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A Student-Centered Approach to Learning

By: Lower School Science Teacher Jess Baker

April 14, 2020

What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught, rather, it is in large part due to the children’s own doing, as a consequence of their activities and our resources.

—Loris Malaguzzi, The Hundred Languages of Children

When I think back to when I was in elementary school, I remember my most memorable teacher; you know that teacher. I reflect on what I loved about her, why I was so drawn to her class, and what drove me to work harder and push myself further in her class than I did in others. The answer lies much deeper than she was nice or she didn’t give much homework. It was more about how she made me feel. At the core of what I was feeling is that she respected and valued my voice and the voices of my classmates. She genuinely cared and respected us as people and asked our opinions. She valued what we had to say! And, to add to that, she actually implemented our ideas into how the class was run. What she had figured out was how to successfully implement a student-centered approach to learning. She had struck gold, and now fast forward 25+ years and this approach is backed by research and has become a best practice in the field of education. 

A Relationship Driven Environment

When you boil it down, a student-centered learning environment is built on nurturing and sustaining relationships with students, relationships that are rooted in love and respect for one another. These healthy bonds create an environment where students are courageous, where they feel safe to put themselves out there. This student centered approach empowers children to follow their curiosities, become advocates of their knowledge, and take risks in their learning. It pushes them to reach higher and go further. 

The Belief in the Child

The student-centered approach sees the child as a competent and capable individual, no matter the age. Gone are the days of believing that children are merely empty vessels waiting to be filled. Children come to the classroom with a wealth of personal experiences and prior knowledge that add so much to the learning environment. It is our job to take time to listen to them. Our children have so much to offer!

The student-centered approach allows children to be active participants in their learning, driving the instruction. There is a strong belief that they are valued members of the learning community, and what they have to say matters. Children are naturally curious, full questions and ideas waiting to be explored; they simply need the time and space to do so.

Fostering A Culture of Learning Together

If the students are taking the lead, what role does the teacher play? Teaching with a student-centered approach is an art form and when implemented, it can look a little different depending on the age of the children and the teacher’s unique style. However, the main role of the teacher is to be a guide, to be an observer of the learning that is taking place, to ask questions. All are learners in this environment. “We are all learning, including me,” is a phrase frequently used in my classroom. It is my hope to instill a lifelong love of learning, and I do this by showing them that I, too, am learning with them! 

This approach requires the ultimate flexibility in planning. Sometimes the guidance is subtle, and other times we have to take a hard right turn. My job is to help the children steer the boat by asking them questions rather than telling them how to be, what to do; taking more of a consultant approach and advisor role.

I typically begin each unit with a general outline, and then I let the kids take the lead. We talk about what they already know about a subject and then what questions they have and what they want to learn. Students share in the decision making of a project, usually through class brainstorming sessions, where we think of ideas on what direction we can take a project. I sit back and pose questions to the kids, leading them to connections, and allowing them to take the lead in problem solving and long term planning. It is amazing what comes out of these sessions and the great lengths that students go in their learning! The ingenuity is amazing!

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Rossman School, nestled on a 20-acre campus in St. Louis, is a private preparatory school for students in Junior Kindergarten (four years old) through Grade 6. The school’s mission is to provide a strong, well-balanced education in a nurturing school community committed to excellence. Dedicated to developing personal, nurturing relationships with each child, Rossman’s experienced educators provide a solid foundation in academics, athletics and arts while emphasizing strong character development and leadership skills.​ Request a free Rossman School brochure here.

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