In efforts to improve public education in the United States, much of the attention has been on helping teachers maximize their own abilities, and to make campuses effective – and efficient – at the business of schooling. But what if students themselves were the focus, and the primary goal was to structure their learning in the way that best met their individual needs? That’s the question put forth by advocates of student-centered learning, an educational approach that is gaining ground, bolstered by federal incentives to encourage innovation in the classroom and new research connecting students’ engagement to their academic success.
To be sure, expectations are ever greater for both schools and students. Educators are continually seeking news ways of boosting students’ critical-thinking skills and spurring deeper learning, to better prepare students for both postsecondary and workforce success. Advocates of student-centered learning contend that the approach offers the best opportunity for students to meet the myriad challenges that await them.
What Is Student-Centered Learning?
In a student-centered learning environment, students are given choices of how and what they learn, based on the theory that students thrive when they can see a direct connection between the instructional material on the one hand and their own interests and real-world experiences on the other. There are frequent assessments – including self-assessments by the students – to ensure the requisite content is mastered.
The concept of allowing students’ own interests to drive their education isn’t entirely new. In fact, the roots of it can be found in the work of early 20th-century educator John Dewey, psychologist Carl Rogers, and Maria Montessori. Following publication of his popular book “Horace’s Compromise” in 1987, former Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Theodore Sizer created the Essential Schools Coalition, which prescribed collaborative learning environments with a “teacher as coach, student as worker” premise.
Yet the past decade has seen significant growth in the number of U.S. schools experimenting with approaches that incorporate some of these central elements. The language used to articulate the concept has also shifted over the years. And today, educators often use different terms to describe student-centered learning. Concepts fitting under that umbrella include personalized learning, student-teacher partnerships, adaptive learning, and collaborative learning. Two other important elements: Competency-based education, which is gaining popularity particularly in higher education as a means of recognizing the skills students bring with them to the classroom, and proficiency-based instruction, which allows students to move ahead at their own pace once they’ve demonstrated they’ve mastered the material.
Traditional “teacher-centered” classrooms are sometimes criticized as too rigid to meet the needs of a diverse population of students who inevitably are at varying levels of ability, learn best in different ways, and have different interests. By comparison, in student-centered learning environments, teachers focus more on coaching than lecturing. Classrooms’ physical environment is often more flexible as well, with open seating plans and no obvious “front” of the classroom.
The classroom is shaped as a collaborative environment, with the student as an active, rather than passive, participant. Students are given choices of how and what they learn, encouraging them to find a direct connection between the instructional material and their own interests and real-world experiences. When students demonstrate mastery, they can advance rather than wait for the rest of the class to reach a similar tipping point.
Student-centered learning does have its critics, both of the philosophical premise and the associated logistics. Experts warn that the approach requires special training to effectively manage an open-plan classroom environment. Not all districts or schools are prepared to provide the requisite professional development or day-to-day support teachers need to successfully implement the student-centered learning model. Such classrooms can be noisy and chaotic, and because the teacher isn’t delivering the same information to the entire group at the same time, it’s possible that some students will miss out on important content, skeptics say. The Education Trust, an advocacy organization focused on closing achievement and opportunity gaps for minority and low-income students, has also raised questions about whether competency-based instruction is equitable.
“There is appeal to moving students through the curriculum as they are ready,” Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy at Education Trust, told the Wall St. Journal. “But the risky downside is that it could translate into lower expectations in terms of how fast low-income and minority students are expected to progress.”
In surveys, teachers themselves have expressed skepticism about being able to effectively cover an entire year’s syllabus using student-centered learning, particularly given the increased expectations of the new Common Core State Standards. Others mistrust the model as fad pedagogy and are reluctant to have their classrooms used as incubators. In some instances teachers report that students themselves are resistant to the new learning style, particularly the expectation for group work. In fact, in its guidance to members, the National Education Association writes that the first step in adopting a student-centered learning environment is explaining it to the students, and helping them understand that it will “better allow them to meet their learning and life goals.”
What States Are Doing
Student-centered learning received a sizeable boost from the federal government in 2009 with the announcement of the Investing In Innovation (i3) grant program, which encouraged schools to form public-private partnerships:
- In 2010, the Forsyth County (Ga.) Public Schools, in partnership with the University of Georgia, received a three-year, $4.7 million grant to develop district-wide personalized learning environment that would better monitor individual students’ progress and be more responsive to their needs. The grant also allowed the district to combine instruction, grading, and offline assessments into one platform for teachers.
- In 2012, The New England Network for Personalization and Performance, created by the Plymouth (Mass.) Public School District and the Center for Secondary School Redesign, was awarded a $5 million i3 grant to implement a new educational approach at 13 high schools. The network is a coalition of four states – Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire – working with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Rural Schools and Community Trust. The other project partners are the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which includes 33 high schools, and the University of California Los Angeles School of Management, which will serve as the evaluator.
- In 2013, ConnectEd – The California Center for College and Career – was awarded $3 million in i3 funds to explore the effectiveness of “linked learning” (focusing on real-world experiences and hands-on instruction) as a means of improving outcomes for high school students. The partners for the project include the James Irvine Foundation, which will provide support to the four school districts in the pilot program.
Additionally, the 16 recipients of the district-level Race to the Top grants have each incorporated an element of personalized learning in their proposals. (See the American Institutes of Research report for more on this issue.)
What the Research Shows
The Center on Reinventing Public Education examined student-centered learning programs nationwide in 2012, and determined that implementing them could be done successfully by reallocating existing school resources. At the same time, CRPE researchers concluded that by building public-private partnerships for student-centered learning, districts could attract substantial new resources and support.
In a 2012 literature review, the Center on Education Policy concluded that tapping into student motivation was an important element in school improvement efforts. Not surprisingly, students’ motivation – often along with their academic achievement – increased when they saw a direct connection between what they were learning and their own interests and goals.
Programs that were found to be successful at boosting student motivation include some alternative education programs that incorporate community service into the curriculum, as well as those that encourage students to be more independent thinkers – all approaches that fit under the student-centered learning umbrella. The studies have also found that when students are motivated, they demonstrate a better grasp of the subject matter, have higher self-esteem, and are more likely to graduate.
In a recent report, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education found that at four California high schools using a student-centered learning approach, minority students were out-performing their peers – at traditional campuses – in some cases by a significant margin. The case-study high schools offer open enrollment and serve populations of predominantly minority students from low-income families. As the report’s authors noted, “Student-centered practices are more often found in schools that serve affluent and middle-class students than those located in low-income communities. Creating student-centered learning environments is one way the country can effectively address the opportunity gap for these students.”