Student-centered learning is a hot topic among educators around the world. No matter if their students have just joined the education system or they are enrolled in Higher Education, more and more teachers and various other stakeholders turn to the student-centered approach to education.
Why is that? While there are many reasons to adopt student-centered learning, the bottom line is that it is better aligned with the 21st Century needs.
In a world that has to deal with global pollution, rising sea levels and other serious problems, and even planning to go on Mars, we need smart and capable people with skills like critical thinking, great communication, collaboration and creativity — or the 4 Cs. It is the educational system’s job to deliver such people.
Unfortunately, many schools still teach students that discipline, standardization and conformity is the way to go. Discipline, standardization and conformity seem like antonyms to critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. While I don’t argue against the first three values, I firmly believe they should be intertwined with the latter four. And student-centered education does just that.
The basis of student-centered learning
In a student-centered approach to education one must put the student and their learning needs in the centre of it all, at the basis of all educational initiatives. In order to achieve this, one needs at least three things:
Student voice and choice
In a student-centered learning environment, students are no longer passive receivers of information, but active participants in their own learning process. No matter if we’re talking about toddlers or teenagers, they all can contribute to their learning journey.
Students should be included in the lesson planning process, in each learning activity and even in the designing of assessment. Teachers should listen to students’ opinions and create learning materials based on them.
Teachers as facilitators
Teachers make the transition from being the sole guardians of knowledge to becoming learning facilitators. The more spread the Internet, the more students get access to knowledge outside school walls.
If students have more sources of knowledge, they’ll have more questions about what they learn. So, teachers must be there for them and not only answer their questions, but guide them towards new ones and empower them to find answers on their own. This may be a tougher job for teachers compared to the traditional educational system.
Thanks to technology, teachers can decide on what the best course of action is in one learning situation or another based on all the students’ learning data gathered by said technology. They can therefore identify learning patterns, pinpoint where students struggle with a lesson, or suggest personalized next steps in the learning process.
Meeting student needs through student-centered learning
Students best learn by doing. When they do new things they are most engaged. A student-centered learning environment allows not only a lot of doing, but actually a lot of interaction between students and teachers, based on students’ needs.
What are some of these student needs?
For starters, they need a safe learning environment, a space where they know they can ask any question without the fear of being ridiculed. When the get the answers they need they’ll gain more confidence and make progress.
They need instant feedback. They need reassurance when they’re on the right track of learning and when they do something wrong, they need to understand their mistakes and learn from them — as they happen, not at the end of the day or semester.
They need diverse learning materials. Some students need more visual cues than others, others like to listen and watch first, others prefer to discover new things on their own. Every students learns differently, so they should be let to.
They need to have a connection with the teacher. A human connection. Teachers can inspire students to learn all the things in the world, but only when they create a deep connection with them. Trust goes both ways.
Ultimately, students need to have agency. Of course younger kids need more guidance than 12-year-olds, which in turn need more guidance than sophomore students. The teacher as a guide principle stands tall in all education years. But once a student knows something about themselves — how they best learn, what they prefer, what they like — they should be listened to and they should be able to steer their own learning journey. Once they see adults letting them learn their way, they’ll get more engaged in their learning process.
Student-centered learning meets all of the above student needs and more. When students feel safe, they’re not afraid to ask questions and also get their questions answered, they have access to diversity in terms of learning materials, connect with their teachers and feel their voice is heard, they learn more and they learn better. They discover new interests and develop in ways that may be surprising.
The future may be bright, or it may be gray. It is up to the education system to deliver students that are prepared to face this future, through both traditional values and new skills. Student-centered education is one way to achieve that.