Student-centered learning (SCL) might seem inconsistent with basic educational goals. After all, the purpose of school is for students to gain knowledge, right? To many teachers, it seems obvious that for knowledge to be useful, lessons must be centered around the goals of the teacher or district. The results of this hierarchical approach are visible in classrooms across the country: frustrated teachers, bored students, and parents who must continually fight with their kids to stay on top of schoolwork.
Children learn best when they enjoy learning. Think about a two-year-old learning to talk. Will she be more eager if her parents drill her with flashcards, or engage her in a conversation about her favorite bugs? This pattern continues well into the school years. Student-centered learning makes learning relevant and fun, giving even bored and frustrated students an incentive to keep trying.
Why Students Love Student-Centered Learning
It’s easy for adults to forget how difficult it is to be a kid. Kids spend much of their days being told what to do. They do what other people want them to do, often without understanding why. This lack of control over their own lives is frustrating to almost all children—but especially to the most vulnerable kids.
Consider how you’d feel if someone forced you to sit in a room all day and learn about something you thought was boring or irrelevant. What if you weren’t allowed to take a stretch break, go to the bathroom when you wanted, or eat or drink when you wanted to? Understanding the modern classroom this way makes it clear why so many kids struggle.
Allowing children to, with some adult guidance, choose what they want to learn and how they want to learn it gives them more control over their lives. This can eliminate resistance, help frustrated kids become more cooperative, and show all children that learning doesn’t have to be boring.
A more student-centered approach prepares students for the many distractions of adulthood. Students gain an understanding of their own learning style. They get more control over how they spend their time. They get to collaborate with other students. These are all skills they’ll need in adulthood when no one is looking over their shoulder, forcing them to learn.
How Focusing on Student Desires Helps Teachers
Educators spend a significant portion of every day managing issues only tangentially related to learning. They have to repeatedly remind the same students to stop talking, stay in their seats, stop fighting, and stay awake. They may have to tackle issues at home that make it difficult for students to learn when they arrive at school. They must manage students who are hungry, bored, thirsty, understimulated, and itching for a break.
It’s no wonder so many teachers are burned out. As many as half leave the profession within their first five years of entering the field. Many who leave cite issues such as teaching to tests, managing difficult students, and feeling like they don’t make a difference in students’ lives. This revolving door of frustrated teachers costs schools billions each year.
When students gain more control over the learning process, teachers see an immediate improvement in student behavior. That means fewer classroom frustrations and more time spent teaching. Even better, teachers get to see students make connections to the material. Rather than drilling irrelevant pieces of data, teachers help students connect the things they learn to their daily lives. More engaged students means more fulfilled and less stressed educators.
Better Parent-Child Relationships
Half of parents say they struggle to help their children with their homework. Many say they spend endless hours fighting with their kids over homework. Some say that the homework battles make it impossible to spend pleasant time together as a family. All of these fights over schoolwork may not even confer any benefit. One recent study found students have three times more homework than is developmentally appropriate. Another found that elementary schoolers receive no benefits from homework.
When students have more control over their education, homework battles may become a thing of the past. For some students, homework may disappear entirely. For others, homework becomes something fun and relevant. Rather than filling out worksheets, a child might observe birds, make cookies, or learn about addition by shopping for toys.
This allows harried parents to spend more quality time with their children. It means fewer fights, less frustration, and a chance for parents to engage in their children's schoolwork in a way that feels meaningful. Instead of struggling to understand new approaches to math and reading, parents get to show their kids that learning can be fun, relevant, and even inspiring.
Why Teachers Should Try It: What Research Says
Who wouldn’t sign up for happier students, less stressed teachers, and better parent-child relationships? It sounds great, right? Many teachers, however, worry about implementation. They’re concerned about meeting learning objectives, about test performance, or about district acceptance.
Those are valid concerns. Research, however, shows that SCL may be the most effective strategy for helping kids from a variety of backgrounds meet educational goals.
A 2014 study, for example, found that underserved children thrive in a SCL environment. A 2015 comprehensive analysis of SCL found that it improved student-teacher relationships, bolstered academic achievement, and encouraged deeper analysis on the part of students. A 2012 study linked SCL to improved social skills and academic achievement. Dozens of other studies have arrived at similar conclusions.
Teachers can meet district and testing goals with SCL. Indeed, this approach may help more students achieve key educational goals. Many teachers find that, when they implement this approach to learning, the results speak for themselves. Skeptical principals become ardent supporters.
Children learn best when they’re playing. For thousands of years, they’ve used play as a form of scientific experimentation. Play encourages critical thinking, helps children better understand their world, and encourages social skills. Quiet, rigid classroom environments are a distinctly contemporary phenomenon. Children don’t have to learn this way. Choose a form of learning that works with—not against—the way children’s brains naturally work, and watch even your most resistant students blossom into lovers of learning.