Teachers know the drill: there’s a fancy professional development session or an article gets forwarded in an email about the latest trend in the classroom. So many of these have come and gone over the year that many teachers smile, nod, and go about their business. However, the buzz around learner-centered education isn’t going anywhere, and for good reason. Those skeptics may wonder why is student-centered learning important, but I am here to tell you that not only will it completely transform your classroom for the better, but it will also make you less stressed with more free time (seriously!).
So what exactly is this learner-centered education that everyone keeps talking about and why is student-centered learning important? Simply put, it means that students are at the center of their learning and they get to guide their own educational journey.
Why is student-centered learning important?
Most educators know “student-centered” as “child-directed.” The why is student-centered learning important answer comes from the research that backs it up but doesn’t really answer “why.” In a nutshell, students are more engaged in classrooms where they have an active role in determining what and how they learn, what kind of relationships they have with others, and the kinds of things they do. It’s about (students) being able to take ownership of everything that’s going on in their lives academically.
The “why student-centered learning is important” answer lies in this idea of active engagement. When students choose their learning tasks and “own” their learning process, they are more likely to take risks, to be personally invested in the learning activity. Learner-centered classrooms offer students many choices for learning:
This allows them the opportunity to gradually increase their sense of control over their own lives, helping them develop a healthy belief that they have that autonomy over what they can (and can’t) control in life. This in and of itself answers the “why is student-centered learning important” question.
It’s not just “good for students,” it’s also good for teachers! Learner-centered learning can help teachers to become more grounded, clear about their goals and values, and remain in touch with the purpose of their work.
Student-centered learning allows students to choose what they want to learn about and when they want to learn it, rather than having a teacher decide for them. With a student-centered curriculum, teachers act more like coaches or advisors helping the students along instead of being the main source of information creation. This freedom from the teacher’s control gives students the opportunity to develop a love for learning early on in life.
Why is student-centered learning important? When our children enter the classroom, they bring with them a wealth of experiences to share with their peers and teachers. As learners, students have many unique tools at their disposal that can help them master the learning process; tools that will help them meet new challenges. We often refer to these by names such as critical thinking, creativity, and common sense. It is important as teachers to not only tap into this but to help the students understand how they can use these innate tools to their advantage in life.
The classroom enviornment
School structure is not the only thing that can be changed when switching from traditional teacher-centered methods to student-centered methods. The classroom environment that students are exposed to and the interactions between teachers, classmates, and students themselves all change as well. This gives students more freedom and is often perceived as positive by students who are used to being told what to do and when to do it.
Flexibility is a big component of centers because they give the students control over their learning by allowing them time to work alone or with other people. This allows students to be more open to trying new methods of learning as they advance through school, especially in subjects like math or science where one method may not be effective for everyone.
Another benefit to using this model and directly answers “why is student-centered learning important” is that it allows students who learn differently or at different rates than their classmates the opportunity and time to study on their own or with someone else. Being able to work alone or in a small group gives them the personal attention they need in order to advance through the material at their own pace, which in turn helps them to retain the information and prepare themselves for advanced work.
This method of learning allows students to revisit topics that they have already mastered by challenging them with questions or problems on a more complex level (just like you searching for the answer to “why is student-centered learning important” right now!), while at the same time allowing them to choose what topic they want to learn about next. This is considered very beneficial because this type of intelligent challenge helps students internalize a concept so that they understand it and can apply it without their teacher’s help. Why is student-centered learning important? It helps them feel more confident about the subject matter.
Transforming into a learner-centered environment
I work with a lot of teachers who have one foot firmly planted in student-centered, intrigued by the possibilities but plagued by anxieties about “giving up control.” It’s not necessarily giving up control, but essentially involves turning over the reins to the students and letting them do their work while starting out in a more traditional way, but then slowly giving up control. Why is student-centered learning important? Because this is a skill that both teacher and student will benefit from.
One of my favorite strategies for taking “baby steps” towards learner-centered learning has been self-directed learning. Self-directed learning has helped me take the students’ lead in my classroom, following their interests as they evolve over time.
The typical how to become a learner-centered teacher strategy is “just do it!” However, that’s easier said than done for many teachers who have been wearing many hats for so long.
- “It’s hard to give up control!”
- “Who will manage all the chaos?”
- “What if I don’t have all the skills they need?”
- “How can you be sure that kids are really learning anything from this approach?!”
- “How do I avoid teaching for the “test,” and still make sure everyone is “on task”?”
- “Will my students even like this approach, or will they think I’m being “too easy on them?”
How can you convince teachers who were never in a learner-centered environment “that it really does work”? Well, if you’re currently searching to answer why is student-centered learning important, then these are merely doubts that your mind is creating.
The first step of answering why is student-centered learning important is to let go. This can be scary for many teachers who have been the “sole manager” in the classroom for so long and may feel quite vulnerable letting go of their tight control over their students. However, not only will your students appreciate it, you’ll find that you also grow as a teacher and as a person as you let go of the reins.
The next step is to begin with strategies that will lay a “foundation” for self-directed learning, including experiences that give students opportunities for ownership and control in how they learn. This could include projects where student teams are given a problem to solve and timeframes to meet. The project directions are given to each team, but the content is up to them. Teams could be responsible for finding additional resources that are required to complete their project.
This approach helps students learn how to take control of their own learning skills, how to work with others, and makes room for student leadership roles within the classroom. All of which are important 21st-century skills and also explain why is student-centered learning important.
The next step is to take students out of a structured learning environment. If your goal is to transform into a learner-centered classroom, then you must create a space where the “shackles” are taken off and students can learn in ways that apply to their passions and interests, not yours. This could mean allowing students to choose their own projects and take ownership of the direction they want to go in. This could be as simple as “Brainstorming Week” or “Interest Week.” It’s about giving students time and space to follow their interests, but with clear learning goals and expectations.
The fourth step is to provide as many opportunities as possible for student-teacher conferencing. This is where students have an opportunity to share what they’ve been working on, how it applies to their interests and passions, as well as lessons learned from the process. It can be as simple as a 15-minute chat over coffee or a 1:1 meeting once a week for 10 minutes or so. The important element here is to take the time to listen and share, not give instructions or lectures.
The final step for this strategy is to maintain a level of flexibility with your students while also setting clear expectations for their learning. This could look like having “set days” where students know they will have specific opportunities for open-ended learning (ex: Tuesdays will be for blogging, Thursdays are “web days,” Fridays are Writing Days).
Clear expectations mean that you give specific guidelines for what you expect students to learn, but also allow room for interpretation and explaining why is student-centered learning important. This could mean giving students a rubric with your learning goals spelled out clearly or providing guidelines that have questions or prompt included. Either way, the most important thing is that students know what is expected of them and you provide clear opportunities for them to meet goals.
Stages of student-centered implementation
You will find yourself asking these questions and making these observations. To answer “why is student-centered learning important”, try it in your classroom and then watch these questions and answers unfold:
1. See the students on “the other side of the glass.” Notice how interested and engaged they are. They look so happy! I wonder why? Maybe because it’s all about what THEY want to learn…
2. Notice what’s “not” happening right now. Is anything else going on? Are the students interacting with each other? What are they talking about? And why is everyone so quiet and focused?!
3. Wonder what it would be like to have your class. Think about what you would do if you weren’t teaching but instead facilitating learning. How would you manage the classroom? What would happen to all your management strategies? Is there another way?
4. Test out a learner-centered approach with a small group of students. Ask them to research something they really want to learn about. Is everyone on task? Does it feel different? How could you bring the rest of your class along? Go with their flow. Experiment with different strategies, following your students’ interests as they evolve over time.
5. Wait for them to come around. Be ready with a few ideas on how to present this approach and how to make a transition from one way of teaching to another. Watch for signs that it’s time to try something new with your whole class.
6. Put the learner at the center of the learning process by giving up control over what they will learn and how they will learn. Instead, draw on their interests by making learning active and personal. Ask yourself what you can do to make it easier for them to come up with their own interests and ideas?
Which resources are available in your school? Technology? Field trips? Guest speakers? Books in the library?
8. Questions are the key! Asking better questions will get your students interested in the topic, and help them to build their own expertise. Which questions will help them learn the most? What is most interesting to them?
9. Select content that is interesting to you. If it’s not, then why should they be interested in the subject or topic? Make learning intense and lots of fun for your students. Lead them into excitement over the topic, as well as into the unknown.
10. Encourage kids to share their own ideas about a subject. Anything that gets them thinking is an experiential strategy to incorporate into your classroom. Make learning an active, not a passive process, by asking students to come up with their own questions and topics to research. Draw out the group’s knowledge of a topic by using the questions in real-life situations whenever possible. If they need more information, have them do research online or at the library to find out more.
I always call the acceptance of the student-centered learning process and understanding why is student-centered learning important the stages of grief. Often the students are very excited to hear of the prospects of this way of learning, then get frustrated that they have to “do” things every day, then one by one you see them buy-in and then you’re off to the races. The first step in all of this is your own mindset shift, and then you will slowly witness theirs as well.
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