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Student-Centered Learning: In Principle and in Practice
Published on July 20, 2020

Modified on December 1, 2020

Written By: 

Christa GreenMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

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Christopher HarringtonMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Suggested Citation

Green, C. & Harrington, C. (2020). Student-centered learning: In principle and in practice. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Available from https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/student-centered-learning-in-principle-and-in-practice/

What is Student-Centered Learning? 

Student-centered learning is a philosophy or an approach to education that is designed to meet the needs of each student individually. In their post “What Exactly IS Student-Centered Learning?”, Harrington and DeBruler (2019) shared,

“In a truly student-centered learning environment, teachers and students work collaboratively to co-create a learning plan or pathway that best suits the needs of each individual learner. In a student-centered learning environment, the teacher helps to create an environment that is personal to each student’s learning needs. The teacher serves as an architect of each student’s learning experience.” 

Student-centered learning may include some components of blended learning or personalized learning models, such as a flipped classroom, station rotation, or competency-based learning, and you are likely to see students using technology. However, true student-centered learning is more than that. No matter what model is used, student-centered learning will look like students and teachers working together to choose a path for learning that works best for each individual learner. 

What Do Organizations and Experts Have to Say? 

A student-centered learning model has four main characteristics: 

  • voice, 
  • choice,
  • competency-based progression, and
  • continuous monitoring of student needs (Harrington & DeBruler, 2019). 

In a truly student-centered learning environment, students have voice and choice. According to Susan Patrick, Aurora Institute President and CEO and co-founder of CompetencyWorks, “Students co-construct their goals and have ‘voice and choice’ in determining what, how, when, and where the learning occurs” (Bouffard, 2019). Rather than a teacher leading students through a lesson where the students are all doing the exact same thing at the exact same time, the teacher serves more as a facilitator of the learning, helping to give each student the support that they need when and where they need it. 

In a truly student-centered learning environment, learning is competency-based. In order to advance through a unit, students must demonstrate mastery of the individual concepts before moving on. As Erin Figula, director of professional learning at LEAP Innovations stated, “Students advance based on demonstrated competency, not time spent on a subject” (Bouffard, 2019). Competency-based progression acknowledges the fact that all students learn differently and should be allowed to progress at different paces while still demonstrating their knowledge.  

In a truly student-centered learning environment, there is continuous monitoring of student needs. Technology is used to help monitor students’ progress and to help both teachers and students evaluate and adjust learning pathways. “Assessment can be formal or informal, summative or formative, observational, anecdotal, via portfolios, rubrics, or projects, but ongoing monitoring of student progress is key to personalization of the learning experience” (Harrington & LeBlanc, 2019). 

Student-Centered Learning, Blended Learning, Personalized Learning, & Customized Learning: Related, But Not the Same

While student-centered learning, blended learning, and personalized learning are all closely related, they are not, in fact, interchangeable. 

“Student-centered learning is an educational philosophy or approach to learning that places students’ needs and interests at the forefront of the operations and decision-making of a school or district. Conversely, blended learning is a format or a method of learning experienced by students. In short, blended learning combines traditional face-to-face instruction with online experiences that work together as an integrated experience for students.” (Harrington & DeBruler, 2019)

In the same “family” of educational concepts, in a personalized learning approach, students have some degree of control over their curricular pacing and learning pathways towards achieving standards. Customized learning is a variation of personalized learning that provides a deeper, more entirely customized learning experience for each child. 

So to pull it all together, student-centered learning is an approach that aligns all aspects of a school community (curriculum, staffing, finances, technology, facilities, schedules, community partnerships, etc.) in a way that truly focuses on the desired outcomes for each individual student, while accounting for the differences of each student. Blended learning, personalized learning, and customized learning are all models that schools and school districts may choose to implement in order to create a student-centered learning environment. 

Student-Centered Learning: Why is it Such a Good Idea? 

As our society becomes increasingly more dependent on technology, it is even more important that students graduate high school prepared with the knowledge and the 21st-century skills they need to enter the workforce and/or further their education. School districts are realizing the importance of starting this preparation early on and are also recognizing that the education models that have traditionally been used, such as the teacher-led, one-size-fits-all model, are not helping students become digitally literate or equipping them with the skills they need for their futures. 

As Dr. Sarah Pazur, director of school leadership at FlexTech High Schools, stated, “Student-centered learning mirrors what happens in life and the workplace; you have to set goals, take action, manage your time, reflect and revise, and have a belief in yourself that you can improve.” Dr. Pazur added, “Students need to learn how to leverage resources and make connections between prior learning and the problem at hand.”

In a student-centered learning environment, students are encouraged to be more self-directed, to take control of their own learning, and to understand how they learn best. Learning is more self-directed, allowing students to learn in a way that ultimately works best for them and encouraging them to go at their own pace. Mastery of knowledge and skills is encouraged and expected, which has been shown to lead to a deeper understanding of concepts. This all leads to more engaged, responsible learners. 

Okay, But What Does Student-Centered Learning Really Look Like? 

In a student-centered learning environment, technology is usually a key component as it can help to better prepare and equip students with skills they will need for continuing their education beyond high school and/or when entering the workforce. Technology is often provided in a 1:1 ratio where each student has their own computing device. Schools implementing a student-centered learning model also usually have some sort of digital curriculum and many use a Learning Management System (LMS). Technology and the data features of an LMS can help track student progress and provide high-quality, ongoing feedback to both students and teachers to help guide the learning process. 

It is important to note that technology-based instruction does not imply that student-centered learning is taking place. John Armstrong, the Director of Technology and Information Services for Joliet Public Schools (Joliet, IL), added:

“We’ve been through a big shift in philosophy whereas before it was ‘Hey, we were able to afford to buy this program, so just use it and the kids will get better!’ and now it’s ‘What specific resources and tools do we need to select purposely to give our children to help them achieve?’ Before it was more like throwing technology against the wall to see what sticks, and now it’s a more purposeful selection.” (Digital Learning Collaborative [DLC], 2020)

Used correctly, technology can greatly support key practices of a student-centered learning environment. 

In reality, student-centered learning looks very different from school to school. It all depends on the degree of implementation that each district or each school chooses to pursue. In some school districts, their student-centered learning environment looks like some degree of technology-rich personalized learning, blended learning, or customized learning where the teacher serves as more of a guide or a facilitator of the learning instead of the traditional teacher-led model. Some school districts may choose to take it a step further, implementing additional components such as flexible scheduling options, offering alternative pathways to graduation, placing students into learning bands rather than placing students by traditional grade levels, or even using Marzano-scale proficiency levels as opposed to the more traditional letter grade scale. As Dave Tebo, superintendent of Hamilton Community Schools reminds us, “Grades don’t necessarily correlate to success.” 

No matter what the degree of implementation is, school districts that choose to move to a more student-centered learning model are doing so because they realize that what has traditionally been done in the past, what is easiest to continue to do because “that’s just the way that it has been done” or what their traditional bell schedule permits, is not necessarily what is best for students. Schools that choose to implement student-centered learning are doing so because they are realizing that in order to overcome the challenges that they may be facing (declining test scores or graduation rates, lack of student engagement, low achievement, etc.), schools may need to make changes that are difficult, but that are made keeping in mind what is best for students. 

Student-Centered Learning: Put Into Practice

Not all student-centered learning models look the same. The following are just a few examples of some of the innovative approaches being utilized by school districts across the country. 

Crossroads FLEX High School — Cary, North Carolina

Providing choice by offering flexible learning options for students following outside pursuits

Serving students in grades 9-12 since August 2016, Crossroads FLEX High School focuses on helping students take advantage of opportunities they are presented because of their talents and abilities, despite the time commitments that are required. The Crossroads FLEX building offers an open and flexible learning space, ideal for these students whose outside activities and interests interrupt the traditional school day. While students do have to spend 10-15 hours per week on-site, they have the option to attend school anytime between 7:30 am – 5 pm Monday through Friday, giving them choice and flexibility. Students can also choose to take courses face-to-face or virtually through the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) to alleviate scheduling conflicts. As the Dean of Students, Natarshia Sharpe says, “…our goal is for students to feel connected, even when they are away. For us, school goes along with you wherever you go” (DLC, 2020).

Virtual Learning Academy Charter School — Exeter, New Hampshire

Voice and choice: Offering variety in supplemental online learning

Founded in 2007, Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) serves over 12,000 students in grades 6-12 and has plans to expand into grades 4-5. While approximately 400 students take courses from VLACS full-time, 72% of their students take courses supplementally and 15% are homeschooled. Because VLACS uses open enrollment, students can start anytime and work at a flexible pace. Their 300+ course offerings are divided into three different “Journeys.” The first journey is a “Traditional Course,” offering flexible, asynchronous learning. Through badging, students can see what learning looks like outside of the traditional classroom by earning competencies and pursuing industry certifications. The second journey is “Projects” which take 3-4 weeks and targets a single competency. Students are placed in fictional scenarios where they create learning artifacts true to the industry they are interested in. The third journey is “Experiences” which allows students to create their own learning adventure. Students propose their own experience and then work with their teacher to design what the learning competencies will look like. At VLACS, students can choose their own journey, or even combine journeys, forging their own paths in the design of their learning (DLC, 2020).

High Tech High — San Diego, California

Making learning authentic and applicable to the real world

Founded as a charter school in 2000, High Tech High (HTH) has grown into a school development organization made up of a growing network of K-12 charter schools. Students at HTH are encouraged to use their schools’ wealth of technology to pursue projects in subjects that they are passionate about. Students engage in project-based learning, often related to community-based issues and real-world problems, using curriculum based on personalization, adult world connection, and common intellectual mission. “The leadership at HTH believes that giving their students the freedom to pursue their passions, and providing them with the tools to do so in a professional, authentic manner, results in students who are more engaged than students forced to work on projects of little or no interest to them” (Moller & Reitzes, 2011). Most of their assessments are performance-based, culminating in a performance or product. Juniors participate in a semester-long internship in a field of their interest and HTH schools boast that 100 percent of their students attend college with 80 percent attending a four-year school. “From the ground up, technology enables many of the innovative practices at HTH” (Moller & Reitzes, 2011). 

Governor Mifflin School District — Shillington, Pennsylvania

Connecting to the world through student-centered learning

In order to better prepare their students for the future, Governor Mifflin School District (GMSD) implemented K-12 one-to-one Chromebooks and offers students three primary learning modalities: traditional classroom instruction (with technology-enhanced experiences), formal blended learning opportunities, or fully online opportunities. By leveraging their devices, digital curriculum, and varied learning modalities, students and families are afforded more choice when it comes to their learning. In working towards a more developed student-centered learning model, the district launched a pilot program at the start of the 2018-19 school year called the “Student-Centered Learning Experience” or “SCLE.” As part of this program, teachers have developed courses that include competency-based progressions, resulting in students becoming more self-directed and developing an even greater degree of agency in their learning. As one SCLE student stated, “I like to come to school now. I don’t feel anxious about school anymore because I can control more things.” Both students and teachers a GMSD have embraced the concept of anytime, anywhere learning. (Harrington & LeBlanc, 2019).  

Westminster Public Schools — Adams County, Colorado

Rethinking the system of education: Competency-based learning

To better serve a highly-mobile and at-risk population of students, Westminster Public Schools (WPS), whose mantra is “where education is personal,” fully implemented a Competency-Based System (CBS) of learning. In order for students to move on to the next concept in their curriculum, they must master the previous one, focusing on their learning targets. Students understand that with this system, not everyone will have the same pathway to mastery because each student has the ability to move at their own pace. Resulting from their student-centered learning efforts, WPS teachers and administrators have seen improved academic achievement, higher graduation rates, and improved student growth. A WPS teacher described her own experiences by saying, “[Adopting competency-based learning is] absolutely the right thing for kids — and it is absolutely the hardest thing I have ever done in my life” (Harrington & LeBlanc, 2019). 

And that is what student-centered learning is all about — doing what is right for kids.  

Student-Centered Learning in Michigan schools

Throughout schools in Michigan, student-centered learning models are being implemented in varying degrees and to various depths. School leaders at three innovative schools shared some of the exciting ways in which they are making learning more student-centered. 

Hamilton Community Schools — Hamilton, Michigan

Prior to spending the last 10 years as the superintendent of Hamilton Community Schools, Dave Tebo spent 4 years as a superintendent at Michigan Center Schools. After serving in this role for some time, Tebo has come to realize that “as a superintendent, you can’t scare parents, you don’t want to be the bad guy. As a result, it’s hard to implement ideas that are outside the box.” He admits, however, that at Hamilton, the shift towards implementing a more student-centered learning philosophy was made easier because test scores were already good, families were already supportive, and they already had eager students.

Although Hamilton’s transition had been in progress for quite some time, Tebo said that he feels the real work has been done in the last 5-6 years when they really began to embrace their strategic plan. In 2015, Hamilton Community Schools entered into a collaborative partnership with Michigan Virtual to increase student engagement and achievement through the implementation of personalized and blended learning strategies. Hamilton saw that this work would complement the continuous work they were already doing in regards to standards-based grading and competency-based learning. Teachers were trained in cohorts and learned the blended learning coaching model. Then in 2017, Hamilton updated its vision and mission statement and in 2018 adopted an Instructional Model, coining the phrase “Each Will Thrive” based on this updated vision. The model is based on four pillars: a safe educational environment, rigorous instruction and assessment, a modern learning culture, and personalized learning. Students have additional choices and opportunities as Hamilton offers a few Project-Based Learning (PBL) classes, online courses, as well as the option to enroll in the Hamilton Flex Virtual School

Tebo believes that the school district has made their greatest gains in giving students choice and voice and says that the next step is pushing them together. “Giving choice gives voice, but it requires a leap of faith, which is difficult for teachers to take — to empower students to make the decisions for themselves. Giving students ownership of their learning is a key component of a student-centered approach.” He also pointed out that when transitioning to a more student-centered learning model, there is no quick and easy path, so you need to play the long game. “It’s not about throwing out what was done before, it’s about determining what we are going to bring with us to a new model. It’s about adding and enhancing.”

FlexTech High Schools — Brighton, Novi, & Shepherd, Michigan

At FlexTech High Schools, student-centered learning is at the heart of everything they do — it is a project-based learning school, founded on student-centered learning principles. FlexTech Director of School Leadership, Dr. Sarah Pazur, shared:

“We are student-centered by design. Student projects are governed by a framework, but students can pitch modifications to projects, tailoring them to their own interests. They can pitch their own deliverables to show mastery, giving students voice and agency. We are competency-based and give kids permission to use their time how they need to in order to complete projects. Students can move at their own pace through courses. This removes barriers related to time, place, and pace.” 

FlexTech’s competency-based approach to learning is based on Michigan’s state standards and includes the use of mastery-based progress reports and transcripts. 

FlexTech is unique in the sense that it was designed with formal student-centered learning principles in mind. Their curriculum is entirely project-based, built on competency-based learning progressions. Self-assessment practices are used in all classes. At FlexTech, they focus on really getting to know students as individuals. According to Dr. Pazur, “We use learner profiles, where students describe what they want the adults in the building to know about them, how they learn, how they like to receive feedback, what they are passionate about.” At FlexTech, this model gives students permission to choose rather than deciding for them. Dr. Pazur says that this model helps students feel that they are part of a community, it’s part of their school culture. “When students have a voice, they feel ownership over everything — the whole school. It’s not just about them.”

Dr. Pazur noted that in a traditional school model, the transition to a more student-centered learning model would be an overhaul and requires a mindset change as you can’t design student schedules around adult conveniences.

“You can start small and slowly implement more student voice, but until you really take a look at the system as a whole, you will only get so far. It is important to take a holistic view of your curriculum, instruction, assessment, schedule, culture — this works together to empower or disempower students. Embrace the fact that kids will make good choices, poor choices, and everything in between, but they won’t get better until they can authentically practice being in control of their education.”

Fraser Public Schools — Fraser, Michigan

Prior to spending the last 2 years as the superintendent of Fraser Public Schools, Carrie Wozniak spent 7 years as their assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. So she understands the ins and outs of the journey this school district has been on towards a more student-centered approach to education. Fraser is changing the traditional view of school to a new personalized, engaging, and customized learning environment for each student. Students are given both voice and choice in their learning. At Fraser, students are 1:1 with technology — all high school students have a MacBook and all K-8 students have an iPad. In addition, they provide a digital curriculum housed within an LMS. Blackboard is the LMS used for their secondary students, and itsLearning is used at the elementary level. 

Fraser’s transition to a competency-based learning (CBL) environment began many years ago. Their CBL model is based on using a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. Every teacher at Fraser has gone through (UDL) training, which helped to improve their lesson design and helped them focus on meeting the needs of all of their students. By using a competency-based approach in a UDL framework, students are given options to show what they know. In addition to the UDL training, 11 of Fraser’s teachers have gone through training to become 21st-century literacy coaches. These teachers/coaches teach 50% of the time and spend the other 50% coaching at one of the schools throughout the district. This coaching model has been used throughout Fraser Public Schools for over 7 years and it really gives the district a sense of balance between top-down and bottom-up communication. 

For schools and districts that have not already adopted student-centered learning principles, Wozniak sees student engagement and satisfying the personalization needs of students and families as being compelling reasons for making such a shift. She emphasized that schools must be purposeful in their design. “These days, students are different. There is an expectation of choice from students and families. Everybody has choices in their lives outside of school, and they now expect that from education,” noted Wozniak. She also believed that Fraser’s transition to remote learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was actually easier because they already employed a student-centered approach to learning and both students and teachers were used to utilizing technology and their LMS on a daily basis. Wozniak explained: 

“We have a digital ecosystem. For us to shift to fully remote learning, we only had to shift slightly, modifying content somewhat as we already had the infrastructure and protocols in place to support remote learning. Our teachers already had their curricular resources in our LMS, so when we went fully remote, it wasn’t a lot of work, actually. Being student-centered already, we simply stayed focused on student learning instead of figuring out how to teach remotely. This allowed our teachers to focus more on learning, than emergency remote teaching. They didn’t need to entirely shift their focus.” 

Conclusion

Student-centered learning is about meeting students where they are and giving them what they need, but doing so in a way that meets the needs of each student individually. It is about giving students the ability to direct their own learning, go at their own pace, and demonstrate what they know in a way that truly shows their understanding. The ways in which school districts accomplish this personalization of student learning can vary, but it is clear that true student-centered learning is more than just providing students with a computer and a technology-rich learning environment. It requires turning traditional education, traditional classrooms, and traditional ways of thinking upside down. Dr. Sarah Pazur, FlexTech’s director of school leadership, would agree. “You kind of have to blow the whole thing up — it’s hard to start small as there are many interconnected pieces.” 

While there are indeed many interconnected pieces that make up a student-centered learning system, Dave Tebo, superintendent of Hamilton Community Schools, cautions against being afraid of change and knows sometimes getting started is the hardest part. “You may not be able to see your work through to completion yourself and it may outgrow you as a leader. However, you may be the one to get the ball rolling and to get the work started,” Tebo explained. To truly implement student-centered learning, it requires the alignment of all aspects of a school community: curriculum, staffing, finances, technology, facilities, schedules, community partnerships, etc. If starting small by implementing pieces and parts in phases or through a pilot program is what makes the most sense for your district and your community, start there. 

Doing what is best for students isn’t always easy but sometimes there are situations that serve as a springboard for change, providing more of a reason behind doing what seemed too difficult to do before. Maybe the recent extended school closures across the nation and need for remote learning is one of those situations. As Dr. Pazur explained: 

“Schools that have created the conditions for student agency are going to have an easier time with rapid or extended closures because students aren’t waiting on the adults or the system to tell them what to do. They [students] are inspired by the work they’re doing because they had a voice in shaping and designing it — they created it and it doesn’t live in the school building. When the student drives the learning, the arbitrary structures like class periods and teacher-driven lessons in the form of worksheets or rote learning tasks become obsolete.”

Isn’t that the goal? Inspired students. Students who see that learning doesn’t live inside the classroom. Students who see connections to real-world situations. Students who have opportunities to work at their own pace and show what they know in a way that makes sense to them. Maybe with those goals in mind, the difficult conversations and discomfort that tends to exist with change are worth it. 

References

Bouffard, S. (2019). What does personalized learning mean? Experts weigh in. The Learning Professional, 40(4), 28-31. https://learningforward.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/what-does-personalized-learning-mean-experts-weigh-in.pdf

Digital Learning Collaborative. (February 2020). Snapshot 2020: A review of k-12 online, blended, and digital learning. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a98496696d4556b01f86662/t/5e61341d879e630db4481a01/1583428708513/DLC-KP-Snapshot2020.pdf

Harrington, C. & DeBruler, K. (2019, October 22). What Exactly IS Student-Centered Learning? [Blog post]. https://michiganvirtual.org/blog/what-exactly-is-student-centered-learning/

Harrington, C. & DeBruler, K. (2019, November 21). Close relatives: Student-centered learning and blended learning [Blog post]. https://michiganvirtual.org/blog/close-relatives-student-centered-learning-and-blended-learning/

Harrington, C. & LeBlanc, E. (2019). The intersection of personalization, technology, and leadership – Research into customized learning. Institute for Teaching and Leading, LLC. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58b6471486e6c03c662ce3a6/t/5d2d4cc034226700015e7924/1563249944915/2018_i4tl_Customized_Learning_Full_Report.pdf

Moeller, B. & Reitzes, T. (2011). Integrating technology with student-centered learning. Nellie Mae Educational Foundation. https://www.edc.org/sites/default/files/uploads/Integrating-Technology-with-Student-Centered-Learning.pdf

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