The Power of Student-centered Environments: Steps Towards Creating Student-driven Learning Spaces
Maria Theologidou, Greece
Maria Theologidou is an EFL teacher, translator/subtitler and oral examiner. She has contributed to publications, written articles for ELT journals, presented workshops in TESOL conventions and is currently the General Secretary and Editor in Chief of TESOL Macedonia - Thrace, Northern Greece. She's passionate about creating learning spaces in which her students can enhance their creativity and critical thinking skills. When she's not teaching, she can be found singing, cooking or blogging - apart from her own site, she blogs for the British Council Teaching English site as well. You can find her at: https://mariatheologidou.com/ or at: email@example.com
Towards a student-centered approach
Over the last two decades, we have become witnesses of numerous changes in the field of education as on the one hand learning is informed by technological advances and on the other more emphasis seems to be placed on the anthropological dimensions of learning. This becomes evident when discussing the notion of "identity" in the learning process and manifests itself more noticeably in the changing perception of the teacher's role as we are moving from what a teacher knows to what a teacher is, therefore stressing the social dimension of teacher identity (Pennington & Richards, 2016). This shift along with the factors it is informed by and the ways learning as a process can empower students has drawn educators' attention to classroom environments and the ways students' identity can be built through classroom practices. This way, the role of teaching extends from helping students learn the mechanics of linguistic expression to catering for students' needs and promoting learning as a lifelong process.
This need is mostly a reflection of the changing expectations of society, rather than a novel concept to teachers. Indeed, in a teacher's circle of redefining themselves and their priorities, there is an element which seems to rank above the rest when considering the core of our practice; that is, how to maximize the impact of our teaching so that we can help our students achieve their goals. Many more points can be added to that - we want to engage them in learning, instill life values to them and help them become independent in their future lives. This desire, however, although student-centered in nature, comes in sharp contrast with the teaching reality most teachers either experience or create in their classrooms. We want the best for our learners, yet, learners are rarely involved in the teaching process and the amount of control given to them over what they learn is -once again- mostly controlled by us.
Despite the fact that student-centered learning is not an innovative idea, it is still considered by many educators a formidable task to undertake for both practical (working conditions) or personal (lack of motivation or know-how) reasons. Regardless of the reasons why student-centered environments are yet to become the majority - in the Greek context at least- I will attempt to shed some light on how our own conceptions regarding the role of the teacher might hinder the development of such spaces before sharing with you some guidelines and practical steps towards promoting learner-driven spaces.
There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact - Arthur Conan Doyle
Our mindset is developed by what we are exposed to and the ways in which we react to the different stimuli either these are in the form of facts or opinions. Considering that our teaching lives revolve around the former, it is interesting to explore the role facts play in shaping our teacher mentality. Most facts teachers are exposed to relate to language teaching itself and constitute part of the information and ultimately knowledge our students will acquire. Others relate to situations or conditions that are beyond our control such as our learners' educational background. Finally, there are those facts that mingle with opinions and reflect individuals' perceptions of what is "true" and what is not. Such facts mostly relate to circumstances -both external and internal to teaching- that we are asked to accept or have become used to accepting as given. These could, for instance, relate to the financial crisis Greek people are experiencing or the exam-driven Greek mentality. As the line, though, between fact and opinion is often blurry, I'd like to paraphrase Peter Ellerton (2017) here and argue that such facts are often disguised fossilized opinions that people have come to accept as unquestionable principles of life.
In the case of us teachers, such facts could be:
- Teachers talk, learners do.
- What matters is that students pass their X, Y, Z exams.
- You can't make others learn if they don't want to.
- You have no control over the environment in which you teach etc.
Apart from such facts that might influence a teacher's mentality, another aspect that plays a crucial role is the teacher's own attitude to learning and how they see themselves in relation to that. In this case, another element which often influences teachers' approach comes into play, that of authority/power and how the teacher perceives himself in relation to the ways they can influence student attitude. Depending on teachers' notion of control in learning-related decisions, learning can be seen as an one-way process or as a reciprocal exchange of knowledge through which both teachers and students gain knowledge and become better versions of themselves.
To me, the realisation of what mutual learning implies came from Paul Bogdan's Edutopia post on the topic of student-centered environments in 2011 after I had finished teaching one of my -now favourite- most challenging groups (you can read more about them, here). This initial spark was further ignited by two of my now all-time favourite books, namely "Anytime, Anywhere: Student-centered Learning for Schools and Teachers" and Bill Nave's "Student-Centered Learning: Nine Classrooms in Action". Although the former laid the foundations for my decisions to make, it was the second in which teachers share their stories of different levels of education -from kindergarten to sophomore- that truly resonated with me.
The reason for sharing these personal examples is simple - the first step towards building student-centered environments starts with us, teachers. Having been exposed to educational paradigms that placed more emphasis on what we would call a fixed mindset, we need to draw our attention away from the academic standards we measure performance by and focus more on our role as learners in the teaching process. As Carol Dweck's fascinating TED talk "The power of believing that you can improve" stresses we need to value learning as an ongoing process, one which has lots of ups and downs and see moments of uncertainty or failure as "not there yet" moments. This should ideally be followed by the understanding that we are moving away from the notion of the classroom as a physical space into the idea of classroom as a community of learners by establishing a culture of student-centeredness. To achieve the latter, we need to reflect on our own teaching practice first and ask ourselves a series of questions which normally revolve around the following three areas:
- What is my role as a teacher?
- What is the role of my students in the learning process?
- Does the role students already have in my classroom meet their needs?
This is an ongoing process, therefore these are questions that one might need to return to again and again. Then, we start implementing change by focusing on adding what I normally call "twists" to the established classroom practices rather than transforming our classroom environment from one day to the next. That is important for two reasons; first of all, transforming our classrooms either literally or figuratively is not entirely up to the teacher. Secondly, transforming an environment is a time-consuming process that might discourage teachers from considering change, let alone adapting to it.
What I have indentified below are some of the axes around which student-centered learning could be built and some simple strategies on how student-driven learning can be achieved:
- Students as decision makers: We often assume that involving our students in decision making refers to decisions regarding education policy or curriculum/syllabus changes. As a result, we tend to overlook the importance of simple, everyday decisions that our students can make within the classroom setting. One way of highlighting the importance of such decisions is by going beyond traditional goal setting to addressing students' actual needs and ambitions at the beginning of the academic year. To do so, we can incorporate Needs Analysis tasks in order to identify what our learners have to learn for their immediate future, discuss how this can be realised in class and then prioritise teaching aims and activities.
In terms of classroom practices or book materials, we can involve decision-making tasks in different skills by providing students with options. Using a set of option cards or posting on the class bulletin board task alternatives can help our students and ourselves shape the lesson around their interests. This allows students to interfere with the material presented to them in a meaningful way. For example, my set of Reading cards involves options that depending on the text or Reading task my students are being introduced to, they can adapt the existing activity, change it or bring an activity of their own in class.
In addition, students should be provided with choice in terms of the homework they are given. One simple way of doing so is by differentiating the means through which homework can be done or submitted. If, for example, we ask our students to find information about a topic, we could ask them to present this information by choosing among the following: preparing a slideshow presentation, creating a video about the topic, a poster, an infographic, writing an essay on it etc.
- Helping students assume responsibility of their learning: Learning always serves a purpose - we learn because we want to do something with the knowledge gained or because we derive pleasure from learning itself. No matter what our students' reasons for learning the language might be, it is important that they are aware of their responsibility in the learning process. One way of doing that is by helping our students establish study habits which "align" with their needs and aims. In addition, students can set weekly or monthly goals and at the end of each period review their habits or management strategies by identifying which of them have been proven effective, which not and which new ones can be followed. An extension of this activity can take place at the end of the year when students can reflect on the year's learning experience and write letters to their future selves giving themselves advice on how they can better address the challenges they are facing now / they have faced so far.
- Shaping learning around students' interests and needs: Inviting our students' interests in the classroom and making them the focus of our teaching is another step of bridging the gap between the classroom reality and our learners' reality. One way of doing so is by having Open Days or devoting class sessions to students' presentations of their skills and talents. This could take the form of talks, video tutorials or mini teaching sessions. In addition, different skills or assignments can be adapted to suit our students' interests. A class of gamers would love to turn their essays into game walkthrough writing and a class of aspiring YouTubers can create their own Vlogs.
- Embracing failure: Assessment and its role in education has been a thorny issue for years now with a growing number of educators and specialists emphasizing the need for formative assessment strategies that are adaptable and inclusive. In the case of ELT, we still experience an exam-driven, teaching-to-the test mentality in which students' efforts are ultimately judged on their holding language certificates.
The first step towards change is by embracing the importance of failure. To do so, our students need to see mistakes as learning experiences, not obstacles. A practical way of making this happen is first by making feedback "interactive" in the sense that students can be given a voice during the feedback process. One way of doing so, is by creating "Thinking Boxes" at the end of a test or assignment in which students are asked:
Following that, we can have group discussions during which both the teacher and the students identify areas in which the second need to improve and design together strategies on how the teacher can help them achieve that.
Inviting our learners to share stories of personal failures is also another step. These stories should not only focus on moments when our learners overcame difficulties, but also on moments when they decided to give up in an attempt to examine what factors led them to this choice.
- Whether feedback is balanced (Has it taken into account both their strong and weak points?)
- What areas they feel they need more work with and
- What other aspects of language they're interested in improving.
- Establishing a culture of mindfulness: As human beings we are constantly bombarded with other people's needs, demands and obligations. The lives of ours and our students constantly revolve around "to-do" tasks leaving us all longing for a well-deserved Christmas, Easter, summer etc. break. In this process of anticipating the time for relaxation and peace, we often overlook what truly matters - the present. Teaching our students how to be aware of the present moment and be true to their feelings is essential if we want to help them become more appreciative of the learning process. One strategy to follow is to introduce breathing exercises at both the beginning and end of each teaching session. Alternatively, students can create motivating displays such as "Words of Happiness" or "What makes me happy" posters on which they can share positive messages about each day of the week. In order to focus on the positive impact of every lesson, students can create "Best moment" jars in which they write on pieces of paper one thing they are grateful for that day. Reflection journals can also help students focus on both the positive and negative aspects of the lesson and allow them to suggest ways they can become more attentive to the good moments or deal with the negative ones.
All in all, it becomes clear that in order for our learners to be able to develop their own learning identity we as teachers need to shape an environment in which they are active creators and producers of learning, not passive recipients of teacher-driven knowledge. Designing student-centered environments might seem like a daunting task for many teachers, however, by adopting simple steps and strategies, both teachers and students can benefit more from the learning process.
Bogdan, P. (2011). Student-Centered Learning Environments: How and Why. Edutopia blog. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/student-centered-learning-environments-paul-bogdan
Dweck, C. (2014) The power of believing that you can improve, TEDxNorrkoping, Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve
Ellerton, P. (2017). Facts are not always more important than opinions: here’s why. The Conversation blog, Retrieved from: http://theconversation.com/facts-are-not-always-more-important-than-opinions-heres-why-76020
Nave, B. (2015). Student-Centered Learning: Nine Classrooms in Action. Harvard Education Press, Cambridge
Pennington, Martha C. & Richards, Jack C. (2016) Teacher Identity in Language Teaching: Integrating Personal, Contextual, and Professional Factors. RELC Journal, 47(1) 5–23
Wolfe, R. E., Steinberg, A., & Hoffman, N. (eds) (2013). Anytime, anywhere: student-centered learning for schools and teachers., Harvard Education Press, Cambridge
Daniels, H. (2017). The Curious Classroom: 10 Structures for Teaching with Student-Directed Inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Robinson, V. (2011). Student-Centered Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Sweeney, D. (2013). Student-Centered Coaching at the Secondary Level. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin
Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.