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Is Student-Centered Learning Only for Affluent Kids?

Who wouldn’t like the idea of student-centered learning? The very name seems to capture everything that education is supposed to be: an experience that is designed in the best interest of the student. While you would be hard-pressed to find an education professional arguing against student-centered learning, we still have a long way to go in making students feel like our education system  is designed to meet their needs and interests.

A common objection to designing student-centered classrooms is the dreaded, “It won’t work with these students.” This refrain is often used to justify stringent discipline and teacher-centered methods of instruction, especially for lower-income students and students of color. Proponents of this line of thinking believe that struggling students need to focus on “the basics” or to develop “grit.” Poor students, the thinking goes, do not have the luxury of exploring collaboration and inquiry.

Grit: The New “Bootstraps”

The concepts of grit and discipline have been hot topics in education, strongly advocated by some publicly-funded charter schools. These schools celebrate their no-nonsense discipline, even if it means suspending six year-old children. In other settings, students are taught that grit is the secret ingredient to  success; the unspoken sub-text, of course, is that poor children and families are poor, not because of a complex set of socio-economic factors, but because they simply haven’t tried hard enough.

In reality, many underprivileged students come to school with a unique host of challenges: these include hunger, academic gaps, learning differences, and social-emotional needs. That does not mean they deserve a less rigorous and student-centered education. In order to provide an equitable experience in our schools, we need to better understand the unique needs of economically disadvantaged students. Students who have negative associations with authority, or who don’t feel safe and supported as learners, will struggle to take ownership of their learning and to work collaboratively with their peers.

What is student-centered learning?

I recently worked with a pair of teachers who care deeply about their students. They work long days to plan lessons that involve creativity and discussion. They make and remake assessments to better understand the needs of their students. While debriefing one of their lessons, I asked them if they would be interested in planning a lesson that was more student-centered. As soon as I saw the looks on their faces, I regretted my choice of words. “You don’t think our class is student-centered?” one asked me.

From where I was sitting, the lesson had all the signs of teacher-centered learning. The teachers talked throughout the entire lesson. The desks were in rows facing the front of the room. Students received packets at the beginning of class that specified everything they would learn during the period and included assessment questions to measure whether or not they had met the days’ goal.

So why the confusion? I immediately realized that these teachers understood student-centered to mean “caring about their students,” which these teachers truly do. Real student-centered learning, though, is about more than good intentions: it is about rethinking the classroom experience in a way that empowers and engages students.

The table above lists some indicators of student-centered vs. teacher-centered classrooms, but it is by no means comprehensive. The main distinction is that in student-centered classrooms, students are given the trust and respect to make important decisions about their own learning.

Why Put Students at the Center?

In a traditional classroom, there is an unspoken assumption that the teacher is the ultimate source of knowledge and wisdom. This unfair expectation causes undue stress for both teachers and students, forcing both to act in ways that limit their potential. It sends students the message that their opinions are unimportant, and that sitting and listening is the best way to learn, even though much research has supported the importance of interactive learning for deep learning and retention to occur.

Perhaps the strongest justification for student-centered learning, though, is common sense. Think about a time you were forced to learn something you didn’t care for. How did that work out? Compare it to when you were passionate about what you were learning – did you need someone to give you assignments and test you on your understanding?

Some of the content covered in a traditional classroom is crucial to a student’s future success and happiness. On the other hand, much of the content is not. Further, many skills required for success in work and life that are not taught in school. Inviting students to have a voice in what they learn and how they learn helps to make the learning more relevant, and as a result, increases student engagement and motivation.

Problems with Authority

Even when educators are committed to providing equitable student-centered experiences for their students, it can be challenging to create a sense of ownership among students who are disengaged. While behavioral and social-emotional problems are often cited as reasons to avoid student-centered methods in low-income schools, these issues actually highlight the need to provide underprivileged students the opportunity to guide their own learning.

Students from privileged backgrounds often come to school with a belief in the benevolence of authority. The system was designed for them, and their experience teaches them that if they do as they’re told, they will earn a life of comfort and success.


For other students, the opposite is often true. Non-white and low-income students may have a harder time seeing school as a gateway to success. Students of color are often faced with authority figures (teachers, police, etc) from different backgrounds, making it more difficult for them to identify with authority figures. By middle school, many students of color have encountered enough systemic racism that they may reasonably question the benevolence of authority. Teacher-directed classrooms tend to reinforce their belief that they are not understood or that their opinions and goals do not matter.



In addition to helping establish trust in the system, student-centered environments are also essential for helping kids develop social-emotional skills, which are crucial for their future success. Concrete tasks like taking notes, memorizing, and passing tests rely almost exclusively on cognitive skills. Developing goals, researching, and collaborating with peers all require executive function, a crucial element of future success in life. In other words, when students internalize the structure normally imposed by teachers, they can take these skills with them beyond the end of the school year. By creating classroom cultures that value creativity, persistence, and collaboration, teachers can help prepare all types of students for success both on standardized tests and in life.

Think About It

For more information on how student-centered learning can help close the achievement gap, see this study from Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. For more about  the integration of social-emotional learning into school programs, refer to the CASEL website.

No classroom is 100% student-centered or teacher-directed.  Have you moved towards a more student-centered approach? How has it worked out for you? Tell us about your school or classroom in the comments below.

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