What is Student-Centred Learning?

A recent job vacancy for a leading position in a New Zealand school asked for a focus on genuine student-centred learning. What fascinated me was their use of the word ‘genuine’. My experience shows me that confusion, misinterpretation, and a lack of exposure to relevant examples, means that too many educators do not understand true student-centric learning. Many schools feel under pressure to be implementing such models but often only change surface level elements whilst proclaiming they have achieved it.

What is student centred learning-eduwells

Why being student-centric matters

Let’s cut to the chase. This matters because we all know that young people (including ourselves many moons ago) would rather stay at home than go to school. If students tell people that they like school, what they’re often picturing as they say it are things such as hangin’ with friends, music productions or the sports events. When students are asked what their favourite part of school is, they rarely mention anything that takes place in a classroom. I recently asked 3 boys, who had moved from elementary to junior high, what was positive about the change. They actually agreed on “moving between rooms” as the first improvement that sprung to mind. That’s right folks, their best part of the daily school experience is the brief time spent in the corridors! All you have to do is endure an hour with one teacher and then you get a break for 5 minutes before the next.

The New Zealand education review office that runs quality assurance checks on schools’ practice recently reported on 68 schools that :

“Students in all schools were experiencing an assessment- driven curriculum and assessment anxiety. In many schools the only people who understood the overall curriculum and the competing demands on them were the students.” – ERO “Success in secondary school

The constant amongst most schools that drives this pessimistic view held by students is that they rarely control any significant part of their day. As an example of how common this view is, I can even use teachers to prove my point. I’ve worked in four schools that have all held teacher training days. During a number of those days, sessions have been prearranged to showcase tools or pedagogies and staff have moved from one session to another. Many of these days have received feedback that they were not very useful. A recent example I experienced broke the trend and offered longer sessions of self-directed time for colleagues from the same department to work on their own material. The feedback included:

“Best staff training days so far, we got to work on our own stuff and had time to get things done. It was great to work with other departments” – Teachers

Many teachers agree that student-directed learning makes sense when it comes to their own learning but this rarely translates to their approach to teaching.  Releasing control is always difficult, so I thought I’d do my best to outline some practical questions and advice from my own experience that will hopefully make some teachers reconsider their need for absolute control of when, what and how learning takes place.


Timetabling the day has more impact than you think. As the teachers highlighted above, how the day is divided often shapes it’s potential to engage people in learning. A comment by a New Zealand principal has confused many educators I’ve shown it to:

“The timetabling I’ve grown to love is that which subjugates the timetable to its role of representing the vision and values of the school and bringing life to the curriculum design principles that emerge from the vision and values – a timetable that is flexible and responsive with the needs of the learner firmly at the centre.” – Mauri Abraham (NZ Principal)

The idea of a timetable representing the vision for the school confuses many. The way you allocate time indicates your school’s priorities and thus your values. This is because teachers who are used to a day centred on the their needs don’t view the timetable as an enabler for students to learn but as another mechanism for managing them.

One major requirement for learning is reflection. Hardly any schools timetable for it.

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”
― John Dewey

Students are normally given no time to reflect on recent learning before they are thrown into another unrelated lesson (High school) or topic (elementary).


If your timetable is focused on the needs of the learners rather than teachers then you’ll be free to let the students shape a great deal of your teachers’ day. One issue that both restricts student experience and makes it less engaging  is that the whole day is often prearanged by the teachers for the teachers. Where to be, what to look at and what to aim for has been predicted and so actually demands less challenge. Learning happens when best when the learner is immersed in the experience. To truly immerse, a learner must have input into that experience.

Compliance is not learning, even if it results in good grades. Teachers should arrive at work wondering how they will be needed, not how students will conform to their pre-arrangements. I’ve always thought that the prescribed experience of school that teachers experienced in the 20th century is to blame for so many not taking ownership of their own professional development. Many are still waiting for the imaginary PD timetable and activities to be written for them. I wouldn’t want to think we were breeding another generation of people who wait for learning to be arranged.

3. allow technology to reach its potential

Technology is not essential, but it helps. A large number of schools are now using technology but teachers’ prearranged learning and goals restrict the experience for students in what potential there is to explore and discover with technology and the internet. Rather than learn, they are asked to use technology to achieve prearranged targets. This does not allow them to experience the same real learning process that people do outside classrooms.

Most young people are used to exploring and contributing to online discussion and events in their personal life. Many schools don’t make the most of this and create an abstract environment where study material has already been sorted and the path a discussion will follow is already well trodden by previous classes. Access to technology should be an empowering opportunity and I hope teachers ask students to surprise them with what the can achieve rather restrict expectations with rigidly structured tasks.

4. Students owning their assessment

Involving students in the design of assessment is both crucial to engagement and exactly what any learning involves when people outside schools undertake a challenge. If adults attempt to learn anything they start by setting criteria for how they will know they’ve reached their goal, be it piano or a google chrome extension. This is also something we generally deny students in schools. They are normally adhering to someone else’s idea of success. In doing this, teachers and schools remove an important personal connection to the learning experience.

I have experimented much in the last 3 years by challenging students to consider what marks success within each task they undertake. I have been surprised by how engaging this activity is for my students. It might be because it’s a novelty in relation to other learning they do but one group, for example, extended the assessment design to a full week of lessons without any encouragement from me!

Even if you are working in a high school and assessments set by high authorities. Ensure your students have time to review the course demands and construct their own list of requirements. To some teachers, this will seems like a waste of time, when they have already done it for them. But again, I stress that it is part of true learning and to remove this step only creates an environment of compliance and the skill of learning is not developed by the students.

Like reflection, considering one’s own success criteria is an important part of the learning process and schools should reintroduce this if learning is ever to be considered as authentic and meaningful.

Don’t just state your vision but be it

Many schools will state that they want students to be independent, responsible and confident. But if your students are walking into a school environment where every aspect is prearranged, you remove the need to be independent, responsible and confident about anything significant. We say practice makes progress, well let’s start allowing students to practice what we want them to become.