The 5 most important terms for transforming schools

1. Student or learner centered learning is used frequently by school personnel when describing the nature of teaching and learning in their classrooms. Yet, anyone who visits schools that claim to be student centered will find that many of them are as traditional as any school one might have visited decades ago. What the personnel in those schools seem to mean by “student centered” is that school personnel care about their students and want to what is right for them.

In a student centered school, when the term is used by those involved with school transformation, the student becomes a key decision maker with regard to their educational program, and plays an active role in shaping their learning experience in the classroom according to their own unique nature, interests, and needs. The axiom “teacher knows best” gives way to a situation where the student has ownership and a high degree of control of what they will learn and how they will learn it.
Further reading: Teaching Excellence in Adult Education has authored a helpful fact sheet that provides additional detail on student centered learning applicable at any level.

2. Collaboration is ability to work together with others to produce a product, and is a valuable life skill. Group work is a longstanding practice in classrooms, but group work and collaboration are not synonyms. The fact that a group of students may be working on a project together does not mean that they are engaged in effective collaboration. In reality, the way that group work typically is done in schools may be more of a detriment to expanding capabilities of students to collaborate since students, too, might conflate the two terms. True collaboration features much a much more focused approach to working in groups, with clear expectations, roles, and feedback systems addressed upfront.
Further reading: Check out this article by educator Timothy Quinn, which provides a good analysis of the difference between collaboration and group work.

3. Engagement is one of the most critical terms in the transformation lexicon. Paying attention and being on task may or may constitute engagement. One can require the student to pay attention or to stay on task, but compelling engagement is a different matter. Engagement pertains to the relationship between the learner and the content of the learning. The engaged student is motivated by the sense that the knowledge or skill to be learned has deep relevance for her or him that goes beyond any extrinsic motivating force, such as teacher approval or a good grade. While it is often not an easy job to get students to stay on task and to pay attention, engagement in the learning process cannot be mandated. Student centered learning is a key factor in students becoming engaged in their learning. Engaged students are committed to making persistent effort even in the face of difficulties and obstacles, and without prodding from their teacher, because they see personal value in the knowledge or skill they are seeking to learn.
Further reading: Stephen Bowen has written a thoughtful analysis of the meaning of engagement in learning situations.

Next page: How to connect students to the world around them


Want to share a great resource? Let us know at