“All aboard!” shouts the Railway Conductor. Headteachers and all the travelling students get on the train. It’s going to be a long journey — typically lasting 14, or potentially 18 years if not more. The travelling students must be on time, get in the right railcar, sit in the designated place, regularly present their passes, and wait for the next train stop in order to upgrade their traveller status. Those that refuse to perform any of these actions get penalised or even banned from getting aboard again. Some may even choose to jump off the train before the final destination, regardless of the risks.
In case it’s not clear by now that the above lines are not actually about a train journey, I must say, I’m actually talking about our educational system. From kindergarten to secondary school, then progressing to college or university, our students are mostly treated as if they’re travelling with a railroad train of the past, bringing all of them in the same direction at the same time. And yet we keep wondering about the high rates of dropout students.
The simple answer is: kids don’t all learn in the same way. When their specific learning needs are met, the percentage of underachievers and dropouts shrinks, engagement rates and the likeability of going to school go up, as does overall student performance.
Meeting the specific learning needs of students has a name among educators: student-centred learning.
Characteristics of student-centred learning
By putting students at the centre of education and regarding them as the most important reason for the educational system to exist, schools all over the world have a better chance of being successful in the future.
In a student-centred approach to education, students are given voice and choice. They are included in the lesson planning process, in each learning activity and also in the designing of assessment. They are asked for feedback and the learning materials are created based on their abilities, passions and interests, all the while ensuring the learning objectives are still met. They are no longer passive receivers of information, but active participants in their own learning process.
If the students get the spotlight, teachers become whisperers behind the stage curtain. They are more learning facilitators instead of sole guardians of knowledge. With the vast amount of information available literally at one’s fingertips, schools are no longer the only source of knowledge, as they used to be. Students can find anything they want to learn online. But no matter which source they choose, they will have questions. Teachers must therefore be there for them to not only answer their questions, but guide them towards new ones and empower them to find answers on their own.
Prerequisites of student-centred learning
In order to create a student-centred learning environment, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First and foremost, you can’t really achieve it without technology. In order to be able to decide on what the best course of action is in one situation or another, teachers must rely on big data. Learning management systems and other forms of education technology can collect a lot of data on students’ learning, can identify learning patterns, pinpoint where students struggle within a lesson, and suggest personalised next steps in the learning process. Armed with the right information, educators can offer targeted support for each of their students.
Today’s technology tools can provide teachers with the ability to transform their classroom into an engaging environment that students will want to be a part of. But the mere introduction of technology in the classroom does not guarantee edtech success. Technology is only a tool. If it’s not used properly, it won’t magically deliver the results everyone’s expecting. So, the real problem is not the availability of or the access to technology (although challenges exist on that front as well), but the use of technology in education at its full potential. And how can schools achieve that? By offering targeted professional development for teachers.
Another basic thing about creating a student-centred learning environment is too often overlooked — the physical space of a classroom. When we think about the classroom, we imagine a designated space for the teacher, in front of the room, with a blackboard behind their desk, as well as rows of student desks, neatly aligned, with equal distance between them. But alternative solutions of flexible classroom furniture exist and instead of turning into complete chaos, these classes surprise everyone with improved academic results.
Student engagement and creativity will increase when they are given the opportunity to use technology tools in their classroom and get the proper guidance they need in order to use it to achieve their learning goals, all while being in a flexible learning environment.
Student-centred education allows students to drive their own learning. They can still opt for the train journey, but they have more control over the time and place the do it, which railcar to travel in, which seat to take and when to present the boarding pass to collect “approved” stamps. And if they really want to, they can opt for a car, a bicycle, or even a hoverboard instead.