Five Steps to Create a Progressive, Student-Centered Classroom

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By Mark Barnes

A student-centered classroom is built on autonomy and the elimination of traditional teaching practices. The student-centered classroom operates on collaboration, project-based learning, technology integration, and plenty of conversation between students and teachers about learning. Here are five steps to building a remarkable student-centered classroom.

1. Create ongoing projects. The ongoing project plays an essential role in promoting mastery. The key to ongoing projects is to provide plenty of project choices that enable students to demonstrate what they are learning. Many objectives or standards can be met in one well-crafted project that allows students to decide what the final product looks like. The ongoing project stimulates the workshop environment that is the foundation upon which the student-centered classroom is built.

2. Integrate technology. In today’s digital world, it doesn’t matter if your classroom is filled with computers; students have them in the palms of their hands. Mobile learning is no longer the wave of the future; it’s the present. Learners will be more engaged in any activity or project if they can choose from the hundreds of amazing, free web tools that provide excellent platforms for presenting, curating, and sharing information. When students have an array of exciting web tools at their disposal, they become eager to participate in almost any class activity.

3. Replace homework with engaging in-class activities. The research on the effectiveness of homework ends up on both the pro and con sides. Most studies that support assigning homework suggest that it increases grades in class or on tests. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. Measuring achievement with grades and test scores is a false barometer of learning because all the control in these areas is in the hands of the teacher, and there is no place for control in a student-centered classroom. With engaging, ongoing projects that are driven by interactive web tools, students produce more in class, making homework obsolete. Best of all, when not faced with “do-this-and-do-it-my-way” assignments, students become eager to complete the projects that they have created and choose to do schoolwork outside of class. This autonomy breeds learning for the sake of learning—one of the best parts of the student-centered classroom.

4. Eliminate rules and consequences. The workshop environment of a bustling student-centered classroom encourages a pursuit of learning that allows little time for disruption. Set the tone from the first day of the school year by eliminating all discussion of rules and consequences. Explain that your learning environment is built on mutual respect and a quest for knowledge, so there won’t be time for any behavior issues. Keep activities engaging, and behavior will never be an issue.

5. Involve students in evaluation. Numbers, percentages, and letters on activities, projects, and report cards say little about learning. A student-centered environment thrives through the use of narrative feedback that follows a specific formula and encourages students to resubmit assignments that do not demonstrate mastery. This approach relies on reciprocal feedback between the student and the teacher. Involving students in conversations about their learning not only builds trust, but also helps them become critics of their own work, which is a remarkable part of the amazing student-centered classroom.

If you teach in a student-centered classroom, how does it differ from traditional learning? If your classroom is a traditional one, what fears do you have about converting to a student-centered learning environment?


About the author

Mark Barnes is a 20-year classroom teacher and creator of the Results Only Learning Environment (ROLE), a progressive, student-centered classroom that eliminates all traditional teaching methods, including grades. While transforming his classroom into a ROLE, Barnes has also revolutionized K–12 web-based instruction by bringing private student websites into his classroom—an extension of school into cyberspace. Barnes has developed five online courses on digital strategies for educators, taught through two accredited colleges in Ohio. A popular speaker and presenter, Barnes is also a Discovery Educator Network STAR Educator and has been honored for his work in education technology. You can learn more about Barnes’ book or purchase a copy of Role Reversal.

17 COMMENTS

  1. I was very interested to read your blog post because my school is striving to become as student centered as possible in the classroom. There are many things I agree with such as test scores, report cards and percentages do little to tell parents how their students learn or what they have actually mastered. Based on this step, I think involving students in talking about their learning is an excellent idea. I disagree with you when you included eliminating rules altogether. I teach first grade and there is no way that my students would be able to learn successfully without guidelines. When you said that if students are busy, they will not misbehave, I have MANY examples of just the opposite. Maybe in middle or high school this would work better. What it comes down to is the more involved students are in their learning, the more they will learn.

    • Unfortunately, “Child Centered Learning” has not shown any real success in advancing learning among students at any level, K-12. Let me elaborate.

      Mr. Barnes opens by suggesting that traditional teaching practices should be eliminated. By that, he is suggesting that the Teacher should NOT be in command of the classroom. I think most teachers will argue with this, as there experience will show that order is necessary for learning, and that order will not exist – especially in K-3 without the intervention of the teacher. From a practical standpoint, it is a fact, and undisputed fact, that children educated in the traditional school of 100 years ago, far exceed the level of knowledge attained in today’s classroom. It is obvious that the “Progressive” model is simply not as effective as the “Traditional” model for education.

      I agree with Mr. Barnes that the digital world is here and now and cannot (and should not) be ignored. There are multitudes of excellent learning tools online that can successfully be used to enhance the learning process. However, there are as many or more so-called “Learning Tools” online that are either ineffective or, in many cases, counter productive. I feel that it is up to the teacher, the school, the district to identify and promote the use of those tools that have proven useful. The key is teacher involvement in the selection and oversight of computerized learning tools.

      I disagree with Mr. Barnes completely in his 3rd step. I am not a fan of heavy homework loads, but 30-60 minutes a day is reasonable, in my view. I would start early, perhaps in first grade, but giving a very small homework assignment every day – say 15 minutes – just one small thing to do… even if it only took 5 minutes… to build the habit of doing a little to advance learning outside the classroom every day. We are all creatures of habit – good and bad. It takes about 21 days to establish a habit. The habit of learning is a good one.

      Step 4 is ridiculous! How in the world are we preparing children for the adult world by ignoring rules and consequences? At the most basic level, we have societies laws and significant consequences for ignoring them. Shouldn’t we be preparing our kids for the adult (real) world? Although a classroom filled with interesting, engaging activities will certainly have fewer behavior issues, we all know that there will always be the one or two kids that will cause problems under any circumstances. Rules and consequences is the only reasonable way to minimize the disruption.

      I completely agree with involving students in the evaluation process (Step 5). But good teachers have traditionally used this process. It’s simply having a periodic discussion with each student about their progress… that discussion may be a matter of a few seconds or several minutes. It’s called knowing your students, encouraging them, praising them for good work, and using the sandwich method for criticism (praise, criticism, praise/encouragement).
      Overall, correctly applied, with love,understanding, respect, traditional teaching – with the teacher firmly in charge – is far superior to allowing the students to control the classroom. If Mr. Barnes has produced any well educated students, I would be amazed, and would not want to have his fourth grade students in my fifth grade class.

  2. I enjoyed reading your post about the student-centered classroom. I agree with integrating technology, involving students in evaluations, and eliminating homework. However, I teach first grade and I do not see how eliminating classroom rules/behavior management plan would work in an early elementary classroom and wondered if you had any insight or suggestions on how this might work. My thought is that rules/management can be discussed at the beginning of the year and towards the end of the school year implement more of a mutual respect tone. I am interested in your thoughts.

  3. Wonderful Insights!
    Thanks for sharing the same.
    These idea are really helpful, especially i like the third one, to replace homework with engaging in-class activities.

  4. Ever since the Commom Core Standards were introduced to us I have tried to envision what our classroom will look like. I think that in writing your five steps you physically described what our classroom environments will should look like. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I enjoyed reading your article. I would love to read or hear more about the project based learning. How do you keep students on track. Where do they learn the content to demonstrate their learning for mastery? I agree that grades and homework don’t necessarily prove learning. However, I struggle with students who are unmotivated or misbehave. I agree with the above posts that even kids who are engaged in their work will misbehave. I also find it difficult to keep struggling and unmotivated learners on track with projects. Love the idea of projects…Just need more info. Also, I love the idea of using technology. This has actually increased motivation and efforts when we use computers and tablets. Plus digital projects are awesome for grading and reducing waste. Thanks

  6. My student centered classroom has 2 simple principles, 1 we decide policy democratically, 1 person (including students of course) 1 vote and 2 non-coercion, no student is forced to participate or attend a course which in their opinion is not of value to them.

  7. […] Transitioning to a collaborative teaching environment doesn’t happen overnight. In the described program, teachers not only promoted collaboration among their students, but they also collaborated with other teachers, even those who taught different subjects   Because the school division placed increased importance on collaboration, teachers were given professional development opportunities and time to network with other teachers to brainstorm ideas; their planning times were also rearranged so they overlapped with other teachers’ planning times.  Throughout this process, teachers utilized technology and social media to increase collaboration and provide places for thought exchanges.  Teachers and administrators were integral to this paradigm shift.  They took these techniques and began implementing them in their classrooms.  And something amazing happened.  Rather than focusing solely on the standards that were required to be taught, these teachers began to focus on how their students learned best and tailored their classroom to meet those needs. […]

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