In Students' Hands: How Student-Centered Learning Helps Children Grow into Leaders
Great educators know that children learn most effectively when they're allowed to explore by following their curiosity, and that's increasingly evident as students mature. Students who have benefited from student-centered learning are self-directed, self-possessed, confident leaders and communicators. So, what is student-centered learning, and what makes it so effective? And how does blending Montessori and International Baccaulaureate approaches result in an experience that launches students so effectively into a world that requires new and diverse skills?
What is Student-Centered Learning?
In a room buzzing with activity, 6th grade students eagerly present their projects on environmental justice to adults who may be surprised by how much they're learning from these passionate and informed environmental advocates who haven't quite made it to high school yet. The kids are clearly proud of their ability to maintain an informed dialogue with adults.
Reflecting on the activity, Alex shares, "It definitely felt like something you could be doing in the real world."
His classmate Jesse describes completing and presenting her project on composting as a culmination of her studies in English, science, social studies, and more: "Everything just comes together." After learning that a teacher now plans to start composting at home, Jesse is thrilled about her ability to effect change: "That was me. That was my change. That's what I did."
Along the way, of course, she also learned plenty of science, she learned to transform her ideas into action, and she acquired the communication skills and technical skills to present it all to other people. But she was so motivated because she came up with her own idea of what she wanted to do and she figured out how to do it.
Just like, as Alex would say, "the real world." That is student-centered learning. (click to see a video about this event).
In educational environments that are student-centered, children take ownership of their own learning process, envision how to chart their own course, and are motivated to learn. Student-centered learning stands in sharp contrast to the rote memorization and test preparation that many educational researchers argue are "potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even souring kids’ desire to learn" (New York Times). How do we put education where it belongs, in students' hands?
What follows are two thoughtful approaches.
The Montessori method was made famous by Maria Montessori, who said, "Play is the work of the child." A Montessori classroom is a supportive, thoughtfully prepared environment that facilitates exploration and invites learning, coupled with the freedom and time to learn, and it prompts children to take charge of their own intellectual, physical, social, and emotional development. Montessori teachers are exhorted to "follow the child."
Tim Schwartz is Director of Innovation at the Whitby School in Greenwich Connecticut, birthplace of the American Montessori Society and America's oldest continuously running Montessori school. He explains:
"The idea of follow the child is based on the notion that children have an innate desire to learn and their own agendas that need to be respected. A teacher's role is to carefully prepare an environment that allows students to develop independence, autonomy, and mastery. Students choose lessons and engage in meaningful play based on their interest and gentle teacher guidance which in turn fosters their individual responsibility, passion for learning, and independence"
For those of us who are not educators, it's easy to miss the profound learning that accompanies what we consider to be simple play. It doesn't occur to many of us that a preschooler sorting colored beads is learning math more effectively than she would be by filling out a worksheet. Click here for insight on how classic preschool games actually teach important life skills.
IB: International Baccalaureate (and Inquiry-Based)
An International Baccaulaureate education also follows students' natural curiosity with its inquiry and concept-based curriculum, and in this era of "fake news," the IB's mission feels more important than ever. The curriculum's focus is on "teaching students to think critically and independently, and how to inquire with care and logic. The IB prepares students to succeed in a world where facts and fiction merge in the news, and where asking the right questions is a crucial skill" (IBO.org).
The way this method "promotes student agency" (EdSurge) feels like a sharp contrast from a typical classroom.
Traditional schools teach students that there is only one right way to solve a problem and then grade their students on how closely they follow those steps. Real life challenges, however, don’t have clear step-by-step solutions. That’s why an IB school promotes students' ownership and inquiry-based learning, supporting students not only to find the answers but also to enthusiastically discover the questions they want to solve," says Simone Becker, Assistant Head of School and Head of Lower School at the Whitby School.
Community connections for a more peaceful world is also crucial to the IB mission, and this fits right in with the student-centered approach. For example, at the Whitby School, Whitby alum, Sophia developed a passion project to explore the impact of cultural conceptions about beauty that incorporated research and communication skills, but along the way she also grew confidence and leadership skills as she mentored younger students in her school's community.
Whitby School also has a thriving Buddy Program that pairs older students with younger ones. Community Service Coordinator and Buddy Program manager Beth Ferrer explains, "It sounds like the Buddy Program is a simple idea, but we're really working to create confident, collaborative, open-minded students from the minute they walk through the door."
By following students' curiosity and their natural inclination to connect, IB schools seek to create better learners and a better world. Click here to find a local IB World School.
How Can You Access These Methods For Your Children?
These approaches appear simple, and they can be tough to measure immediately, which can make them challenging to implement in your local public school district. Katina Schwartz, co-host of the MindShift podcast, offers up tips on shifting classrooms to more inquiry-based curricula. Thom Markham, author and educational consultant, argues for MindShift that "Inquiry-based learning is disruptive to test-based standards and, by extension, the industrialized system itself."
While public schools are beginning to make strides with adopting more innovative approaches, many of the most dynamic programs that place students at the center of learning can be found in the private school setting. For example, the Whitby School in Greenwich, Connecticut, was the first school in the world to blend the Montessori and IB programs in their early education program. According to EdSurge,
"Montessori's age-old approach to nurturing independence and IB's progressive approach to promoting student ownership of the learning process are more relevant now to educational reform in America than ever before."
Students develop confidence, self-awareness, and self-management when what they're learning is significant and relevant to them and it continues to engage and challenge them as they grow. Through these student-centered approaches, students grow into young adults who are organized, articulate, and able to advocate for themselves and the causes they believe in their own communities and the world.
How to Identify Schools That Employ a Truly Student-Centered Approach
Here are some observations to help guide you to find a student-centered setting:
- Notice how the classroom is arranged. A student-centered classroom has been prepared for free movement and group activities. Desks won't be in rows.
- Ask about how students are assessed. Are students encouraged to offer self-reflecting analysis and participate in conferences?
- How do new lessons begin? A student-centered approach will begin with questions, curiosity, and how a topic connects to students.
- Are students eager and focused? Students don't "tune out" in a well run student-centered classroom.
- What's the classs atmosphere like? A student-centered classroom can appear noisy and busy compared to a traditional classroom, but it signifies learning engagement.
- Are students taking risks? Student-centered learning embraces failure as an integral part of the learning process.
- Who's talking? In a student-centered classroom, it's likely that students are collaborating and brainstorming together while the teacher spends more time listening than in a typical classroom.
Are you looking for a truly inspirational classroom for your child? Click here for the Whitby School's 10 Things to Look for in an Inspirational Classroom.
Want to experience what a student centered school feels like? Click here to schedule a tour of Whitby School.