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Education Trends, Podcast Articles, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Sep 17, 2023

Student-centered learning sounds great in theory. Here’s how to make it work in reality.

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Student-centered learning sounds great in theory. Here’s how to make it work in reality.

By Angela Watson

Need a practical roadmap for increasing student ownership?

We’ve all been there.

The helpless hand raising, the poor test performance, the pressure from school leadership to get students more engaged — these pressures are driving at one main issue I see in classrooms around the country since the 2020 lockdown. Students are struggling to take ownership and accountability for their learning and progress toward their academic goals.

So much of modern teaching revolves around teacher accountability, but the same accountability and ownership can be transformative for students as well! Students who have opportunities to increase their ownership over their learning throughout the school year can complete more assignments on time, they feel more confident during testing, and they feel less anxiety over time when it comes to academics.

Many teachers say they want their students to be more independent, for their classrooms to feel more student-centered. But what does this look like?

Keep reading for practical ways to get your students to be more independent, take more responsibility for their own learning, and shift the balance in your classroom from teacher-centered to student-centered. This advice will be especially helpful for teachers who may struggle with letting go of control in their classrooms.

Listen to the interview with Erika about this article

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What does “student-centered” look and sound like?

When walking into a student-centered classroom, a visitor should not even realize where the teacher is right away. They are not at the front of the room glaring down non-compliant students. They are usually knee-deep in an activity with students somewhere in the room, guiding them through a prompt or answering a clarifying question about the task that students are engaged in. Students are able to self-manage their materials, they know where things are and they know the procedures for getting those materials.

In these classrooms, students are largely on-task, with group leaders holding their peers accountable for completing the task and doing their best. If students are working independently, there are visible, clear systems in place for students if they get stuck, need support, or need supplies.

Regardless of what grade and subject you teach, there are simple strategies that I’ve used and seen used in classrooms from kindergarten all the way through high school. Younger students (second grade and below) will need more time to adjust to student-led routines and procedures, along with more frequent feedback and modeling along the way, but ALL students benefit from student-led and student-centered classroom systems.

Of course, a student-centered first-grade classroom is going to look different than an eighth-grade classroom, but the roadmap is the same even if the destination looks a little different. It also does not matter if you start these strategies at the beginning of the year, or if you are just feeling ready to try it out in the third quarter! The sooner you start, the more benefits you will see, but every classroom and teacher is different, so make sure you are ready to adapt and adjust if you are trying to increase student ownership in your classroom.

The first step is to change the way you view your role from “leading instruction” to “facilitating learning experiences.” This simple shift in language will help you conceptualize your role as an educator in a student-centered classroom. It will change not only the way you manage your classroom but also how you plan and deliver academic content. You are thinking less about what you will say and more about what students will do and how they will do it.

The next step is to sit down and map out your classroom routines and procedures. How many of those routines REQUIRE you as the teacher to lead them? This could be for safety reasons or for your own management style. Which routines can students lead and self-manage without you?

Below are some common routines where you can easily increase student ownership:

Water Breaks: If you find that you are halfway through the school year and your students still need you to monitor the way that they get a drink of water, you may think through a different way that students could manage independently. With my fourth graders, I taught them in September to pour the water pitcher over the sink so that any spills go right down the drain, and that prevented the need for me to intervene with water breaks. If you have younger students who need to get water all at the same time and you need to pour it, a student helper can pass out clean paper cups while another collects the used cups for the trash. Yes, it may take a little extra time at first, but after they get the hang of it things will go smoother and faster!

Classroom Libraries/Materials: I always hire a “librarian” and a “materials manager” in September who hold those jobs for at least a full quarter. I teach these students to manage my books in my classroom library and our classroom material storage areas the way that I need them to be pulled and put away neatly. It takes me about a week to monitor and model the way I need things done, but after that week of job training is complete, I don’t need to manage that station anymore! At the end of the quarter, the current librarian can “train” the new librarian to take over for them!

Transitions: No matter what grade you teach, transitions can be tough! Between time constraints and behavior, teachers are often frustrated with their transitions. The easiest way I have found to manage quick, orderly transitions is to allow students to support and engage in the process of managing the line. “Line monitors” or “teacher helpers” with a clipboard and a pencil in their hand helping monitor students as they transition is an easy way to make students feel good about holding one another accountable for their behavior, while allowing you to focus on a safe and orderly movement from one space to another. In the past, I have also used Class Dojo points and allowed a student helper to hold my device to give out positive points (I only allow students to give rewards to one another – negative consequences for poor choices must come from me). You could do the same with stickers or bingo dots!

What about student-centered learning and accountability?

Once you have tried out some student-centered routines and procedures, it is time to look at your instruction. The simplest way to begin increasing accountability among your students is to start a regular one-on-one conferencing schedule. These conferences should be no longer than 10 minutes per student, on a rotating schedule on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Here are the things I discuss with students during their monthly conference:

  •   Notebook/folder checks — Is everything in there that needs to be? Have you been taking your notes every day as expected? Have you given your parents any take-home papers that they need to see?
  •   Academic check-in — Are all your assignments complete? Are you able to get your homework done regularly (if you assign homework)? If you are missing assignments, what is your plan to get them turned in?
  •   Progress Celebration — This is CRUCIAL! Always end the conference with a praise. Find a quiz or a fluency passage that they improved their score on and celebrate their improvement! Give them specific feedback on one thing they did well that helped them get a better score and one thing they can work on to improve even more the next time! (Example: I noticed that you spent extra time this week practicing your fluency passage and you were able to read 10 more words today in one minute! Just keep practicing reading out loud for 5 minutes every day and you will get even faster next time!)

Feel free to download/make a copy and modify my student conference planner and tracker to suit your needs!

Beyond these conferences, make sure you are giving students opportunities during your lessons to interact with one another in an academic way. The more chances they have for practicing speaking to one another respectfully about their tasks, the better they will become at keeping one another on task. Once you know that you can release students to work on a task without you monitoring the whole group all day long, this allows you to circulate more freely around the room, providing scaffolding and support to students who truly need it.

When preparing students for academic talk you will want to give them specific language to use to communicate their ideas. A simple chart with sentence starters like these will go a long way to supporting your students during classroom discussions where you want to fall back and hear what students have to say:

  •   I agree with you because _______.
  •   One thing I heard you say was _________.
  •   What you said makes me think about ________.
  •   I respectfully disagree with you because __________.
  •   I have a different idea about _______.
  •   I need more time to think, please come back to me.

Consistent, ongoing academic feedback is crucial to increase student ownership in your classroom. If students do not know how they are doing with both your management and your academic expectations, how can we expect them to improve? Your feedback can be in the form of quick praise when you notice students starting their tasks independently, or in a hand-written sticky note popped on their desk during lunch, “I noticed you did a great job putting our materials back the way you found them — nice work!”

What if my students can’t “handle” it?

I hear this one a lot from teachers and I understand! My suggestion would be to start with just ONE routine and focus more on the learning and accountability strategies until you are ready to give students more space to manage routines in your classroom. Many of these strategies require planning ahead of time and additional instructional time to model and manage students as they learn — if you do not have the time or space to plan these routines and experiences intentionally, it is best to wait until you have the space to commit to rolling out the changes you want to make.

Another question you want to answer for yourself if you are worried about whether your students can handle the strategies discussed above is, “Am I worried about losing control?” This can be a difficult question to answer honestly, but it is going to be crucial for your success with these strategies to acknowledge where you are. All teachers are different, and we all have varying comfort levels with our classrooms and students. When you are thinking about a new teaching strategy it is helpful to think through how it will improve outcomes for your students.

For example, if I want to give my students more time to talk to one another in a structured, academic way, but I am worried they will get off task, I need to remind myself that over time students will become more confident and more independent learners if they are able to interact with their peers appropriately.

My consequences for off-task behavior should reflect the outcome I want for my students. If a group of students is struggling to stay on task during turn-and-talk, I need to reset with the class the purpose of the turn-and-talk before I release them. If they continue to be off task, a behavioral consequence may be necessary, but make sure you let your students know, “you are earning a consequence for being off task right now. If you want to avoid that in the future, make sure you stay on task and only talk about the work.”

What if we hit some snags along the way?

Remember that your students are learning with you. Everything does not need to be perfect the first time around, and the great thing about teaching is we can always adjust! Give any new routine or strategy two weeks minimum to evaluate if it is appropriate for students or if the procedure needs to be changed. Many times, students just need time to practice with a trusted adult guiding them through the expectations for working independently and eventually they will feel confident and competent on their own without waiting for you to direct them.

At first, you may feel nervous about the idea of student-centered learning. But over time you will become more comfortable with being less “visible” at the front of your classroom as your students become more collaborative, accountable learners. Keep your goal in mind — write it down on your desk if you need to! Come back to your goal of improving academic outcomes for all students any time you need a reminder of why you are making these changes. Within a month or two you will notice a difference in your students’ confidence, independence, and overall engagement in your classroom. Take your time and remember to give your students (and yourself!) grace as you learn together.

Want more?

Listen to the interview with Erika about this article in which we do a deeper dive into her ideas:


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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I loved this episode! I love the ideas she gave for conferences. However, I haven’t been able to figure out how to do something like this. I used to do reading conferences with my students, but how do we keep doing things like this when there has been a huge shift in curriculum nation-wide that focuses on whole-group instruction. The curriculum centered around the Science of Reading is based on a belief that all students should read the same text and it should be well above grade level. It requires lots of direct instruction and teacher support. There are no small groups. This has been done away with in any districts. Or if there are small groups, it is for a very limited time and the time must be devoted to intervention with no wiggle room on that. You are held accountable to five days a week with each intervention group through tracking forms and progress monitoring. I love this episode but I’m not sure how it can be lived out in a new era of curriculum models.

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