Student-Centered Learning: Catalysts for Change

Are there naturally occurring situations or circumstances in education that serve as catalysts, facilitating change and giving student-centered learning momentum?

In the last article in our blog series, Student-Centered Learning: The Impetus For Change, we walked you through some of the paradigm shifts that led to the idea of student-centered learning, one area of education that is already very student-centered, the transformative benefits of this approach for students, and tips for moving forward at your school.

In this article, we will discuss catalysts that school leaders should pay attention to — indicators of readiness for a change. We will also discuss how a particular style of leadership can spark innovation.


According to Merriam-Webster, a catalyst is something that “provokes or speeds significant change or action.” 

Encyclopedia Brittanica explains that in chemistry, a catalyst is any substance that increases the rate of reaction without being consumed itself. For example, enzymes are naturally occurring catalysts that are responsible for many biochemical reactions. With the help of a catalyst, molecules that would have taken years to react now take seconds. 

A catalyst increases the speed with which something changes, pushing it forward, giving it momentum. 

Are there situations or circumstances in education that serve as catalysts, facilitating change and giving student-centered learning momentum? 

Facilitating change in education

The transition to a student-centered learning model can be challenging; however, there are catalysts that can accelerate some of the necessary changes, helping to launch schools forward. 

While these catalysts can help facilitate and encourage change, their existence alone is not necessarily indicative of readiness for such a shift. Some adjusting and nurturing of these situations and relationships may very well be necessary. 

In addition, while these situations and relationships can be catalysts for change, they can also be barriers. 

Catalyst #1: Student-focused administrators, teachers, and unions

Making the shift towards a student-centered learning model is hard work in the beginning as even the nature of day-to-day activities and tasks change significantly. 

In a student-centered learning environment, a teacher’s role shifts fundamentally to becoming more of a learning guide, an architect of the learning environment

This shift and the resulting changes can be hard to understand, to get used to, and to accept. 

Teachers need to feel supported by their administration and by their union. They need to know that they have a voice. 

When educators and administrators are all truly focused on student learning rather than conveniences for adults, difficult conversations can be easier to have and tough decisions can be easier to make. 

A healthy, collaborative, student-focused, and forward-thinking relationship between the school, the administrative team, the teachers, and the teachers’ union can be a catalyst, facilitating a smoother shift to a more student-centered model. 

Catalyst #2: Access to technology & digital curriculum

While providing all students with access to technology does not necessitate a student-centered learning environment, it definitely helps to pave the way. Giving students their own devices allows for significantly more opportunities for individual student choice — choices such as path, place, and pace.

Providing access to a digital curriculum paired with individual student access to technology allows teachers to create and implement digital tools that students can use independently.  

When students are given opportunities to work independently, to make some choices for themselves, and to access learning materials at their own pace, the teacher is no longer the dispenser of knowledge and learning is not limited to the physical classroom. 

Catalyst #3: Professional development

With the goal of moving to a more student-centered learning model, professional development (PD) should be highly focused on the tenets of student-centered learning: voice, choice, competency-based progression, and continuous monitoring of student needs. 

Providing PD that is focused on these tenets helps to create an understanding among staff of the importance as well as the need for and benefits of a change such as this. 

Whether it is accomplished through peer observation via video or face-to-face through school visits, PD can help teachers and leaders understand what student-centered learning looks like in practice and accelerate school districts’ readiness. 

Catalyst #4: A healthy relationship with the community

Some parents maintain a more traditional view of school — they feel that school should be similar to how it was when they were kids. 

However, the competency-based grading practices and learning progressions of a student-centered learning model are far from traditional. When all that parents know and are familiar with are points, grades, and class rankings, it’s not surprising that all parents aren’t on board. 

Having healthy dialogue and a high level of trust between the school and the community, parents in particular, can help to facilitate a shift towards student-centered learning. When this is the case, parents are usually much more likely to embrace change. 

The importance of transformational leadership

Leadership has everything to do with these catalysts. 

Leadership style can determine if the catalysts serve to encourage change or impede change as a barrier.  

In schools that we have visited and studied, those that have made significant progress towards becoming truly student-centered have done so because the leaders, both at the superintendent and building levels, demonstrate the characteristics of transformational leadership

Transformational leaders themselves are catalysts for sparking innovation and change. 

They encourage and inspire creativity. They value open, honest communication. They encourage their employees to see the bigger picture and challenge the status quo. They empower employees to innovate and to problem solve. 

While it is important for school leaders to pay attention to these signs of readiness for change, don’t lose sight of the fact that leadership style is crucial and can serve either to nurture or deteriorate these relationships and situations — these catalysts for student-centered learning. 

Final thoughts

The recent shift in education to emergency remote teaching and learning underscored some of the gaps in how we are meeting student needs. 

Many school districts faced, or are still facing, a lack of technology. 

The traditional educational model of face-to-face learning — alongside structures that tend to be more teacher-centered than student-centered —  have created a dependency on the role of the teacher. 

Students are not usually empowered in this traditional model. There is often a lack of self-directed learning, and students are not engaged in the learning process. 

How ready is your school district to make a change towards student-centered learning? 

How many of these catalysts already exist in your school district?

How ready are your school leaders for transformational leadership? 

Making the transition to a more student-centered learning model can be challenging. However, the existence of some of these catalysts can help to make some of the necessary but difficult conversations easier.  

Look for and nurture these catalysts — indicators of readiness for a change — indicators that a flame of change may already be lit. 

Student-Centered Learning Blog Series

In our Student-Centered Learning blog series, we lead a discussion each month about student-centered learning, what it is, how it can help students and schools, and how to make it a reality. Our hope with this series is to provide practical insights to school leaders, teachers, and parents on how to make education more meaningful to students. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the authors

Christa Green

Christa received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She taught middle school language arts and social studies for seven years before coming to work for Michigan Virtual in 2018. As a research specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, Christa enjoys using her passion for education, curriculum, research, and writing to share and shape best practices in online and blended learning with other educators within and beyond Michigan.

Christopher Harrington

Dr. Christopher Harrington has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL) and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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