At its core, “student-centered learning” is the idea that each student is an individual who learns in unique ways. Students come to school with prior knowledge, educational experiences, trauma, attitudes, interests, preferences, strengths and weaknesses unique to their lived experiences. At their best, student-centered approaches give students agency over their learning so they are active participants in the process, rather than empty vessels to be filled.
Working in teams, ninth graders at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in New York City are challenged to identify a social issue they want to support, find a local nonprofit aligned to those goals, and then create a presentation advocating for the organization. The most persuasive team wins a $5,000 grant for their partner nonprofit. And the public school’s 12th-grade economics students pitch their ideas — “Shark Tank” style — to real philanthropists who can decide to invest or not. The projects are relevant, real-world, and directed at an authentic audience, all markers of learning that is student-centered.
The work is connected to issues students care about. It requires field work and interaction with experts, while challenging students to build not only academic skills — such as research, writing and public speaking — but also asks them to manage their time, overcome challenges, work with others, and communicate their visions effectively. WHEELS exemplifies student-centered learning that gives students agency over what and how they learn, connects to their lives and passions, and allows each student to move forward in important skills, no matter where they started. The majority of WHEELS students come from low-income families and often start high school behind grade level. But they all engage in these types of motivating and engaging learning experiences.
More schools are trying to follow the example of schools like WHEELS, which has shown strong academic outcomes for neighborhood students over the decade it has been open. In recent years, the idea that students are individuals who learn in different ways and at different paces has gained traction. At the same time, high school graduates are entering a world that is more uncertain than ever before; formerly stable jobs are disappearing and adaptability has become one of the most important job skills. Increasingly educators, policymakers, and parents are realizing that one standardized approach to learning may not be appropriate for all students or prepare them for challenges they will face after school.
Of the four practices that make up student-centered learning, personalized learning has become the most ubiquitous; indeed educators sometimes use the term synonymously with student-centered learning. However, when educators call learning “personalized” they are often only referring to the pace of instruction.
Several large philanthropies interested in changing and improving how US schools educate children have backed initiatives on elements of student-centered learning, which generally holds to four educational tenets: learning must be personalized, competency-based, accessible anytime/anywhere, and owned by the student. When these four practices are present in combination, the thinking goes, young people will have a strong foundation to pursue deeper learning, a term referring to the skills, knowledge and dispositions needed for success in college, career and civic life. (See this reporter guide to “Decoding Deeper Learning” for more information.)
Rather than every student listening to the same teacher-delivered lecture followed by identical assignments, some schools are using technology to adapt curriculum to the student’s pace, serving up content as the student is ready for it. But allowing students to move through a prescribed set of lessons at their own pace is only one part of owning the learning experience. Personalization through technology also doesn’t necessarily mean that learning can happen anytime or anywhere, especially if students come from disadvantaged families without access to the internet at home. Summit Public Schools, Rocketship and Teach to One are some examples of organizations exploring how to make learning student-centered through technology-enhanced learning.
How Teaching is Changing
A different approach to personalization focuses less on the pace of standardized content and more on the interests and passions of students as a lever for motivation and engagement. Teachers following this approach offer students more choice over how they demonstrate knowledge and build learning plans around student interests. Often technology is a part of these programs as well, but less often as a primary mechanism of content delivery. Several districts and networks of schools champion approaches like this, including High Tech High, New Tech Network, Big Picture Learning, EL Education and the Innovation Network in Philadelphia. None of these networks or the schools within them look exactly the same, but most subscribe to the idea that student choice and voice is a key element of personalization.
Student-centered learning can be hard to do well. Most teachers learned in traditional, lectured-based environments, and don’t have strong models to emulate. Large class sizes and wide disparities in student abilities also make tailoring instruction to each student difficult. Research on the effectiveness of technology-enhanced personalized learning is still thin and generally mixed, making it difficult to draw concrete conclusions on effectiveness.
Increasingly researchers are also noticing differences in quality of instruction, with schools in poorer communities using “personalized learning” software that mimics traditional learning, while peers at wealthier schools are working on interest-based projects that are not only more engaging, but also require critical thinking, creativity and the kind of personal agency that leads to learning that sticks.
Measuring the effectiveness of student-centered approaches is also a challenge. While public schools are still accountable for standardized test scores, many progressive educators argue those tests don’t measure important skills like collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication that are crucial for success in an increasingly global and knowledge-based economy. Some schools and states, like New Hampshire, are piloting performance-based assessments as a more authentic and aligned means of evaluating student-centered learning.
Schools participating in the Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) alternate between traditional standardized tests and performance tasks that are aligned with classroom assignments, but are developed collaboratively among participating schools. The pilot program hopes to show that these performance tasks, which don’t require teachers to stop regular classroom instruction for testing, are equally valid ways to hold schools accountable.
What States Are Doing
Many states are embracing some aspect of student-centered learning, such as personalization, even if only partially or in a pilot form. Rhode Island is “the one to watch” on the personalized learning front, says Rebecca Wolfe, associate vice president of Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization focusing on improving college and career readiness among underserved populations. And Idaho’s relatively new shift to mastery-based education is also worth keeping tabs on, she says.
A few examples of other state-level initiatives:
- Vermont has the most unified statewide plan to support “personalized learning” under Act 77, including proficiency-based diplomas, personalized learning plans, and a comprehensive system of assessment that includes performance-based assessment to ensure students are progressing and have the supports they need.
- Kentucky and Colorado are examples of states that have created innovation zones or districts, which offer waivers to districts seeking to pilot or develop more student-centered approaches that could be scaled up.
- Maine, Colorado, and Arizona have moved towards proficiency-based diplomas, which assess a student’s readiness to graduate based on how they show what they know as opposed to seat-time requirements.
- Additionally, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers states more flexibility over accountability measures and explicitly requires assessments to measure “higher order thinking skills and understanding.” The law also allows for multiple assessment measures including “portfolios, projects, or extended-performance tasks,” which could help drive student-centered pedagogies.
What the Research Shows
Some experts contend that the research on student-centered learning is thin and rarely takes into account all four dimensions included in the definition of student-centered learning. Often studies are small, and few are rigorous, randomized controlled trials. (For more on recent studies, visit Jobs for the Future’s Students at the Center Research Portal.)
The most-researched area is “personalized learning,” which can mean a range of things depending on who is defining the term, a challenge for consistent comparisons. Among the larger, recent studies in this realm:
- A 2015 study by the RAND Corporation, “Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning,” is one of the largest conducted on the impact of personalized learning approaches on student achievement. The researchers saw some gains in math and reading scores in schools using personalized learning, but they caution that implementation and types of personalization across schools varied greatly.
- The American Institutes for Research conducted a trio of studies comparing schools self-identified as practicing “deeper learning” to schools with similar demographics at traditional schools. Together, the three studies found students in deeper learning schools graduate high school and attend college at higher rates. More notably, students at deeper learning schools were 4 percentage points more likely to attend four-year institutions.
- In an Education Week article summarizing research on the effectiveness of personalized learning Benjamin Herold writes: “While a fair amount of research exists on specific personalization strategies, such as the use of adaptive math software, the literature includes very little on personalized learning as a comprehensive approach.” Some aspects of student-centered learning, like student agency over learning, can be hard to measure and correlate to test scores, which may contribute to the lack of research.