Throughout your life, someone has inevitably asked you, “Who was your favorite teacher growing up?” And chances are, it took you no time to answer. It was a person who made you feel special, made you feel seen—a teacher who formed real relationships with their students.

These relationships are the foundation of a student-centered learning environment. And according to  CEO of SchoolHouse Brian Tobal, and Co-Founder of Flatiron School Joe Burgess, these relationships allow teachers to develop personalized learning plans, encourage student learning, and build classrooms full of motivated, active participants. They allow for a student-centered learning environment.

What is student-centered learning?

Walking into a student-centered classroom (or even a student-centered Zoom classroom) looks a little like this: the teacher is meeting with individual students as they engage in work they're passionate about; the students are working at their own pace, on a variety of projects. There's no clear "head of the classroom," just an educator coaching, motivating, and encouraging student learning.

True student-centered learning puts the students in the driver's seat, asking them to take control of their own learning. This changes the traditional learning approach and teaching approach—providing more meaningful education.

As Tobal and Burgess both point out, teaching is much more than knowledge transfer, especially when it comes to student-centered approaches.  It's motivating students, supporting them, encouraging them to think critically and reach their own conclusions. This is where the learning really happens.

“When there's a relationship, the students work harder," says Tobal. So the key to having effective classrooms with high student engagement is forming strong teacher-student relationships.

The role of a teacher in student-centered classrooms

As more schools are realizing that project-based learning deeply engages students, we're seeing the ideal classroom model change. When students are asked to explore topics and solve real-world problems, learning becomes more hands-on and more personal. The need for direct instruction lessens and is replaced with the need for individual support and encouragement.

This type of individual attention changes the relationship dynamic between teacher and student. Once seen as the "knower of all things" at the front of the classroom, the teacher becomes more accessible—someone the students can talk to and relate to.

"When there's [this type of] relationship, the students work harder," says Tobal. He adds that, with these close relationships, you not only get a greater sense of motivation from the students, but teachers also recognize learning gaps and behavioral issues more quickly.

As Burgess notes, "the way you solve all kinds of problems in schools is just get more time with a teacher."

Small classrooms are the ideal student-centered learning environment

The best way to get students to engage and stay motivated is by forming strong relationships with their teachers—and this can't happen in a large classroom, with a traditional teacher-centered model.

Tobal says that by having small classrooms, with project-based learning, teachers are able to spend more one-on-one time with their students, allowing the students to ask individual questions and get individual instruction. Additionally, it allows for teachers to react to the student gaps that are in front of them. "And that's actually the value of small class sizes," says Tobal. "The teacher can really get to know each one of the students—their strengths, their weaknesses, their interests, and craft the educational experience for them."

We all know that not all students learn in the same ways. By getting to know the students in an intimate setting, teachers are able to better understand what kind of learners are in the classroom and be able to support their learning needs and interests in a way not possible in a larger, teacher-centered learning environment.

Students take ownership of their own learning

We know that personalized learning grants students the ability to take an active role in their education—allowing students more choice and voice, varied learning strategies, and flexible pacing to develop skills.

Tobal explains that, while students might have similar learning goals, they can get results in different ways—with teachers guiding the learning and curiosity. "A teacher's role is to get the kids to think for themselves," he says. They are "[laying] the breadcrumbs," getting students to ask the right questions and leading them to conclusions.

When Tobal recalls his own learning experience, he remembers his favorite teacher structuring his entire course around "[implanting] questions into the students' minds."

This allows the students to think for themselves. Often times students want to think for themselves, but don't know how to start. The teacher's role is not necessarily to provide answers, but to guide the students to find their own answers—so they can understand the lifelong learning process of critical thinking.

What Student-Centered Learning Environments look like Online

During pandemic lockdowns, when much of the world's students were learning online, most educators were unprepared. We tried our best to research engaging methods to effectively teach courses over Zoom, but at the beginning, it was definitely sink-or-swim (meaning presenting Google Slides and having students engage in the chat).

But after weeks of blank student screens and muted calls, educators quickly realized that the teacher-centered approach does not work online. We had to take that same project-based student-centered approach that works in a physical classroom and apply it online, using smaller group "breakout rooms."

Burgess says since "the gold standard is way, way, way smaller classes," this makes sense. He explains that the emergence of online school programs may actually be the way for parents to afford small, student-centered schools. "It's really expensive to do that for most schools," Tobal adds.

Online, student-centered classes also allow for flexible scheduling and higher education opportunities for lifelong learners. Burgess and Tobal both believe that asynchronous online schooling is difficult for people under the age of 16, but that it can work. The caveat, according to Burgess, is that there has to be the "accountability provided by a human."

The importance of student-centered instruction in any form

Whether students are online or in-person, learning happens best with student-centered teaching. Burgess attributes this to the need for human connection, which is especially necessary for the development of communication skills and even validation purposes.

Relationships equal accountability, says Burgess. "You have to be too superhuman to be able to complete asynchronous learning without accountability provided by a human," he explains. We need teachers coaching, and motivating us—that's what instills that curiosity and desire to learn.

In the end, student-centered learning is all about student-centered teaching, and the relationship that is built between the teachers and students.

Burgess admits that, over time, AI will come to replace some of this human interaction, or information delivery, but we will always need human teachers to form the relationships that encourage us to do things. We need to have teachers checking on us, he says, like, "Hey, you have a teacher who cares about still have due dates, and your teacher will reach out to you if you don't complete those due dates." These relationships are what make learning matter, and what develops lifelong learners.

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