Being students together in mindful collaborative pairs.

Being learner-centered can boost a classroom’s sense of community and academic achievement. This lesson offers insight into how teachers can facilitate learner-centered environments.

Being Learner-Centered

What does it really mean to have a learner-centered classroom? How can you, as a teacher, work to put your students at the center of your planning and instruction? Being learner-centered means adopting a bottom-up approach to curriculum, teaching, and management. Rather than entering the school year with a set of rigidly fixed units and activities, a truly learner-centered teacher begins by getting to know her students and understanding their hopes, dreams, and needs. Learner-centered teachers may occasionally provide direct instruction, but for the most part, their role is one of facilitator.

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Teachers who act as facilitators provide their students with materials, opportunities and guidance as students take on agency for other aspects of their own learning. Being learner-centered is not easy because it requires constant flexible attention to who students really are, how they are doing, and what might help them achieve their learning goals. Students in learner-centered classrooms become independent learners who are empowered to collaborate, make good use of available resources, and take charge of their own growth and development.

Starting With Questions

One of the best ways to facilitate learner-centered environments is simply by beginning with students’ questions. Whether you are a preschool teacher looking to plan a unit around the seasons or a high school English teacher about to work on Catcher in the Rye, finding out what your students are curious about will allow you to make plans and choose activities that are conducive to learning. A few good strategies for soliciting questions include:

  • K-W-L Charts

Ask students what they already know (K) about a topic, and then ask them what they wonder (W).

Chart this information and these questions and hang the charts prominently in the classroom. Refer back to the W column when selecting activities and topics for discussion. At the end of a unit of study, you can go back and fill in what students learned (L) to help them take pride in their accomplishments and document their learning.

  • Question Tickets

When your students enter the classroom each day, or alternatively, as they leave at the end of class, provide each one with a post-it note and ask them to write a question about what you are studying. Pre-literate students can dictate or draw their questions. Collect these post-its as entry or exit tickets, and affix them to a classroom display.

Encourage students to refer back to their questions and those of their classmates as they move through a study.

  • The Question Game

In this game, you encourage students to have a discussion as a class in which they phrase all their thoughts as questions. Not only does this help students pinpoint their own inquiries, but if you take notes, it will give you insight into what your students are wondering about. The game is also funny and fun!

Learning to Keep Quiet

One of the most important things a learner-centered teacher can do is keep quiet. This is challenging! As teachers, we so often want to direct things, share our knowledge, and offer explicit guidance and advice.

Yet once you have pinpointed students’ questions, your job is not to answer them but rather to provide resources, opportunities, and most of all, time, so that students can construct their own knowledge base. Practice counting silently to thirty before answering a question- you might be surprised how often students jump in with ideas of their own. Another thing to do when you are practicing keeping quiet is to carefully keep notes documenting learners’ ideas, strategies, and further questions. This will help you gently guide them toward appropriate resources and ideas, and it will also help you bring students together in mindful collaborative pairs. When you do speak, make sure you vary your voice volume and tone to keep students engaged and enthusiastic about learning.

Telling stories and incorporating authentic examples, as well as humor, are excellent strategies for keeping your students and their needs at the center of your instruction.

Helping Learners Help Each Other

A truly learner-centered classroom is always a collaborative one, in which students know their own and each other’s strengths and struggles. One of the most beneficial things a teacher can do is to facilitate and scaffold good collaboration. Encourage your students to reach out to one another with questions and problems.

Make sure you plan time into your week for playing community-building games and activities, as these will go a long way toward helping students feel safe to learn from and teach one another. A big part of facilitating learner-centered classrooms is releasing control. When you are comfortable with the collaborative nature of your classroom community, you will be able to trust your students to help each other along, and you will no longer feel compelled to manage everything that goes on.

Seat students in clusters rather than rows to encourage collaboration.

Lesson Summary

Learner-centered classrooms can be dynamic, exciting places, filled with a spirit of inquiry and a strong sense of community. These classrooms can be challenging for teachers to build.

It’s important to remember to start by soliciting questions from your students so that your curriculum and management structures can answer to their actual needs. Practice keeping quiet and focusing on providing opportunities rather than information. Finally, facilitate collaboration by helping your students help each other as they learn and grow.


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