Student Centered Learning Pandora's Box

Is Student-Centered Learning Like Opening Pandora’s Box?

Some years ago, I gave a workshop on student-centered learning. It was shortly after I’d transitioned from classroom teacher to instructional coach. The participants were a small group of veteran teachers from a “traditional” school.

As I prepared for the workshop, I focused on the “how,” rather than the “why” of student-centered learning. After all, I thought, “every educator knows that student-centered learning is better for students. Heck, it’s right there in the name.”

As I began the session, I realized I had put the cart before the horse. These teachers had absolutely no interest in group work strategies or differentiation. I noticed their disengagement and began asking some questions. I was shocked to find these educators defending the lecture, high stakes testing, and worksheets for homework.

While there is a good deal of research to support active engagement and formative assessment, I wanted to hear the perspective of teachers who disagreed.

I found that their reluctance was more than just resistance to change. They had genuine concerns about student-centered learning. And if I was going to reach them (or any similar educators) I needed to understand and address those concerns.

The Pandora’s Box of Student-Centered Learning

In the Greek myth, Pandora’s curiosity leads her to open a box containing all the evils of humanity. Once they are out, they cannot be put back in.

When we try new things, there is always the risk that we will lose something that worked before. We worry that it will be hard, or impossible, to go back to the way things were.

I’ve found teachers face two common fears with respect to student-centered learning. Both come down to matters of control: behavior management and content coverage.

Whether we are advancing our own practice or coaching others, it is helpful to consider the reasons behind resistance to a new approach.

Containing the Floodwaters

The most common concern I hear from teacher-centric educators is that a dynamic lecture keeps students “focused.”

They’ve heard that teachers should move about the room, talking loudly and confidently. Show engaging images (chalkboard diagrams, SmartBoard animations), so that students pay attention. And when students pay attention, they aren’t getting distracted or causing trouble.

The underlying paradigm is that student energy is like the force of a rushing river. Unless we wall up that energy and quickly plug any leaks, the dam will break and students will go wild.

I relied on lecture as my go-to teaching strategy for many years. I have felt, first-hand, the worry and discomfort that my lecture would run short. Or that a student would ask a question I couldn’t answer, causing the whole class to devolve into chaos.

I was fortunate to work in schools that encouraged teachers to observe each other’s classes. And I was lucky enough to work alongside educators who had cultivated a very different relationship with their students. Once I felt comfortable and confident enough to “open the floodgates,” I realized that my students’ energy and desire for independence wasn’t something to be walled off. It was something to be harnessed.

(Un)Damming the River

By gradually releasing control of the class to students, I began to see my job as a builder of irrigation canals rather than dams. To do so, I had to understand student skills and interests so as to guide them in a way that would be beneficial. Rather than one wall to contain an entire class of students, the rushing river was diverted in a number of channels. These channels created fertile soil, in which to plant seeds of understanding.

This is why I believe digital tools for personalized learning and formative assessment are becoming essential to effective teaching. Teachers need the right tools to gather and organize student data. Without them, one teacher simply cannot learn enough about her student’s strengths and needs to support individual learning pathways.

Covering the Content

Thinking about learning as cultivation brings up another common concern. Some educators would like to increase student autonomy, but worry about curriculum coverage.

When you’re handed a list of “must-cover” topics, it can be challenging to considering anything other than targeting each topic in your curriculum. At the same time, though, this is when it’s essential that we do step back and ask the question: “Just because I’ve covered a topic, does that mean a student has understood it?”

We should be asking whether the content we are covering is authentic and relevant. But if that’s too controversial, we at least have to wonder if our instruction is having the desired impact.

The Impact of Peer Learning

In William Damon’s article, Peer Education: The Untapped Potential, he cites a variety of reasons why children can learn more effectively from their peers than from adults. His work builds upon research by some of the most important names in educational psychology, such as Lev Vygostsky and Jean Piaget.

In short, when students explain things to each other, there is a smaller gap in understanding than when explained by a teacher. This makes it easier for students to acquire knew knowledge. Students also tend to view peers as more credible than adults. And they are less defensive about ‘being wrong,’ because the power differential has been removed from the interaction.

Even if you make no adjustments to the content you are covering, there is a good chance that incorporating small group discussions or reading circles will increase achievement. (Yes, even textbooks, primary sources and scientific research can be read in circles)

These approaches have a particular impact on students who traditionally struggle. As we build in more collaborative practices, we start to realize that overuse of lecture is often why some of our students are struggling in the first place.

Teacher-Centered Professional Development

It can be easy to criticize traditional teachers as “stuck in their ways.” But the reality is that too often, we use teacher-centered models to talk about student-centered learning. As a teacher, I remember being tired of the “lecture about why you shouldn’t lecture.”

To truly embrace student-centered learning, teachers need to experience student-centered learning. After that early challenge with teacher-centered educators, I’ve changed my approach.

I recently conducted a very different workshop with a very similar group of teachers. A district curriculum supervisor asked for help getting her teachers to differentiate. It was a high-income, high-performing district. Many of the teachers saw their high test scores of evidence of their effectiveness as educators. Of course, in reality test scores tell us more about class than about classrooms.

Students and Teachers As Stakeholders

Instead of focusing on research, I focused on stakeholders. Parents, students, teachers, and administrators all have a stake in education. They’re all impacted by the outcomes. And as such, they all have a right to a voice.

If we started by talking about teaching strategies, it would be too easy to get caught in the same old conversations. Traditionalists would talk about lecture as their “teaching style.” Others would bring up test scores. There would be a lot of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Instead, we had small group discussions around what each stakeholder wanted from education. To move away from teacher-centered methods, these teachers needed to see the classroom from other perspectives. What do students want from their learning? How about parents? How about administrators? This forced teachers to go outside the “my classroom” mindset.

Once they got talking, the picture became even more complex. Over the teachers’ objections, the district was moving to an accelerated model. All students would skip grade 8 math and go right to Algebra.

So while leadership thought were telling teachers to meet individual student needs, teachers were hearing something else. Bigger, better, stronger, faster. If we had simply presented teachers with research and strategies, none of this would have come out.

So if you’re a school leader wanting to see more student-centered learning in your school, plan your PD using that model. But be prepared to find out that the obstacles to student-centered learning may go beyond the teachers.

Reflective Teaching

Bringing student-centered learning to the classroom means seeing teachers as learners. It means that teachers think deeply about their practice and take ownership of their professional development goals.
Reflective practice is just as important for coaches and school leaders. Coaches must reflect on their own practice. And they will need to guide teachers through the process of reflecting on their teaching.
Our free Guide to Reflective Teaching is a great place to start. It includes self-assessments, planning guides, and other resources to support teacher coaching. Whether you are a teacher, coach, or administrator, this guide support a learner-centered approach to professional growth.