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Creating a Culture to Support Student Centered Learning in the Classroom

Written by Kate Fox
July 14, 2017

When teachers share responsibility for learning with students, it often looks messy.  Giving students a role in the classroom, whether it is a choice of options or an open-ended project, might seem risky to a teacher. Asking an educator to relinquish the responsibility for meeting academic goals seems like an irresponsible thing to do.  Until you have experienced this kind of classroom it may be hard to grasp.  But don’t you want kids to know what it’s like to have passion, to be fully engaged, and to have agency?

We believe we have discovered some tools, resources, and protocols that can help create the type of kind and respectful community that enables classrooms to find success with student-centered learning.  In this type of classroom each student is empowered to take responsibility for their own learning, and by extension for the learning of the community as a whole. 

Developing Community and Voice

An intentional and conscious group process is a basic foundation for the crafting of this type of learning community.   This forum is where the agreements about desired behaviors are discussed and reinforced.  This is where the connections between individuals and the community are revealed and made visible for students. 

A fundamental value that must be consciously taught and modeled is respect for everyone in the school community.  In our school we use a circle process based on developing community consensus.  This doesn’t mean we agree on everything all the time, and we wouldn’t want to.  We do however respect other’s opinions and ideas and strive to develop a common ground that considers everyone’s needs.

Our “Circle” facilitator is a teacher, although sometimes students do play the role.  We use a talking-stick – a visible tool that represents the “power” to speak.  At each circle we pass the stick from student to student and share something. This becomes the forum where we address community issues and solve problems together.  The stick is a symbol of the inclusion of each student.  Even the youngest and quietest members of the learning community are heard, and their voice is valued, when they take their turn with the stick.  

Sharing To Develop Empathy

Another aspect creating a classroom culture to support student-centered learning is using tools and routines that teach and empower students to develop mutual respect and empathy.  We help students to appreciate differences and understand that there is strength in diversity.  We embrace and celebrate “difference”.

One way we have found to do this is through providing opportunities for learning about one another.   Sometimes we pass the stick and express gratitude for whatever strikes each one us that day.  Sometimes we pose a questions for students to answer, such as” if you wrote a book what would it be about?”, or “what would you be willing to wait in a long line for?”   See here (Training wheels/Icebreaker Wheelies) These kind of questions allow students to share things about themselves with others in the community in a low-risk sort of way. Kids learn unexpected things about each others’ interests, dreams, ideas and preferences.  They see that kids are sometimes more alike than they realized.  Other times they see that everyone can have a different idea and that is good too.  It builds community connections, which support the complicated learning that comes.

Facilitating Community Agreements

Once we have introduced the circle process to the community and they are comfortable with it we use that format to help define our “community agreements”. We begin the school year with an open discussion about how we want to behave together.  We ask the simple question “How do we want to “be” when we are together?”.   Facilitated by the teacher, we discuss proposed values and behaviors.

Teaching Peer Feedback

In the first part of the year we teach peer feedback – how to do it, what to do with it why we do it.  We go through the process together, offer guidelines, and consciously teach and practice feedback.

Embrace Failure

Work to craft a culture where failure is okay.   Embrace the idea that if you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t learning.  Instill the concept that it takes many iterations to produce good work.  Help students learn to incorporate feedback, take criticism and suggestions and use them to improve their  work and understanding of the material.

Any of these activities could be used in a classroom to help facilitate the development of a community of learners.  When used together they create a framework that helps students feel emotionally safe, learn about one another, have a voice in the classroom.  This helps establish the social and emotional climate that supports successful student-centered work in the classroom.