Student-Centered Learning: How Does it Impact Student Engagement in the Classroom?

I read an interesting article last week about the landmark book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik.  The article summarizes the metaphor the author uses to suggest how children should be raised in modern society.  While the article is geared towards parents, I do wonder if the same concept could apply to education as well.  Should we be trying to build students that do what we think as educators is best, or should we be cultivating a positive classroom culture that promotes teamwork, reflection, mindfulness, critical thinking, compassion, problem solving, and creativity so that students can develop and bloom into their own person?  As we are no longer preparing students to go out into a world of industry that is driven by factories in which all people need to be doing the same thing and following the same directions, logic leads me to believe that we should not be trying to craft students to fit into a particular mold.  Instead, schools and teachers should be helping students to find themselves while providing them opportunities to learn the useful and necessary skills they will need to be effective global citizens.  Teachers should be empowering students and handing the reigns of control over to them.  Students need to learn how to solve problems and think for themselves.  If schools employ a curriculum that forces students to follow a prescribed set of directions to complete a required task, how will students learn to be responsible citizens in our world?  Schools need to realize that times have changed.  We are no longer preparing students for factory life.  We are preparing students to think critically about the world around them in order to solve problems in creative and compassionate ways.  Schools that have evolved over time are the ones that are most helping students and our world.  Because I teach at a school that sees the power in creating learning opportunities for students in order to help them thrive and blossom into all sorts of beautiful, free-thinking organisms, I am able to implement a meaningful curriculum that focuses on inspiring students.

From day one in my fifth grade classroom, I’ve tried to focus on how I teach.  Rather than seeing myself as a carpenter, I’ve put forth much energy to be more of a guide or gardener.  Instead of telling my students what they need to do to show mastery of a particular concept, skill, or objective, I provide them with options or ask for their input.  I’m trying to foster a sense of autonomy and responsibility among the students in my class.  My goal is for them to see what is important and valuable, and then begin steering the classroom ship in that direction.  Although this manner of teaching does seem to make the most sense to me based on the reality in which we live, it’s not easy to break myself of old habits.  In college, I was trained to think that my role as a teacher is to ensure that my students do what I say according to the rules of how to do it.  As a young and naive educator and college student, I accepted what my professors told me.  They know what is best, I thought.  Years later, I realized that what I once thought was the right way to teach was in fact not at all accurate.  So, I’ve been doing much research on teaching and learning over the past few years.  I’ve changed my teaching style to adapt to what I’ve discovered along the way.  It’s challenging for me to think that I should not be the one in charge of the learning in the class.  I have to give up control, I thought.  But I am a control freak and need everything to go just so.  How can I possibly give up control and expect that everything will be okay?  It’s not about control, it’s about managing my expectations.  If I want students to leave my classroom being curious, responsible, self-sufficient, creative, compassionate, and mindful young people, than I need to change the way I think about teaching and living in general.  So, I’ve been doing that.  This year, in particular, I’ve been very thoughtful and purposeful in everything I say and do in the classroom.  I want to inspire my students to learn and grow as individuals and fifth grade family members. I want what I do in the classroom to be about them, which is why I’m trying to create a student-centered approach to learning in the classroom.

  • In my last entry I wrote about a brilliant idea one of my students had for a writing project.  So, I ran with it and implemented it in the classroom this week.  After explaining the project and task to them, I allowed the students to brainstorm the story idea, characters, and chapter assignments.  I observed from the side as they got into a great discussion.  They bounced ideas off of one another and came up with a very unique story idea in which seven superhero children travel to the Atlantic ocean to help pick up trash that the super villain Squid Man has been dumping into the ocean.  They had so much fun coming up with ideas and choosing roles.  I didn’t intervene once.  While it seemed chaotic at first, with many students talking at once, one student interjected and said, “It’s really hard to hear each other’s ideas when we are all talking at once.  Why don’t we have one person call on people who are raising their hands?”  A student raised her hand to be the leader and the rest of the conversation went swimmingly.  It was so awesome.  If I had jumped in and tried to control the situation like part of me wanted to do, I would have prevented opportunities for growth and learning from taking place.
  • After completing a scientific investigation together as a class to model and teach the steps of the scientific method, I wanted to provide the students with a different investigation in which they could practice and apply what they learned.  While I had plenty of ideas in mind, my only stipulation was that they had to use corn starch and at least one other material to create an investigation.  Some students chose glue or clay, while others chose water of some sort.  It was so cool to observe them all taking risks, trying new things, and learning about themselves as science students.  They seemed to have so much more fun than groups of students I’ve worked with in the past that did not have the freedom to choose their materials or type of investigation.  My fifth graders were excited and engaged.  It was amazing!
  • During the first week of classes, we watched a news-like video in Math to help the students begin to see that Math is about a mindset and not how one is born.  After watching the video, a student raised her hand and said, “We should do a news video like that and present it to the whole school during Community.”  I loved the idea so much, as did the other students in the class, that we are going to do just that tomorrow.  The students spent last week gathering pictures, interviews, and video footage of the school and other students during their free time.  Tomorrow we will spend the day putting the video together.  The students will assign roles, record the newscast, and then lay it out on the computer.  I can’t wait to see what the students create.  They are so creative.  I was however, at first, hesitant to try something like this as it meant that I would not be in control.  What if it doesn’t go right?  What if the students make mistakes?  What if…  The list could go on and on.  Just like with the story project, I need to allow the students to solve their own problems and take responsibility for their learning outcomes.  If it doesn’t work out or fails, even better.  That way, the students will have the ability to think critically, problem solve, and try something new.

These examples simply highlight a few of the ways I’ve tried to create a student-centered classroom in the fifth grade this year.  I’m super excited and happy with how things are going thus far.  I can’t wait to see how the future unfolds.  For me, it’s all about trying new things as a way of empowering my students and helping them to learn real-world skills that will allow them to transform and bloom into effective global citizens.

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