Developing a Student-centered Classroom
by Becton Loveless
It just sort of sounds good as it rolls of the tongue, student-centered classroom. We've all heard the phrase coined before, yet most educators would agree that developing a student centered classroom is becoming more of a necessity and norm these days than a luxury or innovative new approach to teaching. The traditional classroom where students sit quietly and attentively in their seats, while the teacher pours vast amounts of wisdom and knowledge into their sponge like brains is over (assuming it ever existed.) This is especially true for middle school and high school classes where "teaching" can be a constant battle.
So what exactly is a student-centered classroom? In short, a student-centered classroom, or student-centered learning environment, is one where the focus of instruction is shifted from the teacher to the student, with the end goal of developing students who are autonomous and independent, by placing the responsibility of learning in the hands of the students. Many proponents of student-centered learning would argue that it's one of the most effective ways to help students develop the skills required for independent problem-solving and lifelong learning.
In the more traditional "teacher-centered learning" environment, the teacher is center of the learning experience and takes the "active" role of teaching, while the students assume a more "passive" or receptive role. In contrast, in the student-centered learning environment, the interests of the students' take center stage and the teacher gives students choice and voice, finding ways to provide learning experiences that focus on what students value. In the student-centered classroom, students take a more "active" role in the education experience.
It doesn't matter if you're a kindergarten teacher, high school instructor or college professor, developing a student-centered learning environment will help your students become independent learners who will ultimately take charge of their own education–students who are curious, eager to learn, and willing to do whatever it takes to be successful.
Unfortunately, developing a student-centered learning environment isn't always easy, especially if your experience frames learning in a more traditional way. For many, implementing a student-centered learning environment sounds great in theory, but putting it into practice is a different story. Below we'll explore some strategies, principles and offer some proven tips that can make the student-centered learning environment a reality, and success, in your classroom.
Turn your classroom into a community
In a traditional classroom, the teacher speaks, the students listen. In a student-centered classroom, the students speak, the teacher listens, interjects and facilitates conversation when needed, and then thanks the students for their participation. By involving students directly in the education process, and by enabling them to interact with one another, students begin to feel a sense of community. More importantly they are shown that what they feel, what they value, and what they think are what matter most. In the student-centered classroom, the teacher acts not only as educator, but as both facilitator and activator.
Develop trust and communication
A student-centered classroom or learning environment can not exist without trust and open communication. Trust and open communication are achieved by always being fair with students, listening to them, and allowing them speak. Seem like a tall order? Well, it is. And it may not happen over night. However, it's much easier to develop a student-centered classroom if you get started right away at the beginning of the year. Getting started at the beginning of the year sets the tone and lets students know what's expected of them the rest of the year.
At the beginning of the each new school year, ask your students to discuss how they'd like their classroom experience to be. How should it sound, feel and function during the year? Are there any rules that should be put in place to ensure the classroom experience meets their expectations? Give the students 15 minutes to discuss among themselves and then write their suggestions on the whiteboard. You'll be surprised how many rules students will come up with. As you fill up your white board with their ideas and suggestions, you'll find some common themes start to appear–your students want to be heard, seen, valued, and respected.
This exercise, and similar exercises that can be performed throughout the year, communicate to students that what they say matters, and that you trust and value their input.
Find ways to integrate technology
Developing a student-center classroom is all about engagement. The better you're able to engage students in any activity or project the more involved they'll become in the learning process. In today's world, technology is one of the most effective tools for engaging students. Technology is not the future, it's the present. Everything kids do these days revolves around technology–specifically mobile technology. Allow and invite students to use free web tools to present, curate, and share information. When students are given the opportunity to integrate exciting web tools and technology into the learning process, they become eager, anxious participant in just about any learning activity.
Create an environment where mutual respect and a quest for knowledge guide behavior–not rules
A classroom without rules? Seems a little far fetched, doesn't it? Well, it may be if you plan on having a teacher-centered classroom where students spend half their time learning, and the other half trying to keep from being bored out of their skulls. So what's the key to the "no rules" approach? Engagement! If you keep activities engaging, behavior will rarely be an issue. Having an engaging classroom environment, with engaging projects, engaging activities and engaging discussions will foster mutual respect and encourages a pursuit of learning that leaves little time for disruptions.
Replace homework with engaging project-based learning activities
The jury is still out on the effectiveness of homework as it relates to improved grades and test scores. Some studies indicate there is a positive correlation between homework and improved grades and test scores, while other studies suggest little correlation. However, the entire premise for these studies is based on the assumption that grades and test scores are an accurate barometer for academic achievement and learning. In the teacher-centered classroom, in class learning and student productivity is lower, making homework more necessary and regular testing essential for measuring learning and performance. In the student-centered classroom, where activities and projects are engaging, students become much more eager to learn, and in class productivity is much higher. Where students complete schoolwork outside of the classroom in a student-centered learning environment, it's typically because they want to complete projects they're working on inside the classroom.
Many teachers are now using engaging project-based learning (PBL) to teach math standards, sciences, technology and other core subjects to their students and increase student productivity and effectiveness of learning in the classroom. So what exactly is project-based learning? In short, it's learning through identifying real-world programs and developing real-world solutions. Not only is project-based learning extremely engaging when implemented correctly, but student learn as they journey through the entire project. Project-based learning also relies heavily on technology, where projects are driven by interactive web tools and solutions are presented using a multimedia approach.
When implemented effectively, project-based learning can replace the need for out-of-class homework and in class learning becomes more productive.
Develop ongoing projects
One of the keys to developing a student-centered classroom and learning environment is to create ongoing projects for students. Ongoing projects promotes mastery of subject matter being taught and learned. Learning objectives and standards, for just about any subject matter, can be met through well-designed projects and activities. And providing students with various project choices allows them to demonstrate what they're learning.
Allow students to share in decision making
Creating a student-centered classroom requires collaboration. It requires placing students at the center of their own learning environment by allowing them to be involved in deciding why, what, and how their learning experience will take shape.
Before students will be willing to invest the mental, emotional and physical effort real learning requires, they need to know why what they're learning is relevant to their lives, wants and needs. Explaining to students that they need to study a subject "because it's required for they're grade level," or "they need to know it to get into college" does not establish why in terms of relevance from students' perspective. Such explanations result in lack luster performance, low motivation and poor learning.
Students should determine, or guide, the selection of content matter used to teach skills and concepts. What is taught and learned in a student-centered classroom becomes a function of students' interests and involves students' input and teacher-student collaboration. For example, when learning about American history, students might decide a class play, where each student acts the role of a key historical figure, would be preferable to writing a traditional report or bibliography. In this example, not only do students take ownership of the learning process, all students benefit from the decisions of other students.
The how in a student-centered learning environment is just as important as the why and the what. Students process information, understand and learn in different ways. Offering students the option of how they'll learn will allow each student to adopt the method of learning that will be most comfortable and effective for them. It also allows student to feel more invested in the learning process. Teachers should consider offering students various performance based learning options that meet academic requirements.
Give students the opportunity to lead
Providing students the opportunity to lead in the classroom is a great way to develop a student-centered learning environment that fosters engagement, growth and empowers students to take ownership of the learning experience. Each day consider allowing a few students to each take charge of an individual activity, even if the activity requires content skills beyond the level of the students. Then rote students between leadership roles so each student gets the opportunity to lead an activity. You may even consider introducing the leadership role, or activity they'll be leading, to each student the day before so they'll have time to prepare and really take ownership of their activity.
Get students involved in their performance evaluation
In a traditional classroom, performance evaluation and learning assessment are reduced to a series of numbers, percentages, and letter grades presented periodically on report cards, through activities and via standardized testing. These measures say little about what a student is learning and provide little in the way of useful feedback to the student so he or she can improve their performance and achieve mastery. The student-centered learning environment is based on a form of narrative feedback that encourages students to continue learning until they demonstrate they've achieved mastery of a subject. This form of learning, feedback and evaluation encourages students to resubmit assignments and work on projects until mastery is achieved.