Student-Centered Learning In Michigan K-12 Schools: Factors that Impact Successful Implementation

Published on June 14, 2021
Written By: 

Christa GreenMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute


Christopher Harrington, Ed.D. Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

While the more traditional teacher-centered model of education does work for some students, it does not work for all. By connecting with district administrators, school administrators, and teachers through both a survey and interviews, this study aimed to capture the ways in which some Michigan K-12 schools are implementing student-centered learning practices along with the factors that impact the successful implementation of such practices. It is our hope that the effective practices, guidance, and advice gleaned from the many innovative educators who so generously gave their time to participate in this study will help other school and district personnel overcome their own barriers to successful implementation of a more student-centered approach to learning.

Suggested Citation

Green, C. & Harrington, C. (2021). Student-centered learning in Michigan K-12 schools: Factors that impact successful implementation. Michigan Virtual University.

What We Already Know About This Topic

  • Student-centered learning is an educational philosophy that is structured to meet the needs of each student.
  • As we define student-centered learning, we consider four main tenets: student voice, student choice, competency-based learning progressions, and continuous monitoring of student progress (use of student performance data). 
  • There is no “one size fits all” student-centered learning model that will work for all schools. 
  • While the more traditional teacher-centered model of education does work for some students, it does not work for all. 

What This Report Adds

  • This study aimed to capture the ways in which some Michigan K-12 schools are implementing student-centered learning practices along with the factors that impact the successful implementation of such practices. 
  • The biggest challenges school leaders and administrators faced in working towards a more student-centered learning model were teacher support and buy-in, parental support and buy-in, and the ability to scale changes across the entire district.

Implications for Practice and/or Research

  • Starting with the end in mind by creating a Portrait of a Graduate can help school leaders consider what their vision is for learning when it is truly student-centered.
  • Ensuring professional development aligns with your school district’s values is critical. Professional development should be ongoing, engaging, collaborative, and personalized. 
  • Coaching, either from internal staff or from a consultant outside the district, can help both teachers and school leaders make the shift to student-centered learning. 
  • Whether it is through the establishment of Professional Learning Communities and/or designing formal processes for making curriculum decisions based on student data, giving teachers time to learn from each other and to collaborate can yield significant results. 
  • Technology can help create student-centered learning opportunities and allow teachers to spend more time working with students both individually and in small groups.  
  • Providing time, support, and encouragement to teachers who are willing to take risks and try new things can help them make a shift to implement more student-centered learning practices. Listening to teachers, tapping into their expertise, and empowering them to drive some of the work can help accelerate this work.


The research team at Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) would like to thank Lisa Sitkins of the Michigan CoOp (MiCoOp) for her collaboration and partnership in this study as well as the MiCoOp member school districts. This group served as a base from which to conduct our research. We would especially like to thank Chris Davidson and the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium, & Keweenaw, Dave Eichberg and Berrien Springs Public Schools, Will Heath and Portland Public Schools, Dave Tebo and Hamilton Community Schools, and Tim Throne and Oxford Community Schools for being so generous with their time, effort, and support of this study.

The Michigan CoOp is a network of school districts that are early adopters of student-centered learning. Through collaborative sharing of ideas and resources, these districts are redesigning public school. Districts leverage each other’s strengths to create a culture of learning that empower educators to personalize learning for every student. Professional development and networking opportunities within the Michigan CoOp inspire educators to take action in implementing successful, efficient, and effective learning models.

The member schools believe:

  • student learning is the constant. Where they learn, when they learn, how they learn, or how long it takes them to learn are all variables.
  • students are unique and are entitled to their own personalized learning plan.
  • students need/want a menu of synchronous and asynchronous options that span brick-and-mortar, online, and community involvement.
  • true cooperation (vs. competition) benefits districts, students, and teachers.

The member schools support:

  • blended learning
  • community resource courses
  • competency-based education
  • distance learning
  • early/middle college programs
  • individual personalized learning plans
  • multiple assessment tools
  • partnerships in education
  • personalized professional learning
  • project-based learning
  • student-directed learning
  • student growth models
  • virtual/online education
  • year-round school



While the more traditional teacher-centered model of education does work for some students, it does not work for all. Students are slipping through the cracks—some are being pushed onto the next unit or grade level before they are truly ready while others have their learning stifled so they remain on pace with the rest of the class. For so long, we’ve tried to make students fit into a model of education that was designed to efficiently impart knowledge and in which many decisions are made based on conveniences for adults rather than what is necessarily best for students. Our current education model is not equitable, and there are too many students for whom this model simply does not work. This necessitates a model that is designed for students—one that is flexible enough to be driven by what each student needs. 

Student-centered learning is an educational philosophy that is structured to meet the needs of each student. In a student-centered learning environment, teachers and students work collaboratively to co-create a personalized learning plan or pathway that best suits the needs of each individual learner. The teacher’s role is more about facilitating learning rather than disseminating information, allowing students to drive their own learning. 

As we define student-centered learning, we consider four main tenets: 

  • student voice,
  • student choice,
  • competency-based learning progressions, and 
  • continuous monitoring of student progress (use of student performance data).

“Student voice” means teachers are including students in the co-creation of individual learning plans or pathways. Students who have “voice” demonstrate an increased level of ownership of their learning. Giving students “choice” means providing options for students related to the format of their learning and, to a degree, the content of their learning. “Competency-based learning progressions” are established standards of expected performance that allow students to work towards competency along their own pathway, and at their own pace. “Continuously monitoring student progress” means conducting an ongoing analysis of student performance data and adjusting learning experiences based on the changing needs of each student. 

In a truly student-centered learning environment, all aspects of a school community (curriculum, staffing, finances, technology, facilities, schedules, and community partnerships) are aligned in a way that focuses on the desired outcomes for each individual student, while also accounting for their differences. That is not to say that a student-centered learning environment cannot exist if all of the aspects above are not aligned. Student-centered learning can exist within an individual classroom, within a single grade-level subject, or it can exist within pockets of a single school building. 

Study Overview

Schools throughout the state of Michigan continue to work toward implementing student-centered learning models that include elements of digital learning, personalization, and competency-based learning progressions. By connecting with district administrators, school administrators, and teachers through both a survey and interviews, this study aims to capture the ways in which some Michigan K-12 schools are implementing student-centered learning practices along with the factors that impact the successful implementation of such practices. It is our hope that the effective practices, guidance, and advice gleaned from the many innovative educators who so generously gave their time to participate in this study will help other school and district personnel overcome their own barriers to successful implementation of a more student-centered approach to learning. 

Research Questions

As we developed the research questions for this study, we knew we wanted to find out how student-centered learning is being implemented, to what extent, and how administrators are supporting teachers as they make this shift. We knew we needed to share challenges and obstacles that both school leaders and teachers are facing as well as the positive outcomes they have realized—or hope to realize—in making learning more student-centered. We also knew we wanted to explore how the role of technology may or may not help teachers create and manage a student-centered learning environment. 

Our five research questions were as follows:

  1. How are teachers implementing the following tenets of student-centered learning? 
    • Voice
    • Choice
    • Competency-based learning progressions
    • Continuous monitoring of student progress (use of student performance data)
  2. How can school leaders and teachers go about making the shift to student-centered learning at the following levels? 
    • District (superintendent)
    • School building (principals)
    • Classroom (teachers)
  3. What challenges and obstacles do schools face when making the transition or considering making the transition to a student-centered learning environment? 
  4. What positive outcomes have been achieved after making the shift to a student-centered learning environment? 
  5. How are schools utilizing technology to facilitate creating and managing a student-centered learning environment?


This qualitative study examined the perceptions and experiences of teachers and administrators of five Michigan school districts: Berrien Springs Public Schools, Hamilton Community Schools, Oxford Community Schools, Portland Public Schools, and the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium, & Keweenaw. Teachers and both building- and district-level administrators were surveyed through a combination of an online questionnaire and individual interviews.

As this study was developed, we recognized the need for readers to have a school included in the study with which they can identify closely, and to hear the school district’s story told from those who are in the trenches—innovating, leading, learning, and thriving in these student-centered learning environments. To that end, we targeted school districts that are both demographically and geographically diverse as well as schools that are in varying stages of student-centered learning implementation. It is our hope that this intention results in capturing and sharing a wide range of perspectives as well as varying degrees of challenges, successes, and opportunities. 

However, this by no means makes our findings generalizable to all schools in Michigan as the study was limited to just five districts. Despite our efforts to include school districts that would represent a demographically and geographically diverse population, we were unable to include the perspective of an urban district. Participation in the study was also impacted by the disruption resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent challenges facing teachers and school leaders. 

Map of Michigan counties indicating the location of each participating school district.

Discussion of the Findings

As we present the findings from our study, it should be evident that every school district has a different approach to student-centered learning. There is no “one size fits all” model that has surfaced or seemed to work. While each district has unique strengths and struggles, there are some common themes that emerged from both the interviews and the survey data. It is our intent to celebrate and honor the work of these school districts as well as inspire and encourage others to find their own jumping-in point towards making learning student-centered. 

Why Are Schools Making Learning Student-Centered? 

In our conversations with teachers and school leaders, there were many reasons for the “why” behind this work: building student relationships, increasing learner agency, meeting students where they are, opportunities for deeper learning, and filling in learning gaps. However, one reason was consistent: they aren’t making learning student-centered because it’s easy, they are doing it because in our current model of education, we are not reaching all students. 

Equity: Meeting the Learning Needs of All Students

“All means all,” Tracey Jaggi, a curriculum coach from Berrien Springs, explained. “It [making learning more student-centered] really makes you aware of the individuality of students. I don’t think that we can deliver on our responsibility to help every student grow if we aren’t doing something along the lines of personalized instruction or competency-based education.” Jaggi believes that the biggest benefit to becoming more student-centered as a school district is the ability to provide students with a more equitable learning experience.  

Equity was a topic that came up in many of our conversations. Superintendent Dave Eichberg pointed out that Berrien Springs is a very diverse district both culturally and socio-economically. He believes moving the district towards being more student-centered and competency-based will help them meet the diverse learning needs of all their students. After his second year as superintendent, Eichberg reflected upon the work that they had done, considered their uniqueness, and asked himself as well as his staff if there was compelling evidence that they were meeting the learning needs of all of their students. They all agreed that while there was some evidence, that wasn’t enough. This is what began their journey towards becoming more student-centered and competency-based. As Eichberg emphasized, “Our best hope of ever being able to do that [meet the learning needs of all of their students] is to begin the journey down the path of competency-based education for the purpose of personalizing learning for all of our kids.” 

Providing equitable learning experiences is something that Oxford Virtual Academy (OVA) hybrid learning coordinator Jordan Dennis also feels strongly about. “It’s a more equitable learning experience when you take education and form it around each individual child,“ Dennis said, rather than trying to make students fit into the traditional education model. He believes that becoming more student-centered will allow them to provide equitable learning experiences in terms of meeting students where they are and filling in learning gaps. “If we design the education experience around the student,” Dennis explained, “we can provide more pathways and opportunities for them [students] to overcome those gaps.” When learning is student-centered, educators are targeted and strategic about meeting the learning needs of students. Every student gets what they need, not just the students who are falling behind. 

Making Learning More Meaningful

According to Portland Public Schools middle school math teacher Alyssa Stemler, pedagogy that is student-centered can lead to more meaningful learning opportunities for students, giving them the “why” behind their learning: “They’ve got to know why we’re doing this. We go over that ‘why’ piece every day. ‘Why are we learning what slope is? Where are we going to use that in the future?’” In her standards-based classroom, students not only know what they are learning but why they are learning it. Students are afforded multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery, which she feels leads to an increased level of involvement in their own learning. As Stemler noted, “Kids love the fact that they get multiple chances at some of the standards. It encourages them to keep working at it.”  

Simone Margraf, curriculum director for Portland Public Schools, explained that in a student-centered learning environment—if done correctly—teachers will know where to guide students’ instruction and students will be able to drive their own learning. “The classroom teacher will really know where their students are,” Margraf said. Furthermore, she stressed, “If they’re collecting evidence based upon skill mastery within that standard, then they know exactly where to guide students’ instruction. It [student-centered learning] will drive instructional practice on a daily basis.” Teachers will be able to give students very specific feedback, letting them know exactly what skills they have mastered and where they still have work to do. Each student will know what they know and what they don’t know. 

A student-centered learning environment can also make learning more meaningful by setting the foundation for students to be lifelong learners. “Kids are learning how they learn best, what their passions are, and what they want to pursue in life,” said Tim Throne, superintendent of Oxford Community Schools, Michigan’s only K-12 International Baccalaureate (IB) district. At Oxford, all traditional students are part of their IB program up through 10th grade. Students can opt into the program for their last two years of high school. Throne stressed that the curriculum in both the Primary Years Programme and the Middle Years Programme is driven by student voice and choice: “They have direction in terms of what they learn and what they present on.” When students are involved in the learning process—when they have the opportunity to direct some aspects of their education and to study what matters to them—learning becomes more meaningful. 

Increasing Student Engagement

Angela Cramer, director of curriculum for Berrien Springs Public Schools, feels that one of the biggest benefits of establishing a student-centered learning environment is that it allows students to dig into their natural curiosities. “Kids have this innate ability, when they are really interested in something, to go the extra mile,” she reflected. Similarly, assistant superintendent of Elementary Education for Oxford Community Schools Anita Qonja-Collins feels that increased student engagement as a result of student-centered learning leads to deep learning: “To me, it’s all about engagement. When we are student-centered, there’s going to be authentic engagement, and when there is authentic engagement, there’s going to be deep learning.” By tapping into students’ curiosities, relevance is created which results not only in deeper learning, but in higher levels of student engagement. 

The increased student engagement that Chandra Polasek, a high school English teacher from Portland Public Schools, sees resulting from student-centered learning opportunities is helping her students see the bigger picture of what they are learning and make connections to other curriculum. “They have ownership and see purpose in their learning,” she explained. “They see why the assignments matter and they see connections. They connect themselves with the world around them. They even begin to draw connections with other subjects so that it’s cross curricular by their own vehicle.” In her classroom, students are passionate about what they are doing and what they are learning. Polasek feels that creating learning opportunities that are student-centered is helping her “put curiosity back into the school experience.” 

Responding to a Need for Change

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we view education. Virtual learning is not new, but it was a new way of learning for many teachers and students. The adjustments and changes that educators had to make as a result of the pandemic opened not only their eyes to other methods of instruction, assessment, and learning, but also opened the eyes of both students and parents. Oxford’s OVA/OSEC principal Janet Schell believes that it’s time that we “change the mindset of what people think learning is—that it’s so academic and it has to be in a classroom.” When learning is student-centered, it happens at a pace and in a place that works best for each individual student. In our discussion with Angela Cramer, she questioned if maybe it’s time that we stop trying to make education fit the traditional mold that we have used for so long. Maybe it’s time that we shift the focus in education from teaching to learning—and in doing so, focus on making learning more student-centered. 

Oxford’s Tim Throne echoed that sentiment, admitting that the traditional model of education no longer works for every student. He believes that the pandemic has accelerated this mentality and shared that there is systemic pressure to provide more options for parents and students—and to move in the direction of student-centered learning. Dave Eichberg of Berrien Springs acknowledged that when learning is student-centered, “learning is more student-directed rather than teacher-directed.” Even in a virtual learning environment, “the teacher’s primary role is not to direct instruction. Their primary role is to support instruction.” Eichberg also admitted that for him, it all boils down to making decisions because of what is best for kids. He posed the following line of thinking: “Who are we here for? Are we here to serve students or are we here to meet the conveniences of adults? That’s where some schools get in trouble. I’ve gotten in trouble. I’ve done some things as a superintendent out of convenience for adults. But it wasn’t what is best for kids. To be here for kids, folks—if that’s what we’re about, you’ve got to understand, it’s a rough ride.” It seems that the pandemic has brought to light the fact that we need to change our current approach to education in order to do what is best for all kids, not just most. 

How is Student-Centered Learning Being Implemented Within Michigan K-12 Schools?  

As described in the introduction, we define student-centered learning by four main tenets: student voice, student choice, competency-based learning progressions, and continuous monitoring of student progress (use of student performance data). In the sections that follow, we discuss ways in which Michigan teachers and school leaders are implementing each of the four tenets as well as the common themes that emerged from our data and discussions. 

Voice and Choice 

Giving students choice means providing them with options, allowing students to deviate from what other students are doing and learn in a way that works best for them. Student voice refers to students having the ability to shape and design their own learning, co-creating their learning plan or pathway. Although voice and choice are related and often discussed together, they are not interchangeable. Choice is when students choose, from a set of predetermined options provided for them, the path or process that works best for them. Voice is when students are responsible for and included in designing the learning options. However, voice and choice are both ways in which students are encouraged to take ownership of their learning. 

Providing Voice and Choice for Families

According to our survey results, one of the most common ways in which schools provide choice is by allowing students and their families to choose the format of learning that works best for them. For example, choosing from a face-to-face, online, or blended/hybrid approach. “There are lots of ways to learn,” Tracey Jaggi admits, “and Berrien Springs embraces that.” While the pandemic has increased the number of families that have chosen an online or hybrid learning option, these virtual learning options are not new. In fact, in many districts, virtual learning options were already experiencing growth prior to the pandemic. Dave Eichberg believes that the growth Berrien Springs has seen in their virtual learning programs is because of the emphasis they put on relationships, and because they are heavily skewed toward self-directed learning and student choice in terms of time, place, and pathways: “Our virtual programs are heavily relationship-based. We are very intentional about connecting with students and building those relationships. We have employees who are called relationship managers and that’s all they do—manage relationships with those students who are engaged in virtual learning.” 

At Oxford, there is a strong emphasis on parent voice and community involvement. Janet Schell pointed out that Oxford has a large homeschool population and parents who are interested in partnering with a public school to do school at home. “This population really wanted their children to have their own pathways, they wanted voice and choice,” Schell said. As they designed Oxford’s Virtual Academy (OVA) as well as the Primary and Secondary hybrid programs within it, school leaders listened to the needs of families within their community. “They [homeschool families] wanted a flexible schedule. They didn’t want to be in a traditional public school classroom and fully online education wasn’t cutting it for them,” Jordan Dennis said. “They wanted more support. They wanted some classroom experience, some hands-on things. So the hybrid program was that blend between a public school setting in a physical classroom with a more structured day, but with the flexibility in the pacing that is afforded to online students.” In listening to the voice of the community, learning options were designed to fit families’ needs. 

Offering Personalized Pathways, Flexible Pace, and Project-Based Learning 

Allowing students to choose their own learning pathway, go at their own pace, and/or providing them with project-based learning opportunities are some of the ways in which teachers are implementing voice and choice in Michigan K-12 classrooms. “Two of our classes are project-based: one English and one social studies,” explained Joel Asiala, principal at Horizons, an alternative high school within the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium, & Keweenaw (CLK). Students are able to come up with their own individual projects or “choose from a variety of projects in order to portray their understanding and demonstrate their learning.” CLK superintendent Chris Davidson added that some courses taught at their more traditional high school are also project-based and are taught in a more hands-on style, which he hopes will allow students to see learning as more of a pathway. Davidson shared his vision for learning as they work towards being more student-centered: “We’re going to lay out that pathway for learning, that progression towards graduation. And we’re going to support students along the way. But how they get there and the pace at which they go will definitely look different from student to student.” 

In our survey, teachers and school leaders from Oxford Community Schools indicated that students are able to influence their individual curriculum or learning experiences in many different ways. Janet Schell explained that students have voice and choice in terms of the type of courses they take and how they work through them: “Some kids choose to design a course, take independent study at the high school level, or have choices in terms of how they take the course.” Andi Steaban, who teaches science grades 6-8 at Oxford Virtual Academy (OVA), added that their asynchronous learning modality allows students to work through courses at their own pace. And Jordan Dennis admitted that a smaller setting does help, allowing them to provide some of these opportunities more easily: “In a hybrid learning community of 50-60 kids, a student’s ability to direct and influence their own learning in a classroom setting of only 8-10 kids is significantly higher than in a high school setting with 2,000 kids.” 

Creating Leadership Opportunities

According to the results from our survey, students do not seem to have many opportunities for leadership roles at the district or building-level; however, opportunities at the classroom-level are much more common. Will Heath, superintendent of Portland Public Schools, believes that there needs to be some intentionality behind creating these leadership opportunities for students. As Heath described, “We have to actually set up avenues in which students feel that they have a voice—more than just student council.” Creating leadership opportunities for students at the district or building-level is one way to give students more of a voice in their education. 

Alyssa Stemler described the leadership opportunities she has created for her Portland middle school math students. She proudly told us that students feel comfortable with using their voice in her classroom, which she believes is a result of beginning the year by including her students in the process of setting up a “social contract” of classroom expectations. Instead of providing the rules for her students, this aspect of classroom leadership is shared as they develop them together. She also provides leadership opportunities for students who have mastered a standard to teach that concept to other students in small groups. She feels that students can really benefit from hearing a concept explained in a peer’s voice. In turn, it benefits the student leader’s learning as they think more deeply about the concept by explaining it to others. “It’s phenomenal to see them teaching in that way, having that leadership role,” Stemler shared. She added that the resulting higher levels of student engagement stemming from creating opportunities like this have really changed her mindset: “I saw the benefits once I gave more choice to my students. They had a voice in every aspect, whether we were learning or building the classroom environment—it was their voice, not just mine.” She believes that by focusing on student-centered learning and working to provide these leadership opportunities for her students, she has become a better teacher.  

Designing Opportunities for Voice and Choice Within Learning and Assessments

“Our traditional students have voice and choice within the IB program,” said Tim Throne as he described the International Baccalaureate (IB) program made available to all of Oxford’s traditional K-12 students. At the end of the Primary and Middle Years Programmes, students do a major presentation on a topic of their choice, which is a culmination of several years of work. Throne noted, “They [students] provide direction in terms of what they learn and what they present on. And once they get to the secondary level, students have choices in terms of the classes that they want to take.” Throne also described how the core content and curriculum provided within the IB programs are written around different themes—themes that are driven by student voice and choice. 

Portland High School teacher Chandra Polasek incorporates voice and choice into her classroom by encouraging her students to demonstrate their learning in a way that appeals to them. For example, students might make a presentation, create a video or a podcast, or write an article. When appropriate, she offers her students a rubric with options that they can choose from with the last option as, “if these don’t work for you, see me and we will figure out a better way.” Providing students with voice and choice allows students to tap into their interests and take ownership of their learning. 

Andi Steaban described how at OVA, their students have choice in terms of how to demonstrate their learning, whether it is through a typical assessment, a project, or a portfolio of their work. “It’s about students being able to demonstrate their learning in a way that fits their own individual needs,” Steaban said. As she clarified further, “Many of our courses have assessments built-in, and they’re very traditional—multiple-choice, fill-in, some open-ended questions, etc. But we also allow students to show what they know based on a conversation or based on what they’ve turned in previously.” She added that students also have choice as to how they submit assignments, admitting that technology tools have really opened up opportunities for students to do this in a variety of ways. Jordan Dennis echoed Steaban, and feels that assessments are a great way to incorporate student choice and can incorporate students’ individual interests. Dennis suggested simply asking students, “How are you going to show me that you understand the content in this unit?” Then wait to see what they come up with.  

Competency-Based Learning Progressions

Some schools are making learning student-centered by developing learning competencies. Rather than moving through lessons and units together as a class and measuring progress based on seat time or time spent on a topic, in a competency-based classroom, learning experiences are designed so that students progress on their own pathway and at their own pace. Progress is measured based on demonstrating mastery of standards or competencies, and students don’t move onto the next topic until they’ve demonstrated mastery of the previous one. It is about designing learning in a way that allows students to move forward when they are ready while providing extra time and support to those who are not. Andi Steaban shared how at Oxford Virtual Academy, if students are successfully progressing and demonstrating mastery, a fifth-grade student may take a sixth-grade science course, or a student may take an eighth-grade language arts course in sixth grade. She explained that successful students who may be wary about trying something more challenging or advanced need encouragement to take academic risks like this. She emphasized the importance of “building relationships with students. If they try something new or challenging and it doesn’t work out, make sure kids know we’re going to be there to support them.”

With the help of Lisa Sitkins from MiCoOp, who has provided tools and resources, Chris Davidson started the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium, & Keweenaw (CLK) on a path towards competency-based education (CBE) about two years ago. Davidson has established some small teacher teams to begin thinking about and designing competency-based models. He shared that their goal is to have as many CBE components in place for the start of the 2021-22 school year as possible. “We’re actually looking at maybe starting with a school within a school-type model, which would allow for family choice,” Davidson said. “This would allow those who want to stick to a more traditional model to have that choice. And for those who are interested in moving in this direction with us right out of the gate, they can move right with us.” CLK’s Joel Asiala said that his Horizons Alternative High School teachers have really latched onto CBE. “Last year we made the switch to the Future Ready Framework, looking at competencies and how we can break down competencies through Building 21,” he explained. “The idea is that within the next 5 years we will have a completely competency-based education program.” Building 21 is a learning model focused on designing competencies for students. 

Based on our survey responses, while some competency-based learning progressions exist within pockets of district programs, it is not a common practice for students to accelerate or decelerate their progress to different academic grade levels based on demonstrated mastery of content. Many teachers and school leaders acknowledge that this is the most difficult tenet of student-centered learning to implement. “It has to be driven by the teachers and by the community. And in order to do that, they need to understand its benefits and why it’s something that is necessary,” posed Oxford’s Jordan Dennis. “Not just that it’s better than the current model, that it’s something that needs to be done in order to address the holes and the gaps in the current model.” Dennis also cautioned that if districts don’t take the time to set a solid foundation of knowledge and to lay the groundwork, implementation of a competency-based model may be half-hearted and could end up doing more damage than good in the sense of systemic and long-lasting changes in reform. 

Standards-Based Grading and Instruction: A Step in the Right Direction

While standards-based grading, a topic that came up in many of our conversations, is not the same as being competency-based, it could be considered a precursor or a “first step” that districts may take. Berrien Springs’ Tracey Jaggi explained that their journey towards becoming more student-centered began around 2011 when they moved towards a standards-based grading track, “being very targeted and strategic about what our students needed in terms of instruction, and increasing student ownership of their learning.” Berrien Springs Middle School has a standards-based grading handbook that outlines key concepts and guidelines. Sylvester Elementary principal Amy Williams shared that at the elementary level, Berrien Springs has moved away from a traditional style report card using letter grades, and transitioned to a Standards-Based Reporting Method which uses a scale of 0-4. This reporting method and scale helps them measure how well an individual student is doing in relation to the grade-level standards. 

Portland high school teacher Chandra Polasek described how her journey towards becoming more student-centered really began when she started reflecting more intently on the work she was doing as a teacher. She realized that her instruction wasn’t driven by competencies or any kind of proficiency with the standards: “So I started looking at how I can revise what I’m doing to really give meaning to the standards and to what students take away.” During the 2019-20 school year, she moved to fully utilizing standards-based grading and having conversations about proficiency. “It was a process of really looking at my rubrics, looking at my instruction, and changing my curriculum,” said Polasek. “It took about 6 years of completely revising things.” She admits that while it was a lot of work, it was more of a personal challenge in looking closely at content and curriculum, giving up some of what she personally wanted to do: “I had to ask myself, ‘Is this really as important as I thought it was? Is this really the best vehicle for what I need kids to learn?’” It is clear that schools are taking steps towards creating competencies and being competency-based; however, they are not quite there yet. 

Continuous Monitoring of Student Needs and Progress

Continuously monitoring student needs provides an opportunity for teachers to adjust or “re-architect” student learning experiences based on student performance data and the changing needs of each student. However, in a truly student-centered learning environment, it really goes beyond just performance data. Teachers and administrators should look at the whole child, considering both their academic and non-academic needs. There should be a focus on understanding kids, reaching kids, and on building relationships. As CLK’s Joel Asiala reiterated, “If you don’t know what is going on with kids behind the scenes, you won’t be successful in teaching them. We need to understand kids and what they are dealing with personally in order to reach them academically.”

Getting to Know Students: Learner Profiles and Advisory Periods

Learner profiles are one of the ways in which teachers are getting to know students and their individual needs as learners. Oxford’s Anita Qonja-Collins shared that through learner profiles, they are “helping students understand themselves and the choices they have in their education,” which is a critical aspect of student-centered learning. At Portland High School, each day begins with a 25-minute advisory period called “cadre.” Cadre teachers are responsible for monitoring a group of approximately 20-25 students’ progress. “Those are the kids that you take care of,” explained Portland High School principal Jamie DeWitt. “You check in on them, find out how they are doing. You make sure that they’re okay.” It’s a time for conversations, a time for teachers to connect with the students they are most worried about, and a time to build and maintain relationships. 

Joel Asiala described how about 5 years ago, before they even really knew what student-centered learning was, Horizons Alternative High School coined what they call a “student first” approach: “We began working with students and helping them through what was going on in their personal lives because we were finding out that academics weren’t a priority for them. We wanted to create an environment in which students could be really ‘present’ when they are at school.” They began greeting students at the start of the school day, focusing on their emotional well-being, as well as monitoring and recording the stress levels of both students and staff. The combination of these efforts have really helped them get to know their students and what they need on a more personal level in addition to understanding their academic needs and ensuring students are ready to learn. 

Tracking Student Achievement and Performance Data

Tracking student achievement or performance data with a student information system (SIS) and/or a learning management system (LMS) is a way that many districts monitor and track student needs and progress. Executive director of Link Learning for Berrien Springs Public Schools Kristi Teall described the “Pulse” data dashboard that they use throughout the district to track student progress and identify trends of student engagement. “This was probably our first step in becoming student-centered,” said Teall. “It is about looking at data to see what is going on with kids, trying to find out why some are or are not successful, and determining what might we do to address some of those challenges that our students are facing.” Teall explained that they not only look at student data, they also look at data about their staff members to try and determine what is working instructionally as well as what may need to be adjusted. “Conversations began to take place around not just ‘what’ the data says, but ‘why’ it says that,” Teall added, admitting that the adults have developed a more student-centered mindset as they’ve learned more from their data. 

Oxford Virtual Academy (OVA) lead elementary teacher Tracey Hurford described their approach to tracking and using student performance data: “We look at student data to understand if a student is responding. If they aren’t, we respond. And if they are, we respond with more challenges and more opportunities.” Because students at OVA are expected to track their own learning progress through data, parents are coached in this process as well so that they can help support their child. Developing the skills to monitor and track their achievement or performance data will hopefully result in an increased sense of ownership of and engagement in their learning. 

Collaborative Conversations: Developing Learner Agency

Learner agency is knowledge of oneself as a learner. It is the learner’s ability to articulate, create, or ask for the conditions necessary to meet one’s learning needs. Anita Qonja-Collins feels Oxford is very strategic about encouraging students to “know what works for them and be able to voice that as they develop their understanding of who they are as a learner,” as they implement student-centered learning practices. A key component of learner agency is not only knowing oneself as a learner, but being able to articulate those needs. It is a collaborative process between student and teacher. At Berrien Springs, students use a rubric based on the work of Marzano to self-assess their learning on a scale of 1-4. “We have invested time into teaching kids how to self-advocate—to help them feel like they understand where they are and where they need to be,” explained Amy Williams. The scale helps students evaluate their own work and determine the next step they should take in the learning process. 

Portland teacher Chandra Polasek shared how in her high school English Language Arts and Communications classes, she has quarterly grade conferences with her students. She described the conferences as collaborative conversations in which students articulate how they have met specific standards. “I got tired of grades being assigned simply based on what I’ve recorded, whereas students might have evidence that shows they’re really proficient in the standard…it might have been that I just didn’t see it or wasn’t grading a particular assignment for it at the time,” Polasek admitted. There’s also a self-reflection aspect to these grade conferences. She encourages her students to determine where they excelled in each unit and what they want to and need to work on next. The conversations that take place during these quarterly grade conferences help students to develop learner agency as they monitor their own progress and learning needs. 

Challenges When Implementing Student-Centered Learning

Student-centered pedagogy can help students develop learner agency, increase student engagement, provide equitable learning experiences, and make learning more meaningful. However, that doesn’t mean implementation can be done without challenges. According to results from our survey as well as echoed in several of our interviews, the biggest challenges school leaders and administrators face in working towards a more student-centered learning model are teacher support and buy-in, parental support and buy-in, and the ability to scale changes across the entire district.

Earning Teacher Buy-In

Making learning student-centered requires a different style of teaching than the more traditional teacher-centered approach. In a student-centered learning model, teachers help guide and support students on their own individual paths. They may consider multiple and different ways to assess learning as opposed to a traditional exam that all students take. For many teachers, moving towards a student-centered learning model requires a shift in their mindset. It may be difficult for teachers to imagine how it is realistically possible to implement this sort of a model in their own classroom. “It’s the pedagogy piece,” Portland’s Simone Margraf explains. “It’s understanding the difference between what they [teachers] have lived and breathed for so long and understanding the shift we want them to make and what it looks like.” Margraf feels that making learning more student-centered rather than teacher-centered may challenge some teachers’ thinking. 

Teachers might be hesitant to change what they are doing instructionally to take a more student-centered approach to learning because they feel that what they have been doing works. And it probably does for many students, but it’s not working for all students. This is where a student-centered learning approach could help, giving each student what they need, when they need it. Berrien Springs’ Amy Williams is aware that for teachers, “Going out on a limb and doing something different is scary. It can be hard to convince teachers to walk out on that skinny branch and try something new.” As Angela Cramer of Berrien Springs pointed out, “It’s a lot of work for teachers to create learning opportunities rather than teaching opportunities.” Teachers know they have the skills to do this work, but they may also realize that the work is going to be challenging and time consuming. It’s not that teachers are afraid of taking on a challenge or averse to hard work—they already work hard every day. The challenge is having the time and being provided the time to actually do the work. 

Gaining Support from Parents and the Community

For some students, the more traditional model of learning works well. They are “good at school:” memorizing material, taking tests, getting the right answer, and other indicators of success based on following a set formula. Parents tend to understand this more traditional model, too, and because it worked for them, some don’t see a need for it to change. Portland’s Chandra Polasek admitted that some students may actually find learning in a more student-centered classroom to be more challenging than in a regular class. “We’ve put them in a box of ‘get the right answer,’ by having them choose ‘which one of these four is correct.’ We’ve trained them in that manner so much so that the creative thinking and problem solving is completely gone,” said Polasek. “The independence in their thinking is gone and we have to find a way to reinsert that into the learning process so that learning is individualized, and owned, and intuitive, and curious, and fun again. I think we’ve lost the fun because we’ve told them that they need to be right when the learning is in the wrong.” When students are challenged to think critically, to be more responsible for their own learning, some struggle at first because this style of learning is unfamiliar. Because this initial struggle may be a source of frustration for both students and parents, providing clear expectations should help to ensure parents understand new processes and procedures and hopefully provide their support. 

When using a student-centered approach to learning, teachers may design learning competencies and assess learning according to mastery of those competencies. When grading according to mastery, teachers often use a measurement scale of 1-4 (for example, a 1 indicates the student is “not ready yet,” 2 is “progressing,” 3 is “mastery,” and 4 is “excellence”) as opposed to traditional letter grades. Additionally, students don’t have just one chance to show mastery, and there isn’t a singular “right way” to demonstrate it. Students may be able to re-do assignments, choose their own way to demonstrate their learning, and revisit competencies to demonstrate mastery at a later date. “Grades can be constantly changing because if a student eventually masters a standard, I’m going to go back and adjust their grade to reflect that,” explained Portland’s Alyssa Stemler. She noted that some of these principles are new to parents, and they may not understand them at first. Several teachers and school leaders who participated in this study indicated that some parents struggle when their child isn’t receiving a 4, even though receiving a 3 indicates they’ve demonstrated mastery. Communicating with parents right away and explaining new policies are crucial steps to gaining their buy-in and support. 

Maintaining Trust and Onboarding New Teachers

Having credibility in the eyes of their teachers and maintaining the trust of their staff are instrumental for any administrator’s success. Having credibility and trust are especially important when an administrator asks their staff to consider different pedagogical approaches such as student-centered learning. Oxford’s Anita Qonja-Collins admitted that there can be a perception that administrators don’t know what’s happening in the classroom because they are not in the trenches, actually doing the work. “It’s really hard to have credibility in the work that you’re driving forward without getting some pushback of ‘you don’t understand,’” said Qonja-Collins. She added that listening to teachers—ensuring that teachers know you are aware of and understand their challenges—is key to maintaining their trust and being able to implement new ideas and strategies with their support.

When it comes to implementing student-centered learning, onboarding new teachers can also pose a challenge for administrators. Tracey Jaggi acknowledged that new teachers often come to Berrien Springs without a solid understanding of what student-centered learning is and how they can implement it in their classrooms. Adding the additional layer of onboarding new teachers to understand the direction the district is going in terms of moving towards student-centered learning to the general onboarding process can be a lot. “It’s also a lot to ask them to communicate this to students and parents right away when they’re barely understanding it themselves,” said Jaggi. Knowing this, some administrators look to hire teachers that already have a student-centered mentality. “Hiring is the most important thing that we do. We look for that during interviews—we look for teachers who have a student-centered mindset,” said Will Heath of Portland Public Schools. 

Logistically, It’s a Structural Overhaul

“I think the biggest barrier is when schools see something [like competency-based education or student-centered learning], but all the aspects and facets of it aren’t understood,” disclosed OVA’s Jordan Dennis. “Those need to be layered and built before you move in that direction and before you apply it.” You can’t just decide you want to implement competency-based education or student-centered learning and then start right away; it’s a structural overhaul. Dennis further emphasized, “Consider your curriculum, your goals, your philosophy—your organization has to understand what competency-based education is. It has to want it and want to move in that direction.” Dennis added that the process of moving towards student-centered learning can be lengthy and involved. You’ll need to design your competencies, train your teachers, talk with your community members, and talk with students. Dennis feels it is very important for students to know what they are working towards because in a competency-based environment, the students are the drivers: “You really have to phase them into competency-based education. Start by giving kids more opportunities for goal setting or flexible pacing and then layer on top of that.” 

Technology can also pose challenges for districts in terms of coordinating their current LMS capabilities with tracking mastery of competencies. Different LMSs track mastery differently (some don’t work well in a standards-based system either), so it’s important to consider grading implications. It can be challenging and will take time to get all buildings within a school district to be on the same page with regards to implementation and the degree to which they are willing to do so. “The transition from a traditional model to a student-centered model takes time,” admitted one Hamilton Community Schools building administrator. CLK’s Joel Asiala added that while there isn’t a fast forward button or a quick road to a student-centered learning model, he is thankful his staff is completely on board with the work: “We went to a few different seminars for professional development, and they all said that getting your teachers to buy-in is the hardest part.” When he and his team came back, Asiala asked his teachers what they thought about the concept of student-centered learning and the strategies provided during the professional development. “They were completely on board to do it,” said Asiala. “They just took off with it and continue to take off with it. I’m very fortunate with that.”

How Schools Leaders Can Support Teachers in Making the Shift Toward Student-Centered Learning

Despite the challenges, making learning student-centered is a focus for many schools. From our discussions with Michigan teachers and school leaders as well as our survey data, common themes emerged around the steps and supports that school leaders have put in place as their district makes the shift toward student-centered learning. While there isn’t a step-by-step guide, their insights and advice may provide some guidance or a jumping-off point for other school leaders just getting started.

Create a Vision for the District

Starting with the end in mind by creating a Portrait of a Graduate can help school leaders consider what their vision is for learning when it is truly student-centered.

“We’ve been working to create our Portrait of a Graduate—starting with the end through backward design,” explained CLK superintendent Chris Davidson. With teacher and community input, many school districts across the country have begun developing their own Portrait of a Graduate, a vision for the district that visually explains the knowledge, skills, and qualities a graduate will need to demonstrate mastery throughout their education. It’s a statement of ambition for all students. It can sometimes be hard for teachers to see what their piece of the graduation process is, especially for elementary teachers. However, Anita Qonja-Collins believes that creating their Portrait of a Graduate has helped Oxford make connections between district initiatives and the fact that students are truly at the heart of all of the work they are doing. A clear focus or vision from district administration is an important aspect of supporting teachers and other administrators in terms of moving forward with student-centered learning. 

Deliver Intentional Professional Development

Ensure professional development aligns with your school district’s values. Professional development should be ongoing, engaging, collaborative, and personalized. 

When we asked teachers and school leaders about the structures that are in place to assist them in making the transition to student-centered learning, almost each and every conversation and survey response mentioned professional development in some respect. Administrators from Hamilton Community Schools said that, “Our work with Modern Teacher has allowed the initial steps of this student-centered work to take place.” Modern Teacher aims to redefine the student experience, helping a national network of innovative school districts develop instructional models fueled by modern pedagogy and tools. Berrien Springs administrators added that in addition to their own work with Modern Teacher, they provided professional development through sending both teachers and school leaders to conferences, such as the Aurora Institute. Both CLK and Berrien Springs administrators mentioned studying the work of Robert Marzano, and in particular, studying Marzano’s High-Reliability Schools framework. Marzano’s framework shows how effective practices work together and provides indicators to help empower school districts to measure their own progress and the impact on student achievement. 

Portland and Oxford administrators shared how well-received and empowering some of their professional development has been when it is delivered by their own teachers, providing them with an opportunity to showcase the skills that are their strengths. Jordan Dennis believes that a key component to successfully implementing a student-centered learning model is building a collaborative support network for teachers to “engage with their fellow peers still in the classroom that have made that transition themselves.” Dennis further added that, “In competency-based education, you’re not a teacher in your own classroom any more. You’re a collaborative network of teachers helping students. I think building that network of teachers who can teach other teachers how to do it is key.” School districts are also setting up site visits to other schools for teachers to see student-centered learning in action. Dennis feels that in order to get teachers on board and excited, to help them really understand what student-centered learning looks like, “you have to see it to believe it.” Site visits are one way that OVA has shown their teachers a working model. 

Capturing Kids’ Hearts is another vein of professional development mentioned by administrators and teachers from both CLK and Portland. Capturing Kids’ Hearts equips professionals in K-12 education to implement transformational processes focused on social-emotional wellbeing, relationship-driven campus culture, and student connectedness. “We loved how it changed us, and how it changed our classrooms,” shared Portland teacher Alyssa Stemler. Stemler feels that this particular professional development and the resulting aspects of student-centered learning that she has implemented in her classroom have actually helped improve her teacher evaluation results as well. “The Capturing Kids’ Hearts mindset having so much of the student-centered piece—students are problem solving, students are sharing their learning, students are teaching—allows me to prove I am doing more of those proficiency bullet points because I have more examples to back it up,” she admits. “It helps me to show more aspects of being a highly efficient and proficient teacher on that evaluation rubric.” 

Some school districts are taking professional development a step further and personalizing it. “How we’re guiding teachers in this process is very much the same as how we want teachers to guide students in their own learning process,” explained Angela Cramer of Berrien Springs. She acknowledged that we learn from how things are modeled for us, and hopes that by personalizing their own professional development, teachers will be inspired to try these same personalized learning models for students in their own classrooms. According to Dave Eichberg, for teachers to truly understand student-centered learning, and trust in it enough to want to make the shift themselves, they have to believe in it; they have to see the purpose, and it has to be meaningful for the individual. “Give teachers the opportunity to experience personalized learning for themselves—to see how effective it is and to see how it works,” said Eichberg. It is this mentality that is leading some school districts to provide intentionality around professional development, empowering teachers to have choices and to guide their own learning process. “If we’re saying we need to give students voice and choice, we need to do the same with our teachers,” argued Janet Schell of Oxford Virtual Academy. 

Provide Internal and/or External Coaching

Coaching, either from internal staff or from a consultant outside the district, can help both teachers and school leaders make the shift to student-centered learning. 

Simone Margraf shared how Portland brought in professionals from outside the district to provide coaching sessions, professional development, and professional learning through articles distributed to their staff: “They helped us choose the right kinds of articles to layer that on and give those little nuggets of information to the staff. With every nugget of learning, we get a few more that want to learn more about it and try it.” Portland is also providing coaching internally from their own instructional coaches as well as from local Intermediate School District instructional coaches. Portland is working on personalizing this coaching to the particular pod of teachers they are working with. “These coaches are working with pods of content area teachers not at the assessment-level so much, but on the delivery of instruction…on meeting the individual needs of students. So it’s not about ‘spray and pray’ in that they all get the same thing, but making it about how this group needs this and this group needs that,” explained Margraf. Anita Qonja-Collins shared that Oxford’s internal instructional coaches are also providing professional learning for building administrators to ensure that they not only understand student-centered practices, that they know how to coach their teachers through the process as well. 

Design Opportunities for Collaboration

Whether it is through the establishment of Professional Learning Communities and/or designing formal processes for making curriculum decisions based on student data, give teachers time to learn from each other and to collaborate. 

Focusing on curriculum alignment as well as intentionally designing opportunities for teachers to collaborate can help support teachers in the transition to student-centered learning. OVA’s Janet Schell emphasized the importance of providing opportunities for teachers to work together in vertical alignment among various grade levels—learning from each other, ensuring there is continuity as to what student-centered practices are implemented, and bridging gaps between elementary, middle, and high school. “It’s really being a community of teachers and sharing what you know,” noted Tracey Hurford. Kristi Teall shared how at Berrien Springs, teachers meet monthly in their Professional Learning Communities to discuss best practices and share both successes and challenges. “It’s an opportunity for these teachers to work together without any direct leadership; just staff working together to help one another,” said Teall. 

Portland’s Will Heath sees benefits in creating opportunities for teachers to see each other teach. “They’re becoming better teachers themselves because they’re learning by watching each other,” said Heath. “Our teachers are going to get better because of this. They’re going to learn from each other more because they have to work together.” When looking at inevitable challenges resulting from shifting to student-centered learning and considering possible solutions, Portland High School principal Jamie DeWitt emphasized the importance of administrators collaborating with teachers so that decisions are made together rather than making decisions for teachers: “You may need to flip your solutions to bring to light the one that is more student-centered or student-focused. By engaging in these conversations collaboratively and considering different solutions, it becomes more about what the school wants to do and what they are proud of, not what the principal decided we would do.” Empower teachers through collaboration with other teachers as well as administration

Utilize Technology to Facilitate Individualized Learning

Technology can help create student-centered learning opportunities, and allow teachers to spend more time working with students both individually and in small groups.  

“Being one-to-one [one computer for every student], in combination with the use of our learning management system, has really allowed us to integrate technology into instruction,” claimed Berrien Springs superintendent Dave Eichberg. “Our one-to-one technology allows teachers to provide direct instruction and support to a group of students who have the same gap on a particular learning target without worrying about the rest of the class being disruptive or becoming disengaged. Technology gives teachers the ability to create a variety of learning activities around any particular learning target.” Students can be together while working on separate things at their own pace. Technology can help teachers develop a mindset for student-centered learning—a mindset that recognizes that there are multiple ways to demonstrate mastery of content. “It [technology] can help to open teachers’ eyes in terms of not being so rigid with what qualifies as assessment,” explained Portland’s instructional technology coach Justin Knull. Teachers can more effectively analyze student assessment data by using technology—considering not only what the data say but why they say that—and adjusting learning experiences accordingly. “This was probably our first step in becoming student-centered,” shared Berrien Springs’ Kristi Teall. “It is about looking at data to see what is going on with kids, trying to find out why some are or are not successful, and determining what might we do to address some of those challenges that our students are facing.” 

“Technology is everything, and it is nothing. We know without a doubt that this does not happen without humans, without teachers,” reflected OVA’s Janet Schell. “The computer, the platform, the LMS—they’re just the tools. We simply leverage them to allow kids to learn in a way that fits their needs.” This sentiment—that technology is merely a tool, and what is most important is the teacher and the pedagogy behind how they use it to make learning student-centered—was echoed in many of our conversations. “I don’t see competency-based education succeeding without the integration of technology,” said Jordan Dennis. “A teacher can’t teach 30 different lessons to 30 different kids every single hour. It becomes necessary to lean on technology to give students access to content and content knowledge.” Technology can help teachers bring student-centered learning to fruition in their own classrooms, freeing them up to facilitate individual learning experiences, and providing a plethora of pathway options for students as they work at their own pace. “To sustain competency-based education, you need flexibility, and I think technology grants you that. In a competency-based classroom, kids are on their own. Their projects look different, and now instead of leading instruction, you are the facilitator of instruction,” explained Dennis.

Empower and Support Teachers

Provide time, support, and encouragement to teachers who are willing to take risks and try new things. Listen to teachers, tap into their expertise, and empower them to drive some of the work. 

As indicated in our survey data by both teachers and administrators, “empowering teachers to take risks” was the biggest support districts have put in place to assist teachers in making the shift towards student-centered learning. It’s been the constant push and encouragement from administration that has made Hamilton teachers feel so supported. It can be difficult for teachers to give up tried and true routines to incorporate new pedagogy into the way they are used to teaching. Having administrators who encourage teachers to take risks and try new ideas in support of student growth for each and every student is one of the ways in which Justin Knull sees Portland supporting their teachers as they move towards making learning student-centered. Simone Margraf agreed that this is one of Portland’s biggest strengths as she acknowledged that, “We are so far from where we want to be. I think any one of us will say that. But I think one of the places where we are the strongest is in building up the individual teachers that are working in that direction, those teachers who are willing to look at an assessment differently for students.” 

According to Andi Steaban, the support and professional trust that Oxford Virtual Academy’s administrative team has in their teachers results in teachers who are less hesitant to take risks and more likely to look for opportunities to try new things, such as implementing student-centered learning strategies. “It’s all about giving teachers ownership and empowering them to make decisions,” revealed Joel Asiala of CLK. “If they come to me with an idea, I tell them let’s go for it. And if it fails, it fails. We’ve tried a lot of things and some have failed. But that’s okay.” Not every strategy will work the first time, and it won’t necessarily work for every student. That’s okay, and that’s the point of student-centered learning: giving each individual student what they need and allowing them to progress at their own pace. Keep in mind that the same flexibility should be afforded to teachers—some will latch on and adapt quickly, and others will need more time and more support. Entrust teachers to make some instructional decisions for their students as they navigate the transition. 


The findings in this study are based on survey data and conversations with Michigan teachers and school leaders from Berrien Springs Public Schools, Hamilton Community Schools, Oxford Community Schools, Portland Public Schools, and the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium, & Keweenaw. While each of these school districts had been moving in the direction of making learning student-centered prior to March 2020, the pandemic and the resulting extended school closures in some ways delayed and in other ways accelerated the pace of their progress. Administrators and teachers can only handle so much, and for the past year and a half, some have been merely trying to survive. “It’s going to be challenging over the next year or so. The pandemic has brought to the surface many areas of need,” admitted Angela Cramer of Berrien Springs. She acknowledged that the pandemic has really disrupted their plans in terms of moving this work forward; however, she also feels that it has sparked some very important conversations. “The pandemic has created its own challenges. But within the challenges, has also started some really good conversations that are going to help us establish some of the building blocks that we need to have in place to move this work [making learning student-centered] forward.” Could the pandemic be a catalyst for student-centered learning, an opportunity to design learning differently?

Portland’s Jamie DeWitt sees the pandemic and the current upheaval of the traditional model of education as an opportunity to evaluate where they are headed and what students really need. “The pandemic has allowed us to establish a new mindset because now the game is different. It’s forced us as a team to think differently about what in education is right and what is the most important thing,” DeWitt explained. “We know kids are struggling. We know staff are struggling. So knowing that, how do we re-establish appropriate ways for students to learn and to show us that they’ve learned?” She believes that a student-centered mindset of focusing on individual students, and students providing evidence of their learning can exist without having the rest of the necessary systems fully in place. “If we don’t have a grade book that is standards-based or policies set in place, but we start to shift the way we work with kids and create systems to support the work, pieces can begin to fall into place. We need to focus on taking care of kids, making the learning happen, and getting evidence of the learning.”

It’s easy to get in a groove and continue comfortable routines. However, sometimes it takes a disruption to seriously consider deviating from conventional practices. The pandemic could quite possibly be the unexpected disruption that was needed in education. In the more traditional model of education, too many students have slipped through the cracks, pushed on before they were ready. Too many students have had their progress hindered, prevented from moving forward to stay on pace with the rest of the class. While the more traditional model of education does work for some students, it has not worked for all students. “That’s one of the positives of this pandemic—we’ve all engaged in a little bit of flexibility and grace with our students, and that’s going to help with that choice and voice going forward,” noted Justin Knull. When learning is student-centered, it happens at a pace and in a place that works best for each individual student. Decisions are made based on what is best for students—specifically, what is best for individual students. “Our focus as educators for so long has been on the teaching part of education,” admitted Dave Eichberg. “In order for us to really embrace voice and choice, our focus has to shift. The lens through which we look at education has to be through the eyes of the learner.” Each school district made it clear that while they by no means serve as an exemplar, they undoubtedly feel a need to make learning more student-centered. However, it’s not something you can decide you want to do and immediately make it happen, especially when the implications are so widespread. Change is never easy, so start small—just start somewhere. No matter where you find yourself in your journey towards student-centered learning, what is most important is that you are on it. 

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