Let’s Make Learning About Kids Again: Using Student-Centered Learning to Transform Our Future

Tammy Berlin, JCTA Vice President

Since the 80s, education in the US has focused on bolstering America’s position in the global economy. We doubled down on the century old factory education model that placed the teacher at the center of student learning, imposed rewards and punishments for schools based on student outcomes on standardized tests, and developed new standards for what students should learn and do, all so that we could compare ourselves to other countries and maintain our self-awarded place as best among all other nations in everything. But that system hasn’t worked as intended: in spite of all of the collective blood, sweat, and tears we as educators have invested trying to meet its demands, our students are still no better off than their parents or their grandparents were before them, and our nation continues to face economic and national security challenges which our current education system does not adequately prepare our students to meet. It’s time to rethink how we teach our children so they will be able to create a society that will allow them and their children to thrive.

Why We Need Change

America adopted the factory education model in the Industrial Age. This model, developed by the National Education Association’s Committee of Ten in 1894, treated students as a product that teachers equipped with a fixed set of knowledge, skills, and behavior norms. Upon graduating, these students were then prepared to enter the workforce and take their place fulfilling a prescribed role performing a specific task for their employer, like cogs in a wheel. By design, education for every student was standardized and uniform regardless of what the student’s post-educational intentions or aspirations might be.

The modern workplace has changed dramatically. Technology has largely allowed low-function tasks to be automated. Work that used to require unskilled laborers can now largely be performed by machines, freeing up opportunities for workers to assume creative roles in their jobs. In addition, today’s employers are looking for workers who have a range of soft skills that will make them better employees overall: skills like innovative problem solving, communication, and the ability to be adaptable when they encounter complexity and ambiguity. We owe it to students to help them prepare for this future by teaching them to be agile, imaginative, and innovative critical thinkers.

But it’s not just our economic future that is at stake: The last several years have seen a rapid decline in how Americans relate to each other. As people grew more isolated during the pandemic, innate tendencies towards racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, and other biases which many people used to harbor silently became blatantly and overtly weaponized against others online and in their day to day personal interactions. This “othering” has created a crisis in our ability to get along and function together as a society. It is our responsibility as educators to help students learn how to build community, collaborate, and communicate with other individuals so that they will grow up having the skills they need to develop a healthy society.

Reimagining Our Roles

The most important shift in student-centered learning is in reimagining the roles of students and educators. The student-centered classroom is an environment where students and teachers are part of a learning community together. Students come to us with individual passions and strengths and a natural curiosity and desire to learn. When they have autonomy and agency over their own learning, students will grow, flourish, and thrive. We owe it to them to create learning environments where that can happen. Our role as teachers should be to design rich and engaging learning experiences that help students develop their passions and strengths. Students should be allowed and encouraged to become agents of their own learning, making decisions and designing their own products and demonstrations of learning that are relevant to them and that engage their interests. As a learning community, students and teachers must connect with each other on a human level, supporting each other, and learning from and with each other.

Putting Student-Centered Learning into Practice

Here are some key practices we can focus on as we make the shift to student-centered learning:

  • Focus on 21st Century Skills: Traditional classrooms focus on teaching students to master content and meet standards for academic subjects. Student-centered learning offers students opportunities to learn soft skills that will help them be successful in life: skills like resilience, grit, creative thinking, communication, collaboration, compassion, critical thinking, self-reflection, and learning how to learn.
  • Address Students’ Social-Emotional Learning Needs: Traditional education focuses on helping students move towards mastery of an academic subject. Students come to us with many physical and emotional needs that need to be met before they’re able to learn effectively. In addition, teaching students how to process and work through their emotions in healthy ways and how to build community with others will help them become self-actualized and healthy, and will make them better prepared to learn, grow, and thrive.
  • Create Growth Mindset and Learner Agency: In a traditional classroom, students are expected to receive knowledge from the teacher and internalize it, then demonstrate the degree to which they have mastered that information on a written assessment for which they will receive a score that shows what percentage of that content they have mastered. After the assessment, the learning of that content is done, and the class moves on to the next concept. Shifting to a growth mindset with learner agency means that students enter into a cycle of learning where they will explore a concept with guidance from the teacher, but also by seeking out real world sources and experiences that will help them learn deeply. Students demonstrate their learning through an exhibition (project, presentation, product, or performance. The learning cycle includes multiple opportunities for students to seek out feedback from the teacher or other learners, reflect on that feedback and refine their exhibition of learning before they present it publicly. In this model, students have agency over how they learn (the process of choosing real world sources and experiences to enhance their learning) and how they present or exhibit their learning. The cycle of learning, feedback, reflection, and refinement helps students develop a growth mindset and teaches them how to become adaptive life-long learners.
  • Prioritize Content to Allow for Student-Centered Pacing: In the traditional learning model, learning focuses on mastering a set of prescribed standards, often in a sequential order. As mentioned above, the learning is structured in such a way that the entire class moves on together, which often leaves students with varying levels of mastery. In a student-centered model, students spend as much time as they need to fully master the standards. Pacing for learning becomes a finish line instead of a deadline when all students are allowed to work and learn at their own pace. The practice of prioritizing and grouping standards together lends itself to project-based learning and allows students to work towards mastery of more than one standard at a time.
  • Design Learning Experiences That Allow for Student Voice and Choice: Students in a traditional classroom have little voice in determining how and what they will learn, and limited choices in how they will demonstrate mastery of their learning. When students have opportunities to participate in decisions around what and how they will learn, they become more engaged and deeply invested in their learning.
  • Rethink How We Group Students: In traditional classrooms, students are grouped by subject, by age, by prior knowledge, and by ability. They may also be grouped by other factors such as class sizes, facilities space, and transportation needs. A student-centered learning environment should group students by interest and factors that are relevant to the student.
  • Make Learning Authentic through Mastery Grading and Student Reflections: Rather than the traditional practice of scoring student work on a points scale and keeping a running tally that then becomes their grade for the course, mastery grading offers a more student-centered approach to assessing students’ competencies. When students are assessed in a mastery grading system, the expectation is that each and every student will demonstrate mastery. Making student reflections a part of our assessment practice is an authentic way to help students understand how they learn and develop their strengths.

The Change We Want to See

To build a vibrant and sustainable future society, it is imperative that we build an education system that will grow students who are able to identify problems and innovate to solve them,

build community, have compassion and empathy towards others, advocate for themselves, and promote a democratic society. These traits are capacities that aren’t explicitly taught and not readily assessed in the traditional teacher-centered learning model. In order to help our students develop these vital capacities, we must shift our practice to a student-centered learning model.

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