These essential strategies honor student empowerment, student-centered learning, and take personalized learning to the next level

3 simple—yet powerful—practices for student-centered learning


These essential strategies honor student empowerment, student-centered learning, and take personalized learning to the next level

It is encouraging to observe an increasing number of educational leaders calling out the importance of student-empowered, student-owned, and student-centered learning.  A.J. Juliani, John Spencer, Katie Martin, and Alan November, to name a few, are inspiring the shift that so many educators already know needs to happen–from a mechanical, soulless approach to learning to an inspired, student-honored approach. 

Personalized learning defines a learning experience for the student and teacher that is intrinsically motivated and student empowered/owned. True personalized learning occurs when the student is a partner with the teacher, not only in student voice and choice, but a partner in content and curriculum creation as well. 

The necessity for students to have a student-centered learning experience at school directly addresses three specific areas of educational need:

  1. Students’ interests, strengths, and loves are often not included in the learning experience at school. (Gallup)
  2. Students experience an “answer-centric” learning environment, where getting the answer right is more important than what questions the student may have.  (Make Just One Change)
  3. Student creativity has been impacted over time by the absence of divergent thinking. Primarily, the school learning experience is focused on convergent thinking, where the product is emphasized and not the process.  (Breakpoint and Beyond)

As promised in the title, here are three simple, essential, and powerful practices you can implement in your learning ecosystem that will make a difference.  It is my belief that all three need to be consistently present and observable on any given day of learning, to keep the student-centered learning journey moving forward.  

  • Student Interests  
  • Student Questions  
  • Student Connections 

During a time when educators are being flooded with information about important topics, I hope this will provide a simplified way of taking a quick inventory of our progress with student-centered learning.  

Student Interests  

It is true that student interests can change from one day to the next, and for some students, their interests are focused and rarely change.  Then, of course, most students are somewhere in between.  No matter where their varied interests fall, it is essential that their interests are not only visible and honored in the classroom, but that there is an ongoing opportunity for the students to voice what their interests are.   Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1:  Have a board in the classroom where students can post their ongoing, current, and changing interests so that it is visible to the class.  It is important that students can manage the board by adding and subtracting what they post.  

Example 2:  When studying a required learning content area, giving students the opportunity to identify content that is of interest to them is powerful.  Students in a sixth grade class who were about to begin studying ancient China were told to watch any Discovery Education video on the subject that they wanted and their task was to share one thing that they found interesting to them personally.  

Student Questions 

Questions are the hunger of learning, and if that is true, we need to keep the hunger alive by shifting from an answer-based learning environment to a student question-rich learning environment.  When students identify interests that matter to them, the desire for the student to formulate their own questions about the subject are greater.  The expectation that all students will formulate questions about any given topic will help change the perception of questions from a deficit model to an honored place in that classroom.  When students are asking questions because they want to know more, engagement and empowerment are alive in the classroom.

Example 1:  When students surface areas of personal interest the expectation is that students will formulate questions about that topic (especially if the topics seemingly have nothing to do with the standards required of the student.)  A bulletin board of the questions that students are asking helps provide an opportunity for the teacher to celebrate the questions the students are asking and spark multiple research opportunities.

Example 2:  Utilize the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) as outlined by the Right Question Institute (RQI).  The RQI has provided multiple examples of how to use their simple but powerful technique to ignite student questions.  The QFT can be used in any required discipline and often provides greater insight to the depth of student learning than a traditional assessment, without all the judgement and concern connected to it.  

Student Connections

One of the most exciting aspects of the three practices discussed here is the student connections.  It is the practice that requires the most creative and personal application of understanding to learning.  When students are expected to connect the personal interests they have with topics that seem to have little interest or relevance, it is where magic happens.  As with the other practices, this is not for the teacher to provide, but for the student to produce.  

Imagine a student with a seemingly obsessive interest in a popular music group or specific performer and currently the class is studying linear equations in mathematics.  Normally these two topics would never meet in the classroom learning ecosystem.  However, with the opportunity to challenge the student to connect their favorite performer (of high interest) with linear equations (perhaps of low interest), the road to interdependent learning happens.

Example 1:  Students have a board in the classroom that shows the connections they have made with the required learning in the classroom and the desire for learning of their own personal interests.  It provides an opportunity for this kind of divergent thinking to be celebrated and honored.  

Example 2:  Providing students an opportunity to partner with the teacher to help shape the curriculum by asking students, “How can we include your interests in what we are studying?” This opens new possibilities and often requires students to dig deeper into the content area.  It can be as simple as having students help create word problems in mathematics using their personal areas of interest and expertise.  

Because all of the above practices are dependent on the students’ interests, inquiry and subject interdependence (the belief that everything and everyone is connected somehow), then you can be assured that you are on the road to the LOVE of learning and student honored, student centered, student owned, and student loved learning!  

You may find that these three simple practices are essential and powerful as well.  I would love to hear from you at @warrenmedia on Twitter.  

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