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What is the power of student-centered learning? It is more than grades and test scores. The student, teachers and parents all have a part to play.

As educators we are driven by the individual success, growth and development of all of our students. As learning organizations (K-16) we pride ourselves on continually articulating the personal interest we “intend to take” in all of our scholars. Though well-intended mission or vision statements may create an organizational lean and ideally influence our learning processes and classrooms, schools need systems in place to establish the habits and norms of a personalized student-centered experience that supports learning and drives the success of our learning communities. 

Today, schools are competing for students and families who have many options. These consumers of education are thoughtfully shopping for the options that best meet their needs and maximize their individual student’s success.

Successful learning communities not only have articulated missions and visions that value student-centered, personalized learning, they embody this value by ensuring each teacher in each classroom facilitates student-centered learning sessions.

The student-centered learning experience starts with the nurturing of  a powerful learning community. Each student, family and faculty member is an active and essential member of the “family” comprising this truly collaborative team. The learning community is built on a foundation of trust and communication, established through agreed-upon core commitments. Those commitments are continually articulated and measured. In this learning environment of mutual respect, rules are minimal as each member of the learning community fully understands the expectations and accepts his responsibility. “It Begins with Me” is a common theme in this student-centered environment: all students, families, faculty and staff members take responsibility for learning. Learning community development requires continuous engagement and improvement, as does the forward progress of any highly functioning team or family.

Facilitated learning, whether within or outside the walls of the classroom, is built on essential learnings that are focused, rigorous and relevant. Essential learnings are the critical skills, knowledge, and dispositions each student must acquire as a result of each course, grade level, and unit of instruction. They are sometimes referred to as essential outcomes or power standards.  Under the guidance of the teacher, who is willing to cede complete control, students are allowed to create ownership in their learning and assessment by engaging in shared decision-making with the teacher; this process manifests in their jointly establishing the learning targets and learning activities that support learning in a differentiated and personalized manner. All teachers have multivariable plans to determine the degree of learning, measure learning outcomes, and provide intervention and enrichment as we acknowledge that learning for each student will happen along varying timelines. In a student-centered learning community, learners should be deeply involved in evaluating their own performance. Specifically, student-centered learning communities:

Agree it is important that students: 

  • Understand themselves as learners
  • Develop the capability to realistically reflect on their progress
  • Develop a plan for their growth
  • Own their learning

Agree that each teacher will:

  • Create an opportunity for students’ focused reflection
  • Differentiate opportunities to engage with students to support their goals
  • Share with parents/guardians information regarding engagement and academic performance 

Agree that each student will:

  • Reflect on his or her course progress 
  • Engage in a process of self-reflection that involves the teacher who can then further support the attainment of established goals

Leadership is taught and, ultimately, expected of all members of a quality student-centered learning community. All students and teachers are expected to share their voice and, while simultaneously developing empathetic listening skills, always seeking first to understand. This engaged environment will ultimately reflect a diverse and inclusive student and staff culture. Students generate the majority of the work and dialogue in this personalized student-centered learning community. A high level of student engagement–the by-product of a rich blend of challenge, enthusiasm and joy–is the ideal outcome of this leadership dance. 

Many educational leaders may conclude that the principles of student-centered, personalized learning can only be achieved in the current explosion of small magnet, charter and private specialized schools. Although it may be easier to achieve student-centered success in a small focused environment originally built around this concept, large comprehensive schools across the country are finding success through their own efficiencies. Through the quality use of technology, they are also able to focus learning, communicate with stakeholders, and measure the many important personal learning, growth and development variables to support our scholars in a student-centered fashion. With the enabling support of technological tools that provide real-time learning, behavioral and social and emotional data for our students, we can provide comprehensive analysis and timely support, intervention and enrichment. 

A student-centered learning community is about more than completing courses and entering a summative score. It is about fostering in each child a never-ending passion for learning and personal growth. It is about ensuring each child experiences the joy of accomplishment and achievement and celebrates this exhilaration in the presence of a broader, collaborative community. Embracing this approach to learning in a systematic manner effectively models for students the habits and competencies essential for lifelong learning and growth outcomes whether in the academic, personal or professional realm.  

YES…it takes time, training, leadership and hard work, but the result is a magnificent outcome—dynamic schools with measurable (and immeasurable) student learning, growth and leadership—which not only benefits the students and their learning community but also our society.

Randall Peterson

Dr. Randall Peterson is currently the Educational Leadership Program Director and an assistant professor at Barry University in Miami, Florida (The Adrian Dominican School of Education). Previously, he was the Principal of Eastview High School (pop. 2400), a nationally recognized 9-12 comprehensive and college preparatory high school in suburban Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dr. Peterson is a 37-year veteran educator who has worked in elementary and secondary, private, and public schools and continues to preach and teach educational equity and quality to support our students and learning communities.