Student-Centered Learning

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Student-Centered Learning

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.  

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.”

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MacArthur ‘Genius’ Angela Duckworth Responds To A New Critique Of Grit

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Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Video Resources from the 69th EWA National Seminar

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Who succeeds in life? Angela Duckworth, whose new book on grit debuts in May, reviews her research on the tendency to pursue long-term goals with perseverance and passion. She explains the predictive power of grit and shares her thoughts on how to cultivate this hotly debated trait.

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Teaching The Intangibles: How To Ingrain ‘Grit’ In Students

If you are interested in education at all, then you’re probably familiar with the new push to encourage grit. The idea is that one of the most important ways children succeed in life is by mastering certain character traits like perseverance, self-control, conscientiousness. One of the people who helped popularize that idea as much as anybody is Paul Tough, the New York Times best-selling author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity And The Hidden Power Of Character.”

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In 2013, for the first time, a majority of public-school students in this country—51 percent, to be precise—fell below the federal government’s low-income cutoff, meaning they were eligible for a free or subsidized school lunch. It was a powerful symbolic moment—an inescapable reminder that the challenge of teaching low-income children has become the central issue in American education.

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Reinventing High School Takes Making It All About the Teens

Crowded halls. Bells to cheer the end of a droning lecture. Friday night football games. Add a mushed sandwich and a shoulder ache from an overstuffed backpack and we will all be back at My Town High.

A lot has changed in the world, in business, even in politics. But high schools soldier on, marching to the same high-stepping drummer they always have. Research-driven reforms, however, could have them singing an entirely new tune.

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What does it mean to learn deeply?  A group of researchers who’ve studied that approach say it’s more than mastering a subject.  Students in deep-learning classrooms are able to explain why they are learning something, and to apply what they’ve learned.

But that kind of instruction occurs in only about one in five classrooms, a recent study of high schools across the country found.  And those classrooms are more likely to be in private schools, or public schools serving affluent communities.

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Keys to Students’ Success: Resilience, Grit, Passion

As the Democrat and Chronicle education reporter, I seldom manage to go more than a day or two without finding myself downwind of a harangue about the state of the Rochester City School District.

Each orator has his own thesis. There are the dueling reformers and anti-reformers, the “Where are the parents?” crowd looking askance at theories of institutional racism. Those who see the inevitability of institutional inertia seem to have the dimmest view of all, which is saying something.

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Angela Duckworth: Raising Test Scores Is Not a Sign of Grit

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In the dozen years that Angela Duckworth has researched the concept of grit, she’s found new ways to test its validity, identified examples of it in popular culture, and worked to bust myths about its application in schools. But she hasn’t developed a just-add-water curriculum package that interested schools can use to develop the character trait in their students.

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Pushing up the cuffs of his plaid shirt and adjusting his glasses, ninth-grader Colton Gaudette looks across the small classroom conference table at the day’s special guest.

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“Thank you for inviting me,” answers his mother, Terry Gaudette.

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Achieve Academy charter school Co-Principal Lucy Schmidt was one of more than 1,000 administrators who recently spent a day seeing her campus through the eyes of a student as part of a national “Shadow a Student Challenge.”

The goal was to help school leaders empathize with students and teachers – and to identify strengths and weaknesses, then take actions to improve their learning environments and campus cultures.

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For the eighth grader Kimberly Wilborn, a lesson about Nelson Mandela made it all click.

“Ms. Plante was talking about Nelson Mandela and how he forgave his jailers,” remembers Wilborn, who is being raised by her aunt on Chicago’s South Side. “And I thought if he can forgive them, I can forgive my birth mom and my dad for not being there for me. I actually cried. It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.”

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SAN FRANCISCO — The fifth graders in Jade Cooney’s classroom compete against a kitchen timer during lessons to see how long they can sustain good behavior — raising hands, disagreeing respectfully and looking one another in the eye — without losing time to insults or side conversations.

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How This Bay Area Charter School Network Is Reinventing Education

Diane Tavenner scanned the list of names a staffer at Summit Preparatory Charter High School had just handed her. She began to cry. They weren’t happy tears.

Where many would see signs of success, Tavenner saw failure.

“I taught those kids,” Tavenner said of that moment in 2011. “I was their principal, I was their mentor. I knew everybody personally — and their families.”

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But that’s misunderstanding the thinking behind a growth mindset, Dweck said. Telling students, “Keep trying; you can do it,” doesn’t work, she said. Teachers instead should ask students these questions: “What strategies have you tried? What will you try next?” “It’s not just effort,” Dweck said. “You need strategies.”

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At High Tech High School in San Diego, there are no bells that signal the start of class periods. There are no seven-period days, no mock standardized assessments and no lectures.

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As the tune of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” plays out over the music video, the lyrics are a bit different:

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It was in this video Stanford University Professor and author Jo Boaler says she was compelled to do something she didn’t want to do. “They made me rap,” she said. When her undergraduate students challenged whether she had a growth mindset about her rhyme skills, Boaler said to herself, “Oh my gosh. I’m gonna have to rap.”

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One of the most popular ideas in education today is also one that is often misunderstood. While Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” has a emerged as a meme for motivation less than a decade after the publication of her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” the Stanford psychology professor is worried about its misapplication.

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To Improve Learning, More Researchers Say Students Should Feel Like They Belong in the Classroom

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About a third of the students who started college in 2009 have since dropped out, joining the millions of young adults who never entered college in the first place.

Several years into a massive push by both the federal government and states to increase postsecondary graduation rates, education policymakers across the country are asking what else they can do to get more students to and through college.

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“Solutions Journalism” aims to draw attention to credible responses to social problems. A brand-new resource can help education reporters take that approach with their own work on the beat.

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Why do so few students from low-income families earn college degrees, even when they were academic standouts as high schoolers? And what can be done to help these students make a smoother transition to higher education?

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69th EWA National Seminar

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The Education Writers Association, the national professional organization for journalists who cover education, is thrilled to announce that its annual conference will take place from Sunday, May 1, through Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in the historic city of Boston.

Co-hosted by Boston University’s College of Communication and School of Education, EWA’s 69th National Seminar will examine a wide array of timely topics in education — from early childhood through career — while expanding and sharpening participants’ skills in reporting and storytelling.

Boston, Massachusetts
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Clinical psychologist Ross Greene — whose books are well known to parents of so-called “problem kids,” is rewriting the rules for how some schools respond to challenging students.

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I’m headed to Quebec City this week, and in preparation I’ve been reading “Champlain’s Dream: The European Founding of North America” by David Hackett Fischer. There are also quite a few education titles on my vacation reading list, and we’ll be featuring some of the authors in upcoming episodes of EWA Radio.

EWA Radio

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Nestled within the new-agey sounding concept of “noncognitive factors” are fairly concrete examples of what parents and educators should and shouldn’t do to prepare students for the rigors of college and careers. Gleaned from research into brain development and human behavior, a toolkit is emerging on how to make the best of the scholarship focused on qualities like grit, persistence and learning from mistakes.

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Focusing on student learning, and structuring the school to fit students’ varied learning paces, is proving to be a game changer, said panelists at EWA’s recent National Seminar in Chicago, moderated by journalist Katrina Schwartz of Mindshift at KQED Public Radio.

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Blog: The Educated Reporter

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EWA’s 68th National Seminar kicks off today in Chicago, and it’s going to be a fantastic three days of discussions, workshops, and site visits. The theme this year is Costs and Benefits: The Economics of Education. Be sure to keep tabs on all the action via the #EWA15 hashtag on Twitter.

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How do teachers and parents determine whether school reform is effective? Hint: it’s not all about test scores.

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Top Tweets from #EWAChoice’s first session

Blog: The Educated Reporter

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At Summit Public School: Denali, young learners do it differently. Most of the students at this Bay Area-area school complete their coursework on school-issued Chromebooks, where they access a portal to online videos, assigned readings and interim assessments they take at their own pace. It’s a competency-based approach to proving they have mastered the subject at hand. 

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Sixteen-year-old boys with third grade reading and math skills are exactly the pupils a Chicago tutoring experiment is targeting — and helping. 

In an op-ed for The New York Times Saturday, UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp sets the scene:


The Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Education Landscape – Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

The study finds that the Carnegie Unit remains the central organizing feature of the vast American education system, from elementary school to graduate school, and provides students with an important opportunity-to-learn standard. But at best, the Carnegie Unit is a crude proxy for student learning. The U.S. education system needs more informative measures of student performance. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

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Education journalists took a field trip to Impact Academy of Arts and Technology this week to see project-based learning in action, including observing classrooms and watching a student defend her project on World War II and the Holocaust. Check out some Tweets from the visiting reporters, as well as more highlights from the first day at the EWA seminar at Stanford University. (Also, check out this earlier blog post about our testing seminar.)


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Competency education is attracting significant interest as a promising way to help meet our national priority of ensuring that all young people are ready for college and careers. In competency-based schools, students advance at different rates, based on their ability to demonstrate mastery of learning objectives. Teachers provide customized supports to help propel everyone to proficiency. 


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American Institutes for Research

Are Personalized Learning Environments the Next Wave of K-12 Education Reform?, the first issue paper in a new series from AIR, examines 16 successful applications from the first round of Race to the Top District (RTT-D) awards. It identifies trends and lessons learned from these pioneering grantees’ efforts to implement and scale teaching and learning innovations.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

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Whether you’re a veteran journalist or relatively new to the education beat, EWA’s resources can help you make the most of your reporting. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

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More students are earning high school diplomas – but the diplomas don’t mean those students are ready to succeed in college.

Nicholas Donohue, president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, made that observation as he began to argue for a dramatic rethinking of the way schools measure learning, promote students and award diplomas. He made the argument during a “Deep Dive on Competency-Based Education and Student-Centered Learning” at EWA’s National Seminar in Nashville in May.

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EWA Webinar: Reporting On Summer Learning

While students might be basking in a long summer break, that leisure time carries a heavy price tag: on average, students will return to school in the fall a month behind where they performed in the spring. And the learning loss is typically even greater for low-income students who were already behind their more affluent peers. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

In High Schools, Overcoming ‘Undermatching’

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Competitive colleges in the U.S. have an image problem: By many accounts, their student bodies are much whiter and richer than the general population. Over at The Hechinger Report, Jamaal Abdul-Alim reports on a program aimed at steering academically high-flying low-income and minority students to the nation’s top-ranked universities.


Students at the Center

A project of the nonprofit Jobs For the Future, Students at the Center “synthesizes and adapts for practice current research on key components of student-centered approaches to learning and deeper learning outcomes.” The organization’s mission is to “strengthen the ability of practitioners and policymakers to engage each student in acquiring the skills, knowledge, and expertise needed for success in college, career, and civic life.”


Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education

The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) fosters research, policy, and practice to advance high quality, equitable education systems in the United States and internationally.


James Irvine Foundation

Founded in 1937 to benefit the people of California, the James Irvine Foundation’s mission is expanding opportunity. The foundation has awarded more than $1.3 billion in grants to over 3,500 nonprofit organizations across the state.


Nellie Mae Education Foundation

Based in Quincy, Mass., the nonprofit Nellie Mae Education Foundation focuses on improving the equity and quality of public schools in New England, with a special emphasis on student-centered learning, district and state-level change, research and analysis, and increasing the public’s understanding.


Coalition of Essential Schools

This organization grew out of the work of Theodore Sizer, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who advocated an aggressive overhaul of how the nation’s high schools are structured, with a goal of improving student interest and engagement. 


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The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education finds student-centered learning programs are closing achievement gaps for minority students at four high schools.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Word on the Beat No. 3: Differentiated Instruction

Each week, The Educated Reporter will feature a buzzword or phrase that You Need To Know (yes, this designation is highly subjective but we’re giving it a shot). Send your Word on the Beat suggestions to

Word on the Beat: Differentiated instruction.


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The Center for Reinventing Public Education examines how much school districts are spending on student-centered learning programs, and how existing resources can be effectively re-allocated.


Student Motivation: An Overlooked Piece of School Reform

The Center on Education Policy’s literature review of student motivation concludes it’s an overlooked piece of school reform efforts.


Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice

Researchers for the Students at the Center (a project of Jobs For the Future) connect higher student engagement and motivation with stronger academic achievement.

Key Coverage

N.H. Schools Embrace Competency-Based Learning

Brittany Rollins is hanging out a lot at the local animal shelter this year. Delving into the issue of pet euthanasia and writing about it will help her earn English/language arts credits toward graduation. The 17-year-old senior at Newfound Regional High School, in the rural central New Hampshire town of Bristol, is part of one of the most aggressive statewide efforts in the country to embrace competency-based learning.

EdMedia Commons Archive

Five Questions For … Western Governors University President Robert Mendenhall

Image of Five Questions For … Western Governors University President Robert Mendenhall

Robert Mendenhall is president of Western Governors University, a nonprofit online school. He spoke with EWA about the role of distance education in re-training the nation’s workforce, and a new federal initiative aimed at improving the quality of teacher preparation programs.

Key Coverage

New England Project Aims to Use ‘i3′ Aid for Innovative Learning Approaches

In Laconia, N.H., high school principal Steve Beals sees the potential of a schoolwide culture that celebrates learning beyond a traditional classroom.


Teachers’ Beliefs about Issues in the Implementation of a
 Student-Centered Learning Environment

A case study conducted by Columbia University researchers looked at how teachers’ perceptions of student-centered learning significantly impact the program’s implementation and effectiveness.