Make These Shifts Now For A More Student-Centered Classroom

A student-centered classroom is a classroom where students are self-driven, confident and adaptable. Julie shares the shifts she made in her classroom so that her students could facilitate their own learning, rather than look to her for all the answers. She includes practical strategies and teaching moves you can start using today.

Updated: May 24, 2019

I can do it image


“Is this good?”

“Am I right?”

“Am I done?”

Do these questions sound familiar?

I was asked these questions daily when I taught seventh grade English.

It was incredibly frustrating because I believed in the importance of teaching my students to be resilient, independent and confident. I tried to model those characteristics and name when I saw them in my students. Regardless, the questions continued, and they kept me up at night.

If I had to list the skills that I think are most important for our students to develop, they are:

  • Flexibility
  • Initiative
  • Self-Direction
  • Adaptability
  • Confidence
  • Seeking Help

I recognized that in order to support my students to develop these skills, I needed to shift my teaching from directive to student-centered.

I think this shift is important because when students have opportunities and systems that empower them to take ownership over their learning process, powerful results occur in classrooms.

Here are shifts I made so I could sleep better at night.

Emphasize The Process Over The Product

Think about your story of school. What was most important? Handing in homework on time and getting a good grade on a test? Were you ever encouraged to think about how you learn best? Can you think of a project or activity that didn’t go well, but you learned a lot from?

Most students are used to emphasizing getting work done or getting a good test score. We tend to emphasize the importance of the product of learning rather than the process. This is why I believe students are so anxious about test taking, and whether or not their work is good or not.

"When students ask us if their work is good, they are asking us to determine if they are good, which is why how we answer is so incredibly important."

If we teach students that there is as much if not more value in the process of learning something, then we lower the stakes. It is not longer, I did well or I did poorly, but I learned a new strategy or solved a problem despite several roadblocks.

Focus Area Revision

One of the teaching strategies that I tried to emphasize the process of writing over the final essay and grade, was a focus area revision.

Before a writing assignment, I had students look at their previous essay. I asked them to read my comments, go through the rubric and choose one writing focus they wanted to work on for the next assignment. I then asked them to write me a paragraph where they shared their focus area and why they felt it was important to work on.

Students Help Each Other And Receive Targeted Instruction

As we started the next writing assignment, I provided several opportunities for students to stop and reflect on their focus area. I created focus area groups where I had students sit and write near other students who had the same focus area goal. I paused our writing time, and gave students the opportunity to share strategies and receive feedback from each other. I met with each group several times, and taught mini-lessons around their focus area to support their learning.

Feedback Not Grades

When students handed in their next writing assignment, I didn’t give them a letter grade. Instead, I gave them feedback on their focus area. I included positive feedback about the progress they made, and also constructive feedback for what else they might consider and continue to work on.

While it isn’t realistic to never give a grade on a writing assignment, I decided that for every writing assignment it wasn’t necessary. The shift was being thoughtful around which assignments were focus area revisions, and which assignments were graded.

Model And Celebrate Making Mistakes

If a student-centered classroom is a classroom where we emphasize the process of learning over the product, then making mistakes is not only inevitable, but necessary.

"If we encourage students to see mistakes as learning opportunities, rather than failures, they are less likely to think that the grade they receive defines whether or not they are a good student."

The Best Wrong Answer

One of my favorite teaching strategies is called, The Best Wrong Answer. After students take a test, you can select some of the answers that were very close to correct, or more importantly, showed evidence of critical thinking and thoughtful work. Even though a student may have answered the question incorrectly, there is still value in the process that they used. If we make that process visible, we are helping students see that the work they do is just as valuable, if not more important than whether or not their answer was correct.

Make Your Mistakes Visible

Even though I was an English teacher, I cannot tell you the number of times that I was writing on the board and I forgot how to spell a word. There were other times where I left out punctuation.

While I know my stuff, I am also human, and so are our students. We all have days where we struggle more. Maybe we didn’t sleep well or we have a cold. Maybe we are distracted or feeling frustrated. When I taught I tried to name the mistakes I made openly in front of my students, and then model an appropriate response where I wasn’t hard on myself or I laughed it off.

"The culture that you create in your classroom will largely be determined by your tone of voice, where you position yourself in the classroom, and how you talk to your students."

In a student-centered classroom, the teacher works alongside the students, and doesn’t need to be an expert, but is a facilitator of the learning process.

Whenever possible, make your mistakes visible to your students and help them see that a mistake doesn’t devalue your intelligence or your capabilities, but just means that you are human, like them. Here is on of my favorite classroom resources, Instead of This, Try This, which supports students to shift their thinking and focus on the process of learning over the product. 

Introduce A Self-Paced Learning System

While all my students were in a seventh grade English classroom, their skills and abilities in different components of English varied greatly. For example, some of my students were reading at a ninth grade level, but their grammar was at a sixth grade level. Other students excelled in speaking, but had difficulty with learning new vocabulary. To assume that our seventh grade students will work at the same pace, and at the same level is a false assumption. Every student is different.

Identify Your Learning Targets

Using standards as your guide, as well as your curriculum map, select the learning targets that you’d like students to focus during a week of instruction. Then, come up with different assignments/activities for students to complete. Create a space for students to reflect on how it went, and their score (if applicable), and also create a space for you to sign off.

The handout might look like this:

Self-Paced Learning Image

You would then create a row for each learning target and provide students with links to resources and assignments. Once students complete the work for a learning target, they will have you sign off before they move on. It is important to include an assessment under the assignments and resources, so students can reflect and understand how they did.

Student Choice, Ownership and Agency

When students are working in a self-paced model of instruction, they choose what learning target they want to work on at what time. They are able to move on when they feel ready, and don’t have to wait for the teacher. When they reflect on their work and record their score, they are aware of how they are doing, and can see what learning targets they need more help with. This process gives students the opportunity to practice skills like self-direction, initiative, and asking for help.

Here are some additional resources to shift your classroom from direct instruction to student-centered: Learner-Centered vs. Curriculum-Centered Teachers: Which Type Are You? And 5 Ways to Make Your Classroom Student-Centered.

What makes your classroom student-centered? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.

Julie Mason is the Head of Curriculum and Content for TeacherVision. She taught middle and high school English for eight years, and then worked as an instructional coach, supporting K-12 teachers to blend and personalize their classrooms.


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