Student-Centered Learning: The Impetus for Change

Student-centered learning isn’t necessarily a new concept. In fact, in one area of education, we’ve already nailed it.


More and more, schools are trying hard to shift to more student-centered learning environments

However, doing so can be quite difficult. 

Making a system-wide shift to a truly student-centered learning model requires a great amount of effort coupled with a strong strategy for implementation. 

Specifically, making this shift requires a growth mindset, time, technology, and stakeholder buy-in. 

While this process may be challenging and may not be easy, the benefits to students and teachers can be incredible.

In this article, we’ll walk you through a few paradigm shifts that led to student-centered learning, one area of education that already does student-centered learning really well, the transformative benefits of this approach for students, and tips for moving forward at your school.

The Industrial Age education model

For a long time, the education model in the United States has been very “Industrial Age.” 

Think about what classrooms looked like 200 years ago — they don’t look drastically different from classrooms today. 

Like assembly lines in a factory, schools have mass-produced learning for decades. In many instances today, teachers still lecture from the front of the class to students sitting in rows of desks. Students move from classroom to classroom every 45 minutes when the bell rings. 

It’s what we’re used to.

And even with the inclusion of some technology in the classroom, for the most part, students learn the same teacher-directed content at the same pace, at the same time. 

That’s just how things have been. 

Consider a classroom of roughly thirty students, all with unique and individual needs, then add on the constant pressure of meeting ever-increasing state standards. How can one teacher possibly be expected to pull off individualized instruction for each and every one of them? 

Given the requirements and challenges that teachers face on a daily basis, it’s understandable that this task might seem daunting.

Times are changing

Let’s take a look at different paradigms that have shifted the way we think about education over the years.

In an attempt to understand the learning modality that worked best for each student, education soon became all about answering the question: How can we reach each child? 

Teachers focused on reaching each student by identifying their learning style (kinesthetic, auditory, or visual) through a learning style inventory

During their lessons, teachers made sure to present information using all three styles. At times, students could even choose the way they wanted to demonstrate their learning based on their preferred learning style. 

Then came the shift to differentiated instruction

Educators collected and analyzed data for each of their students. Then, based on the data, put students into roughly three different groups. 

Teachers were expected to differentiate their lessons by the content (what students learn), process (how students learn), or product (how students demonstrate knowledge). 

This meant creating three different lesson plans for each lesson, which was a lot of work for teachers, not only in terms of lesson preparation but also in terms of classroom management. 

Is student-centered learning really a new concept? 

For decades, we have tried to make learning relevant, to hook kids, to bring them along. 

We have tried KWL charts, grouping strategies, flexible learning models, and we’ve tried to make learning more individualized for students.

But it’s really hard to do. 

However, there is one aspect of education that we have been able to make very individualized and student-centered: special education.

To create an individualized education plan (IEP) for special education students, the IEP team gathers together to consider multiple aspects of the child based on their uniqueness and what each individual child needs. 

The team considers their learning environment, what they need academically and socially, and what accommodations or extra supports are necessary. 

In special education, every student has an IEP because for these students, we try to find out exactly what they each need — academically, socially, emotionally, and physically. 

We find that if we can identify needs in these areas, we should be able to help them advance in an impactful way. 

This is student-centered learning. 

However, applying this concept to all students doesn’t always work well in a traditional school setting. 

Student-centered learning requires making systemic changes to what students and teachers do on a regular basis, which can be a huge barrier for implementation. 

Students’ futures depend on it!

In many schools across the nation, the way education is currently delivered is very much done so in a way that doesn’t reflect the real world. 

Rather than preparing students for our past, we should be preparing them for their future. 

The following are a few reasons why some schools are making the shift to student-centered learning. 

Attendance issues & lack of engagement

Attendance issues can, in many instances, be attributed to a lack of student engagement or to students seeing a lack of relevance in what they are learning. 

If we really want to prepare kids for their future, we should be designing education to be more inquiry-based, using project-based learning and real-world scenarios that provide the relevance that students seek. 

Let’s minimize the degree to which we are teaching to the tests. 

We need to make more connections for students and help them discover how to apply formulas to situations beyond the walls of their classroom. 

Academic reasons

When students have voice and choice in how they learn, interest and engagement increase. 

Rather than telling students, this is what we are learning and how we are learning it, giving them appropriate levels of voice and choice increases their sense of ownership in the learning process and can actually increase academic performance.

Increased family engagement

We find that when an effective student-centered learning environment (one with voice and choice and ownership) is implemented, families also tend to be more engaged. 

Rather than struggling to get students to complete homework that may lack relevance in their eyes, when learning becomes more student-centered, students tend to become more invested in what they are learning. 

In addition, both students and parents are more supportive of the learning process. 

Teacher burnout

Making the transition from a traditional teaching style to student-centered learning can admittedly be very difficult. 

But once teachers get there, many indicate finding a whole different level of meaning in their work. Behavior issues stemming from uninterested and disengaged students dramatically decrease. 

Many teachers even report feeling more energized, finding increased work satisfaction, and feeling like they are partners with their students in their work. 

How schools can move forward

Although moving to a student-centered learning model has many benefits, it is often not easy. 

Designing and implementing student-centered learning environments requires: 

…breaking traditional paradigms or going against traditional philosophies of education. 

…changing traditional practices and patterns. 

…planning ahead and putting in more work in the beginning – a lot of work. 

…rethinking how you run your school. Structures that typically exist like bell schedules and school calendars can make this transition difficult. However, does it make sense to keep these structures in place because “that’s just the way it’s always been done”? 

…handling resistance from teachers. Initiative fatigue is real. Student-centered learning may be hard for teachers to envision. It will likely require a lot of work and they will have a lot of questions. What does it look like? Okay, so this is what we are doing, but how? I already don’t have enough time — how am I going to find the time to do this? 

…considering the big picture and making changes to staffing, professional development, technology, curriculum, finance, and facilities as needed to support a systemic effort. 

But it’s worth doing. 

Student-centered learning shows students that learning doesn’t have to be boring and appear meaningless. By making learning more student-centered, learning can be: 

  • self-directed
  • project-based
  • guided by their interests
  • relevant and applicable to their lives
  • connected to their community

With guidance, let’s encourage students to become independent learners and to direct their own learning. 

Let’s encourage them to develop problem-solving skills that will help prepare them for life outside of the classroom, for their future. 

Catalysts for change

Next month, we will explore some of the catalysts that facilitate change in making learning more student-centered. Maybe your school and your community are more ready than you think! 

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 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.

The Digital Backpack

Get our latest articles sent straight to your inbox every week!