Make a Student-Centred Classroom [Part 1]

In 2016, I did a lot of posting and presenting on student-centred learning. I had great feedback and some supportive conversations about the obvious commonsense behind the approach. I’ve posted a number of guides and posters to help people understand the necessary components. But when the conversation on theory finishes, the first two questions are always:

  1. “So, what do I actually do?”
  2. “Where do I start?”

Getting down to business

I thought I’d start a series of posts on the practical steps and possible tools to use to help operate a student-led learning space. At this point in the conversation, many senior high school teachers start to explain to me that this doesn’t apply to them because “their” material (notice the ownership) and concepts are too complicated to be “self-discovered.” My reply involves highlighting that student-centred learning is not simply a matter of asking students to look everything up on the internet. It is a challenging development of a classroom environment that alters the expectations students have of themselves, develops growth-mindset, and builds an understanding of learning as a shared and social experience. An experience not reliant on any one individual.


Step 1: You are your first learning objective

Start your journey by being clear that the teacher will not be the one who ‘starts’ learning each day. Learning is something that people, including adults, organise to suit themselves. Every individual needs to consider themselves first and how they best make progress. The teacher is there to help you understand and develop your own learning strategies. A teacher is sometimes more aware and experienced in the options available and that is what they are at school for. It is the student’s role to become a master in the way they personally best make progress. Know your weaknesses, your strengths, your available options.

Each learner needs to ask themselves questions such as:

  • Given the theme/topic, what are my immediate needs? (What’s my first problem?)
  • How many options do I have to make my next step? (What could I do next?)
  • What have I got/been given to measure my progress? (How would this be judged?)
  • How many ways could I express/explain my learning & progress? (What product would have the most impact?)
  • How can I plan my time, tools and use of others? (How big is this project?)
  • What communication channels exist to help me?

It’s good to have questions like these on the classroom wall to prompt conversations.

Initially students of all ages will struggle to get out of old habits. They are often used to the teacher planning their tasks and next steps for them. In most schools, teachers decide what to do and how to do it. Building better learning habits means shifting their practice away from expecting teachers to answer every need and question. Any question I get asked about what to do, how to do it, or worst of all, is ‘this’ good enough? I throw back at the student as a challenge to solve. I ask questions like “Where do we normally find the task information? or “What would best explain that?” or “What does your friend think of your work?” It’s a rarity to find a student so practiced at collaborating that they are aware of the progress made by another student. After just two weeks of not answering questions, my classes shift habits and more naturally turn to each other for ideas, allowing me to guide people I observe as needing more prompting.

Key competencies

In New Zealand we focus on 5 Key competencies for learning and being a productive citizen. Students being able to rate themselves and their classroom against these key competencies can help build an understanding of how they might be more successful individually and as a group. Viewing everyone in the room as a potential learning ally is very important in student-centred learning. Making learning and adapting the classroom’s primary conversation is key in 21st century education. Rather than filling the walls with ‘finished’ outcomes, use the walls more productively to remind the students of process tools and decision making aides to help them self-progress.


STEP 2: Strategies and tools first

High schools could learn so much from elementary schools in that more progress is made when learners are equiped first with strategies before specific material or content becomes the focus. Learning to read is possibly the single biggest learning challenge students go through in their entire school career. Elementary schools achieve this by equipping learners with not just one but numerous strategies in making progress without teacher assistance. A conversation I had with elementary teachers regarding “if they get stuck on a word,” resulted in 7 strategies taught to students. The reason so many high school students are uninspired by their classroom is that, even in 2017, the system in most countries shifts from empowering the learner to the absorption of content.

We need to continue and extend the good work of elementary schools by adding yet more strategies, processes, and available tools and building a shared expectation that the students will tackle any challenge themselves.

“It’s the scaffolding of learning and not topics that is the primary job of a 21st century teacher.” – Richard Wells

Students must be taught and confident in:

  • a number of systematic processes that get a task done.
  • collaborating on checks and balances that measure the current success and progress.
  • critiquing and guiding the success of other learners.

Teachers will save time in the long run if they use class time to teach and practice learning approaches, collaboration, and project management strategies such as:

  • How to carry out group planning
  • How to critique the work of others
  • How to measure progress
  • How to plan the available time
  • How to test current success and make adjustments

Design Thinking - EduWells

I use guides on project-based-learning and Design-thinking as examples of processes that get good results. When critiquing work, strategies such as DAKI can help students guide each other in refining outcomes. These tools need to be well advertised and overtly taught to the class to ensure they can practice using them to make them effective (They rarely work first time). As a school, these tools and processes need to available full time and not teacher instigated. Students need to be free to make decisions like “I think this would turn out best if we run it through a Design-Thinking exercise.” They also might take the theme/topic and design a project around it to make it relevant to the themselves or their community. I’ll produce a library of possible tools and examples in the final post in this series.


The hardest challenge for teachers and students in starting student-centred learning is breaking old habits. Teachers have a compulsion to simply solve every problem instantly and students, viewing school as only a place you complete issued work, are used to looking for every shortcut available to quickly produce what their teacher has already decided is the target outcome. Introducing LEARNING as the main topic of conversation seems alien to many classrooms, especially in high schools.

In part 2, I’ll cover students monitoring and measuring quality and progress and outline some real examples of this taking place in both my school and schools I visit.