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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.

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Benjamin Stewart's picture

..."if a student is listening and is organizing information in their mind, linking it to what they've learned before, and formulating questions about what is to come next, that's learning"

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

I think most would agree that learning can occur in many different ways, including instances where students are thinking to themselves. But if they don't interact in some way, or provide various forms of evidence of their understandings, we'll never know what they know.

I would even argue that learning by oneself can happen but is limited if not compared to other perspectives that can only occur through social interaction. Another example, what's better, reflecting to oneself or sharing one's reflection with others. I would argue the latter.

Jaclyn's picture

I found your blog post very enlightening. As a teacher who stepped away from teaching too, this type of thinking is refreshing to those of us who are burned out from being the typical old school lecturing teacher. As culture changes it is important to keep up and change with it. Even though the message may be the same, the methods will be different. The classes and teachers that I remember most from being in school were the ones that were designed like this...being student centered in it's learning method. Great post and encouraging reminder.

Peter's picture

Thank-you for your comment, Benjamin. I think you may have confused learning with assessment. Please consider the last part of my next sentence: "and they can demonstrate the learning in performance if requested." Performance assessment can take many forms: Socratic dialogue, selected or constructed response tests, essays, projects, and much more. What I'm trying to get across is that activity occurring in one's mind is , by definition, not passive. Therefore we shouldn't assume that external busy-ness necessarily means that the student's mind is on -task and actively engaged, nor should we assume that listening to a speaker or a class discussion is passive and therefore "not learning." Well-designed direct instruction, which is still student-centered, can cause learning, just as a poorly designed student-directed activity can impede learning. The key is design, not the mode of instruction. And the design should lead students to deep understandings of the discipline. I don't believe that student-directed instruction can achieve that, at least neither well nor efficiently, because students do not have the wisdom and expertise to perceive those deep structures without guidance and direction from a well-trained, experienced teacher.

Benjamin Stewart's picture

Enjoying our exchange, Peter.

You say, "we shouldn't assume that external busy-ness necessarily means that the student's mind is on -task and actively engaged, nor should we assume that listening to a speaker or a class discussion is passive and therefore "not learning".

The greatest assumption of all is that students are learning if I am lecturing. This is precisely why we cannot talk about learning without assessment...what's the point. When students are exhibiting "external busy-ness", we (teachers) are able to better assess what students know and can do because we have more measurable evidence.

You say, "Well-designed direct instruction, which is still student-centered, can cause learning, just as a poorly designed student-directed activity can impede learning."

The following saying comes to mind: "Well I taught it, why didn't they learn it? Again, yes, students can (and do) learn from direct instruction...but what percentage of students are learning and to what degree? In my view, I don't draw a line between learning and assessment, nor do I between instruction and assessment; assessment itself is an essential part of the learning (and instructional) process.
Student-centered versus student-directed: I'll avoid using these terms (and their infinite meanings) and say that curriculum, assessment, and instruction should consider the students' needs, interests, and learning preferences in a way that promote critical, creative, and caring individuals, allowing students to take more responsibility for their own learning depending on the educational context (i.e., subject, maturity level, etc.).
My main argument is this. We learn by externalizing, interacting, connecting with others, recognizing patterns that have relevance and meaning, and reflecting all of these throughout our personal learning network. The content or input we receive is of little significance, it's what we do with it that matters.

4th grade's picture

I agree I too use a variety of strategies in the classroom and the problem I need help with is differentiation. I differentiate by reading level and multiple intelligence. I teach reading so my question is, how do I have the students demonstrate their understanding using multiple intelligences, other than lingusitic and visual (illustrations)?

kelsey's picture

Im a senior in high school and my senior project is on how the different styles of teaching affect the student learning outcome. I was wondering how you would know what teaching style a teacher is using in a geometry class..

kinder teacher's picture

I agree student centered learning is crucial in our education today. As a new teacher without a curriculum, I find it difficult at times to know exactly what to include when I am planning these student centered/ interactive lessons. I feel as if my students learn more when I act as a facilitator rather than a direct instructor. My students do need some direct instruction, they are four and five when they enter my classroom, but as the year progresses I feel they need less from me and learn more from their peers. We are trying a more project-based learning approach in class and the students are running with it. The problem with that is the time and planning necessary to make it effective. We are currently designing lessons based on units of study created by teams from our district and we often do not know what we will be teaching in the following unit. This uncertainty makes it difficult for me at least to plan student centered learning activities and projects where I feel like I am well prepared for what is ahead. Does anyone else feel this way at times?

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Kinder teacher, I think you're describing perfectly what it feels like to be both a) a new teacher in general and b) new to project-based learning. So overwhelming and you can often feel like you're reinventing the wheel over and over! For me, this act of doing was almost like my own project-based crash course - and the next year it was easier, and easier again the year after that. Stick with it and use the supports around you as you go. You can also check out some of the awesome resources from and on here also to give you some more ideas around PBL. If you're on Twitter, there is a hashtag #pblchat where you might find some good colleagues in project-based learning adventures. Best of luck!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi kinder teacher! I think you've named something that a lot of teachers would agree with- it's hard to figure out how to plan student-centered lessons that balance where you students are with where you want them to be, both academically and in terms of their process skills. They need time and experience to build capacity- and so do you! Our PBL concentration at AUNE is all about getting your head around that process, reframing your own expectations as well as what your students expect school to be. We have a k-3 kit that you might find useful- you can find it here: You may also find some useful stuff on our website-

Elizabeth's picture

It is my first year teaching in first grade this year and I've seen a lot of benefits to using student-centered learning in my classroom especially for my low performing students. They seem to respond better when another peer is showing them how to complete a task. I also found the language the students use with each other helps understand the content better as well. It is from my experience that EL learners also pick up on the academic language and skills when they work together with their peers who are performing on or above grade level. It is wonderful to see the confidence that comes out when students work together to complete a task together. They are learning and also enjoying the process of learning together.

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