Happy learners in a student-centered classroom

Six Signs of a Student-Centered Classroom

Imagine yourself walking into a student-centered classroom. What do you see the students doing? Where is the teacher standing? What does the room look like? What does it sound like?

I’ve spent most of the last 40 years in classrooms. And over that time, the way we think about school has changed dramatically.

When I was a student, there was little question that schools were teacher-centered.  But what defines a teacher-centered classroom? 

In short, it means that the teacher is at the center of the learning experience. Students see her as the decision-maker and the source of information  Most of the time, attention is focused on her. 

Expectations for students are uniform. Everyone learns the same content in the same way, at the same time. The student’s job is to follow directions, do their homework, and get the answers right. 

As a student, whenever I felt that school was too hard or too boring, the reason was clear. It was because I wasn’t focused enough, smart enough, or well-behaved enough.

The Rise of Student-Centered Classrooms

Today, we ask more from teachers and our schools. When students struggle with academics or behavior, we don’t expect them to fix it on their own. As educators, we feel responsible for helping our students meet expectations.

Are we addressing each student’s unique learning needs? Inspiring them to be their best? Suporting their social-emotional growth?

While it’s clear that the mindset has shifted, it’s less clear that student-centered classrooms have become the norm. In today’s schools, you will find many examples of hands-on learning and differentiation. But you’ll also see a lot of teacher-talk and an emphasis on uniform outcomes.

There is now wide agreement that student-centered learning is beneficial. But the resources (textbooks, worksheets) and structures (standardized tests, schedules, and report cards) found in most schools are still designed for teacher-centered instruction.

Many teachers are left wondering how to define a student-centered classroom. And more importantly, how to lead one.  

You Don’t Think Our Classroom is Student-Centered?

I first noticed this disconnect while I was coaching a pair of team-teachers in Harlem. 

These teachers were committed, hard-working, and bright. Most importantly, they truly cared about their students. But they were no pushovers.

As the students entered, one teacher stood by the doorway and the other stood at the back of the room. The students walked silently to their desks (in rows) and sat down to a ten-page packet on graphing in the coordinate plane.

I heard a loud, sharp voice from the front, “Open to the first page!”

The teachers walked up and down the rows to make sure every student was on the right page. One teacher read from the text. “The coordinate plane consists of two axes. The horizontal axis is the x-axis. The vertical is the y-axis.”

Then, a cold-call. “Jonathan, what is the name of the horizontal axis?” 

He responded, “The x-axis.”

“Good.”

The teachers circled the room throughout the period. If a student talked to a neighbor, their name was announced and they were warned. (Whatever the consequence was, it seemed to be effective).

After the instructional portion, students worked independently on problem sets. At the end of the period, the teachers collected the packets.

When we debriefed, I congratulated the pair for their organization and classroom management. But I wanted to know if they’d be open to planning a more student-centered lesson for my next visit.

They both looked at me in shock, “You don’t think our classroom is student-centered?”

It was like we were speaking different languages. To them, a student-centered classroom wasn’t about hands-on learning or differentiation. It meant that they cared about their students.

Defining the Student-Centered Classroom

The truth is that caring for our students is necessary, but not sufficient, for creating a student-centered classroom. There are many traditional teachers who care deeply for their students.

The challenge in defining student-centered learning is that it’s more a philosophy than a resource or a strategy. You can’t buy student-centered textbooks or student-centered software. And there are literally thousands of ways to do student-centered teaching.

But the definition of a student-centered classroom is right there in the name. In a teacher-centered classroom, the teacher is at the center. The teacher does most of the talking. She decides what students will learn, when they’ll learn it, and whether an answer is right. She decides who deserves an ‘A’ and who deserves to fail.

In student-centered classrooms, the dynamic shifts. Students have some control over what they learn and how they learn it. Students may work together to create the class rules. And teachers provide feedback to support learning, not just to rate and sort students.

Of course, no classroom is 100% student-centered. If students showed up to my math class and decided we were doing pottery that day, I could turn teacher-centered pretty darn quick.

The Six Signs of a Student-Centered Classroom

Student-centered learning isn’t a specific teaching strategy. But it’s helpful to recognize the signs of a student-centered classroom.

This list can be a tool for reflection. If you were watching your classroom from the outside, how many of these would you see? If you’re a coach or school leader, could this list help guide your professional growth conversations?

Six Signs of a Student-Centered Classroom

1. Active Learning

One of the most important discoveries of the past century is that learning is more than the accumulation of facts. 

One of our earliest theories of learning came from Plato. He believed that we were born knowing all we would ever know. Learning was really just “reminding” us of what our souls knew from birth. Two millenia later, John Locke proposed the exact opposite: tabula rasa (blank slate). He believed we were born knowing nothing. Instead, we possess “mental powers,” which allow us to learn new things.

It wasn’t until the 1920’s that Jean Piaget developed a modern theory of learning. Constructivism states that each learning experience starts with our existing beliefs. Learning is an active process, where the learner builds on what they know to “construct understanding.” 

Research has repeatedly confirmed his theory. It’s not just that active learning is “better.” Learning is an active process, whether we like it or not. When instruction matches the reality of how our brain works, students benefit.

Active learning supports deeper understanding, better retention, and increased skill fluency.

The first step towards active learning is often to limit teacher talk. A lecturer can start by calling on individual students to answer questions. Then, students can be guided into more authentic dialog. Eventually this can lead to student-led discussions and inquiry-based learning.

2. Collaboration

Collaboration is another hallmark of a student-centered classroom. In teacher-centered classrooms, the instructor is the gatekeeper of each learning event. But this approach creates a bottleneck, as a single teacher can’t give enough attention to every student in a full classroom. 

I once coached a teacher who wanted to give all her students individual support. She started each class at the front of the room for a mini-lesson. Then, she returned to her desk as students worked on practice problems. Soon, they would line up to ask her questions and show her their work.

This routine made her feel helpful, valued, and respected. But it also overwhelmed her. And students spent most of class standing on line instead of learning.

Collaborative learning is not only more efficient, it’s more effective. When working with peers, students get instant feedback, and they develop social-emotional skills. There is evidence that students learn complex ideas more effectively when explained by a peer.

Teachers can introduce collaboration with something as simple as a turn-and-talk. Rubrics and group work protocols can help teachers and students develop more fluency with collaborative learning.

Effective lesson planning is also essential. While students can work together on worksheets, collaboration is more meaningful when students learn through inquiry.

The important thing is to recognize that collaboration is a teachable skill. Many students have become accustomed to ‘sit and learn’ teaching strategies. They will need some time and support to become effective collaborators.

3. Differentiation

Differentiation is a broad term. Any time we adjust to a students’ individual need, we are differentiating.

Four types of differentiation that support student-centered classrooms

According to Tomlinson and Maker (1982), educators can differentiate instruction in four ways

  • Content: what students learn
  • Process: how they learn
  • Product: how we measure the learning
  • Environment: where students learn

Most differentiation today focuses on process, or scaffolding. While scaffolding is important, it’s not always enough. 

If a student who reads on grade level is struggling to interpret a text, it makes sense to try a different approach. But if a student is above or below grade level, we need to differentiate the content.

When diverse learners are expected to achieve the same outcomes, it leads to overscaffolding. This happens when we help students appear successful, even when they haven’t mastered a standard.

Schools that wish to provide more meaningful differentiation options should explore The Three-Bridges Design for Learning. This model balances the need to differentiate with the importance of high standards.

4. Social-Emotional Learning

Another feature of a student-centered classroom is acknowledging that students learn more than the three R’s in school. 

To be prepared for life outside of school, students need social-emotional skills. Self-control, cooperation, and self-regulation — all are at least as important as academic learning. The most successful students also develop metacognition, an understanding of how they learn.

SEL wheel: Components of social-emotional learning

Even if we don’t explicitly teach social-emotional skills, students develop them by engaging in active learning. Planning a long-term project, working in teams, and giving oral presentations are all beneficial. These activities help students acquire content knowledge while also developing their social-emotional skills.

5. Voice and Choice

Imagine an internet with one website, or a TV with one channel. This is what it can feel like for students who march from class to class all day, listening to lectures and following directions. When students have no control of their learning, many become bored and disengaged.

Giving students choice and voice increases student engagement. And that means increased learning. 

One way to magnify student voice is through surveys. Ask students how they enjoyed a unit, or what they want from your class. You won’t be able to give them everything they want. But even asking their opinion can help them feel more invested.

And there are plenty of ways to increase student choice without compromising standards. I had students complete a story analysis organizer, but let them pick the story. They developed the same literacy skills, but were allowed to incorporate their interests.

Another way to increase choice is with flexible deadlines. Give students a list of the week’s homework assignments, and let them choose the day they complete the work. 

6. Technology Integration

Technology is a bit of an outlier in this list. You can certainly create student-centered classrooms without technology. And technology alone doesn’t increase student-centered learning.

But technology can be a powerful support for a student-centered vision. EdTech allows us to make traditional learning more efficient. And it opens up new avenues for innovation. 

Interactive whiteboards may receive a lot of attention (and funding). But they do little to enhance student-centered learning.

Students devices are a better way to put them at the center of their learning. Students can work together on collaborative documents. Or demonstrate their understanding through videos and presentations. And personalized learning makes differentiation of content possible, even in larger classrooms.

SAMR model of technology integration: substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition

Models like SAMR can help educators ensure they are using technology strategically. Rather than using technology to recreate old learning models, educators can redefine learning.

Cultivating the Student-Centered Classroom

The six signs above can be helpful indicators of student-centered learning. But they aren’t a step-by-step guide. 

A single student-centered activity can bring multiple benefits. Project-based learning includes active learning, collaboration, and social emotional benefits.

It’s also helpful to think of student-centered learning as a continuum. No classroom is all teacher-centered or all student-centered. Even the most innovative educators can make their classrooms more student-centered.

For more ideas on building student-centered classrooms, subscribe to our weekly Educator’s Newsletter.

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