Student Centered Teaching

Teaching is teaching.

Whether it is teaching adults, middle schoolers, or preschoolers, teaching is teaching.

In the purest sense, there are key foundations of teaching that have nothing to do with age: knowledge, content, methods, checking for understanding, and the one I think is paramount – knowing those you teach.

When I say knowing those you teach, I am speaking about the many facets of that phrase. First, it helps to know the human, the individual human, that you are going to teach. Second, it is important to understand the basic capabilities, how they best learn, and what they may know about what you want them to learn. Of course, this type of knowing, is not a one-time event, it is an ongoing relationship.

Student-centered learning starts with student-centered teaching, which starts with the teacher. Yes, in order to best meet the needs of individual students and groups of students, we must first start with the teacher.

I could certainly use the rest of this space to talk about teacher training, teacher development programs and ongoing professional development. I will take that very important opportunity at a later date.

I would like to discuss the actions, dispositions, and approaches that teachers must have in their skill set in order to truly deliver a student-centered learning environment. I am going to briefly share four elements of a student-centered teacher and also a culminating, and yet at the same time, foundational component that is evident in every student-centered classroom I have visited.

The first important mindset for student-centered teachers is knowing and behaving in such a way that having fully engaged students is valued over convenience in the classroom.

This was a challenging lesson for me to learn in my first teaching role. There were far too many times that I allowed things that were easy for me, either in the time that they required, or in the work that I had to personally do, to take precedence over creating the conditions for students to be fully engaged with each other, with me, and with their own learning. For instance, during a class center time, if I chose to be disconnected from the work going on with my students by taking care of some of my administrative tasks, that frequently resulting in off task, and even disruptive behavior from my students.

Teaching is hard work and we cannot ever cut corners.

The next key to being a student-centered teacher is related to the first – realizing that you are not, and should not, try to control every facet of your classroom and a child’s experience. The most successful teachers I have worked with are those who are a participant in the learning of a student and who know when to step into the role of a guide to redirect misconceptions.

This aligns with student-centered learning theorist Carl Rogers’ thinking. Rogers wrote that “the only learning which significantly influences behavior [and education] is self-discovered”.[1]

An overly controlling teacher, although well-intentioned, may actually be interfering with a child’s best opportunities to learn.

Again, this can easily manifest during a class center time. When setting up a learning center, it was easy for me and other teachers to limit options for an art project and to steer the outcomes to be similar between students. My best teaching and learning moments occurred when I adequately resourced students and then relinquishing control of the outcome. Interestingly, when I did, the outcomes were frequently better than what I could have controlled.

One of the ways to avoid what could be an over controlling tendency is the third practice of a student-centered teacher – honoring the student’s interests. Each student brings a unique set of interests and passions to the classroom. Masterful student-centered teachers recognize them, honor them, support them and look for opportunities to synergize with other students and desired learning outcomes.

One of my favorite examples was when I taught a student names Kevin. Kevin struggled with learning early math facts. The content I used to help him learn the concepts was not relevant to him. However, after taking some time to talk him about things he likes, I discovered that basketball was something about which he was passionate. I made some basketball cutouts, he colored them and then I used them as manipulatives to help him understand the math concepts I was trying to teach. This example is not magical in any way, but it clearly demonstrates that when a student’s interests are incorporated, there can be an increase in engagement and learning.

Learning must matter to the learner. This, in my opinion, has been one of the epic fails of the traditional education system in the United States. Without any knowledge of the learners, we designed a system that focuses on moving students of all ages through content, as opposed to exposing content and experiences to a ready learner. This is crucial at all ages of learning. However, it is vital in early childhood education. Keeping a young child excited, interested and curious, is one of the most important dispositions we can help nurture in that child to create the best possible conditions for future learning and success. This is easily done by simply taking a few moments to ask a child what s/he is interested in.

And yes, it could change minute to minute.

In fact, if I were to make general observations from my over 25 years of professional preschool through Grade 12 experience, I would conclude that as a child progresses through that educational experience, the further they get away from Preschool and K through Grade 3, the amount of intentionality given to an individual student’s interests, curiosities and skills, reduces.

Not only does that hold true over all of my professional years in education, it held true for my own education. More so, over the past 25 years, I have seen an overall reverse diminution where the line has regressed earlier in the educational continuum. Early in my career, I would have firmly indicated that a student in Grade 3 would still have a better chance of having a teacher better connect with the child. However, due to a variety of influences, including maligned No Child Left Behind and lack of high quality training and professional development, the age in which we lose the focus on the individual child has shrunk.

Another key for a student-centered teacher is avoiding the rage on the stage or the be all and know all approach. No one knows everything. When a teacher takes a position of being THE resource at all times for students, it can have the effect of denying students the opportunity to discover on their own, develop their own problem solving skills, and in my opinion, can have negative impact on self-esteem.

Many of my age were raised in a system that emphasized the teacher and the teacher’s knowledge and students were compliant minions to the teacher. The alternative requires a greater measure of humility and honesty. By moving away from the compliance model into one of creativity, imagination and problem solving, teachers better serve students when they are also part of the learning by thinking WITH students, as opposed to FOR students. The teacher’s role becomes one more of facilitation and empowerment.

Teachers who put student engagement ahead of convenience, who utilize a student’s own interests, who do not have to control every component of a child’s learning and who work alongside of and learn with students, cannot help but develop healthy relationships with their students. Again, this holds true at all ages and is essential. In writing this, I considered beginning with the development of healthy relationships as the first topic of creating student-centered teaching. As I considered what that meant, I chose ending with it instead. The bottom line: it is a classic chicken or the egg question.

In my thinking, you cannot have the healthy relationship with your children without taking a similar approach as discussed above. However, the truth is that it would be very difficult to take the above approach without having a healthy relationship with your children.

So what does that mean?

In truth, don’t get caught up in that line of thinking. If you are working to make your teaching student-centered or if you are coaching or leading someone who is working to do so, then my recommendation is not to get caught up in where to start. My recommendation is simply just to start somewhere.

There is no wrong place to start.

1. Kraft, R. G. (1994). Bike riding and the art of learning. In L. B. Barnes, C. Roland Christensen, & A. J. Hansen (Eds.), Teaching and the case method. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, Pg. 41

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