Student-Centered Learning

There are many efforts underway in the United States to emphasize a type of teaching and learning method that is called “Student-Centered.” From Students at The CenterJobs for the Future, and Nellie Mae Education Foundation., this focus tries to manage research findings into accessible ideas for practice.

The Students at the Center Hub supports student-centered approaches to learning, drawn from the mind/brain sciences, learning theory, and research on youth development. The Students at the Center Hub is managed by Jobs for the Future and generously funded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. The Hub is in beta, and we are working hard to polish everything – the content, the navigation, the layout, and more. Please contact us with feedback and suggestions.

One of the movements in education today is the blending of different resources into central focus ideas so that the field of teachers can grab these ideas and make them happen in real classrooms, right away. “Student-centered learning does not represent a single curriculum, model, or practice. Rather, it draws on a variety of concepts in education, the brain sciences, and the child and youth development fields, comprising those instructional practices that engage individuals in learning deeply and reaching their highest potential” (Nellie Mae Foundation). Nellie Mae has identified four tenets of student-centered learning:

  1. Learning is personalized: Personalized learning recognizes that students engage in different ways and in different places. Students benefit from individually-paced, targeted learning tasks that start from where the student is, formatively assess existing skills and knowledge, and address the student’s needs and interests.

  2. Learning is competency-based: Students move ahead when they have demonstrated mastery of content, not when they’ve reached a certain birthday or endured the required hours in a classroom.

  3. Learning happens anytime, anywhere: Learning takes place beyond the traditional school day, and even the school year. The school’s walls are permeable – learning is not restricted to the classroom.

  4. Students take ownership over their learning: Student-centered learning engages students in their own success – and incorporates their interests and skills into the learning process. Students support each other’s progress and celebrate success (Nellie Mae Foundation).

While the idea of student-centered learning has been around for at least twenty years, serious research is now being funded and beginning findings are being reported of the potential outcomes for this type of reform. One of the reasons why I think this could be important is that student-centered is not locked in as an all or nothing type of reform. In fact early findings in this research report that a variety of different teaching styles may employ a variety of different methods, i.e., student-centered learning strategies could be employed in traditional and innovative schools and in traditional and not so traditional classrooms.

INSIGHTS AND CONSIDERATIONS FOR MOVING AHEAD While the studies did not all cover the exact same territory, a few themes emerged that can be useful to others working to foster more student-centered approaches in K-12 schools.

1. Teachers who implemented a higher degree of student-centered practices had larger gains in student outcomes. Rather than thinking about teachers (and schools and classrooms) as “student-centered” or “not student-centered,” this research suggests that there is a continuum of practice. Even teachers who consider themselves to be more traditional may use student-centered practices some of the time, and vice versa. We still have much to learn about the specific practices and the frequency of use that leads to the strongest outcomes.

2. School culture matters. While a teacher’s own beliefs about educational approaches certainly affect their practice, educators are working within the context of a school’s culture, curriculum, policies, and the philosophy of the school and district leaders. These studies suggest that such contextual factors can influence the type and degree of student-centered teaching and learning that takes place in a school.

3. Teachers need support. Implementing student-centered practices effectively requires a highly developed set of skills and understanding. To become an effective student-centered practitioner, teachers need: • Quality, ongoing professional development that includes access to examples of high-quality, student-centered learning in action. • Adequate time for collaboration, planning, and review of lessons and student work. • Curriculum, assessment, and instructional tools that support student-centered methods. • Human capital policies—including those guiding teacher preparation, induction, evaluation, and advancement—that recognize and promote student-centered practices.

4. We need clearer definitions and examples of student-centered practice across disciplines. While some facets of student-centered learning can be applied across subject areas, the ways in which students learn best will vary according to the content at hand. As teachers and those who support them look for entry points for developing a more student-centered practice, they can benefit from more nuanced definitions (Nellie Mae Foundation).

Part of the take-away from this is that teachers need to be well trained, they need quality support to improve their practice and that student-centered learning strategies may be very helpful, especially for students who are underserved or who are risk for achievement.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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