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Student Centered Classrooms Promote the Skills for Lifelong Learning (3/1/14)

While much of the current research and literature on instructional delivery tells us that student centered classrooms are most effective in promoting student learning, many educators still struggle with the application of student centered instructional methods in their day-to-day work. This is important because a culture of student centered learning which forms the foundation of a student centered classroom cannot be established without fidelity in attempts at implementation of effective strategies. Only through the refinement of skills that comes with continued practice will teachers be able to hone their capacity in this area.

Whether the disconnect between research and practice exists because of a lack of appropriate training or decreased teacher comfort levels with student centered classrooms, which are often more decentralized than more traditional instructional settings, its consequences can’t be ignored. Specifically, student centered delivery methods promote the development of skills that position students to become lifelong learners. The lifelong learning skills are some of the most important “takeaways” that students must exit Grade 12 with as they enter the adult world.

In a 2/4/14 Education Week article titled An Essential Question for Developing Student-Centered Classrooms, Tom Bonnell advocates for the use of student centered instructional methods in PK – 12 classrooms. Bonnell challenges educators to think about student centered learning from perspectives gained through consideration of one essential question “What are you doing in your classroom now, that you could turn over to your students to do themselves?”  Bonnell answers this question by focusing on three key areas. First Bonnell recognizes the fact that students must become the teacher themselves by developing the skills to guide their own learning. Second Bonnell acknowledges the fact that a student centered classroom is messier, in organizational terms, than most educators may be comfortable with. Bonnell concludes his article by stating a truly student centered classroom is one where “ . . . the students voices are heard significantly more than the teacher’s and where their interactions are at the center of the learning process.”

As a veteran educator and former school district superintendent, I agree with Bonnell’s assessment of the importance of a student centered classroom. I also believe that the most important of the three elements of a student centered classroom that Bonnell identified is the ability of students to become the teacher themselves by developing the skills to guide their own learning. Stated differently, to be adequately prepared for college or the workforce in the 21st Century, high school graduates must be lifelong learners. However, the problem for many PK-12 educators is that they understand this concept but do not know “what work they should be doing” to effectively teach students the skills of a lifelong learner. Because of this, I offer an analysis of the skills that students will need to become their own teachers and three practical applications that illustrate how teachers can teach these skills on a day-to-day basis in the classroom.

First, the lifelong learner possesses four essential skills. These include the effective ability to conduct research, evaluate information, synthesize information, and communicate understandings. Lifelong learners understand that they don’t need to know all the answers, just where to find them. To this end the lifelong learner must know the value of research on an inquiry and understand the tools that facilitate this effort. The lifelong learner must also be able to evaluate information that is received from all sources, so that he/she is able to select accurate information for use. Third, the lifelong learner must be able to synthesize information from multiple inputs into a coherent whole. Finally, the lifelong learner must be able to effectively communicate his/her understandings to others. After all, what value does information have if you can’t share it with others? These academic skills translate to the adult work-world as the 21st Century global workplace is largely a knowledge and information market, one in which workers must seek background knowledge, make judgment’s, compile understandings, and effectively communicate them to stakeholders.

In regard to practical applications, I highlight three instructional methods that teachers can implement in various forms to begin teaching students lifelong learning skills. These applications include the flipped classroom, problem based learning, and investigation of grand problems, and all are briefly detailed below:

  • In the flipped classroom, lecture, notes, and research are done outside of the school day, often through the assistance of various media technology and hand-to-book learning. As a result, school time can then be used for debate with peers, lab activities, reflection, and guided writing.
  • In a problem based learning approach, the content is framed in the context of a real world problem that is relevant to students. This method promotes student engagement and allows for application of skills in a real world setting. Students gain insight on “Why this works?” and “Why that doesn’t?” This method makes the abstract concrete, often relating the content to academic discipline based professions, and it presents many opportunities for sharing, as students submit their determinations for scrutiny by their instructor and their peers.
  • When investigating grand problems, students are presented with complexities that impact humanity on global scale. In forming possible approaches to address these problems, students participate in extensive research and are required to apply concepts across the four core academic disciplines. In this delivery model, lessons across departments in a school are aligned so that students are immersed in their topics. Grand problems stretch students’ thinking and require evaluation of multiple variables on many levels. When executed correctly, these projects are typically yearlong in their scope and culminate with various symposiums.

In closing, a focus on student centered learning and its natural position in establishing a culture of student centered classrooms, is essential to students’ development of lifelong learning skills. These skills are some of the most important lessons that students must leave high school with if they are to be successful in the workforce or in college. As educators, it is imperative that we examine our work and make deliberate efforts to incorporate student centered learning in our daily practice. In this way we can help ensure that our students will develop 21 Century career and college skills that will sustain them for a lifetime.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO