data tables and others were creating graphs and looking at the trends.

Student: Two seventy-seven point seven.

Jake: I definitely feel like student centered learning provides us with a better outlook of what real life is going to be. It feels like you're experiencing something rather than taking notes on something, memorizing it and having a test on it the next week. It's fun.

Brenda: I think the students here are starting to realize that the teachers are really in this yes mode. And so they're asking more for these authentic opportunities.

Mia: It makes me feel like I'm taking control of my learning process. It's my choice and it's what I want to do with what I want to learn. We're asking questions and we're doing activities that help our understanding.

Patrick: The student centered learning approach has been beneficial to me. For seventeen or eighteen years, it was always, what am I going to tell the kids today? And now it's, okay, what am I going to have the kids show me today?

Student: It's kind of like a more hopeful beat, like...

Patrick: Yes, that's perfect.

They're showing me what they're learning, and the person who's really kind of blown away by that is me.

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