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Student-Centered Learning: Knowing It When We See It

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This post is by Stephen Bowen, Strategic Initiative Director for Innovation at the Council of Chief State School Officers

Over the two and a half years I served as Maine's Commissioner of Education, I visited schools all over my state, and those visits followed a fairly standard pattern. I would be greeted at the school's entrance by a group of freshly scrubbed kids from the student council and given a relatively perfunctory tour of the school building. I would typically poke my head in a few classrooms, talk briefly with teachers and school administrators about their work and then, with words of encouragement and thanks to my busy hosts, head out the door.

I will never forget, though, a school I visited one day that broke with this fairly standard visit protocol and let me see for the first time what a true learner-centered model of teaching and learning looks like.

In Massabesic Middle School in southern Maine, I wasn't greeted with a phalanx of students, but with just two students, who waited for me in a nearby conference room. I was taken to the room and left with the students, two seventh graders, who explained that they were here to share with me "how we do things around here."

The two girls shared with me standard-issue three-ring binders that they had, each of which was neatly divided into the various subject areas. The students walked me through each subject, explaining which specific learning outcome they were working on at the moment, how they intended to achieve that learning outcome, and by what means of assessment their attainment of each learning outcome would be established.

In some instances, the two classmates were working on the same learning outcome at the same time, and in other instances, one was ahead of or behind the other in various subjects. They talked about "my learning goal" for this or that unit of study, about their strategies to meet those learning goals, and about the various ways they intended to demonstrate their learning. Their binders were full of information about the learning outcomes they had already mastered and it was with no small sense of pride that they showed how far they each had come. They had not achieved the same outcomes in each subject area by this point, but it didn't seem to faze them one bit. They acknowledged without embarrassment that each of them were stronger in some areas than others and that they had each helped--and been helped by--other students as they collectively sought to meet their learning goals.

Indeed, they periodically stopped their presentation of all this to inquire whether I had any questions about it and helpfully offered to slow down if they were going through it all too fast.

Leaving the conference room behind, we visited classrooms and saw what this learner-centered model looks like in practice. The classrooms were beehives of activity. Students were at work, on their own or in small groups, on any number of learning outcomes. Some were studying source materials, others were working together to complete student-developed assessments that showed their learning. Teachers moved from group to group, looking over shoulders, answering questions and providing guidance and encouragement. Not once did I see a teacher at the front of the room attempting to explain a concept or idea to the entire class at once, rather teachers moved about the students, working to help each meet their own learning goals.

Each student, when asked, could tell you exactly which learning outcome was the focus of that day's efforts, by when and by what means they intended to achieve that outcome, and which outcome was to be conquered next in each of the content areas.

In fact, it might have been the sense of ownership among these students that amazed me the most. All day there was talk of "my learning goal" in this or that area, and how "I'm going to demonstrate my learning." For someone like me, who never felt any ownership over my learning and who felt that school was, generally speaking, something that was being done to me, the degree to which these students embraced and directed their own learning left me speechless.

Heading back to the office at the end of the school day, I marveled at the contrast between the learning experience these students were having and the experience of students in so many of the other schools I visited. Here was a learner-centered model fully realized. The school was even taking steps to eliminate age-based grade levels. The two girls who met with me in the conference room fully acknowledged that while they were both technically seventh graders, it "doesn't really matter" which grade they were in, as they worked with students in other grades routinely.

In the weeks and months that followed my visit I shared the school's approach with others, but struggled to fully describe it. "You have to take a ride down there and see it," I found myself telling people, and indeed, seeing for themselves proved to be by far the most effective way to convey the school's approach. In short, you almost have to see it, in order to fully realize the model's power.

Herein lies one of the challenges we face in trying scale these approaches. The teacher-led model of schooling is so ingrained in each of us that it is difficult to envision how it could be done differently. Helping people to actually see what learner-centered education looks like will be key if we are going transform these systems. In realization of this fact, the Maine Department of Education commissioned a few videos of these models in action, including the school I visited. Those videos are now available online at the Maine Department of Education Center for Best Practice.

As my own experience shows, though, nothing beats spending a day in one of these schools. In Maine, taking state legislators on a school tour helped cement support for our standards-based diploma bill. Since then, the state's deeper learning schools have hosted countless visits, as have similar schools across the Council of Chief State School Officer's Innovation Lab Network.

I firmly believe that we need to find a way to make sure that every student attends a school like Massabesic. But if we are going to see student-centered deeper learning models of schooling spread, getting educators and policymakers to see this kind of learning in action--getting inside the walls of our schools and sitting beside the young learners they serve--needs to be a top priority.



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