When we put ourselves “center stage” in the classroom, we inadvertently push our students toward apathy and disinterest. They don’t have to do anything because we are carrying all of the weight of work in the learning. Knowing this, our goal is to create a more student-centered experience that allows our students to step up as owners of their own learning. And yet, that is a scary step up and sometimes, our students may not feel ready for it. So how can we support students taking center-stage themselves and create a more student-centered day to day experience? In this blog post, I share a few strategies that worked well in my classroom as I removed myself as the primary vehicle of instruction and instead, shifted the work of learning to my students.
The First Step Is Removing Yourself From The Equation
Early on in my teaching career, I found myself incredibly frustrated with student apathy and disengagement. My students were doing the bare minimum, only working for the grade (if they were working at all). There was the group that put their heads down the entire class, and the other handful that just tried to copy work for each and every assignment. (I’m not saying I accepted these behaviors, but these are the things they attempted.) A good chunk of my student population had no motivation, no interest, — it felt like they just didn’t care.
And that was frustrating on so many levels.
- For one, I wanted my students to succeed. I wanted to give them every opportunity to get ahead in this life, and failing science wasn’t helping that.
- And second, I worked hard planning and teaching, and it just wasn’t paying off. (It kind of felt like a personal affront, even though I know it shouldn’t be!)
- And finally, class times sometimes made me want to scream as I battled for attention, for compliance, for order — you know, as I struggled to do my job. It was the worst.
Can you relate? I’m guessing we’ve all been there in some form or another.
I knew I needed to do something to push my students to take ownership of their own learning – to put them in the driver’s seat.
Something had to change.
And it took me a while to figure out… But ultimately, I took myself out of the equation. (Sort of.)
Basically, I removed myself as the primary vehicle of instruction.
I stopped teaching like I was taught to teach.
- I crafted opportunities for students to explore and discover on their own while I guided them through the process.
- I didn’t disappear, but my role shifted.
- In the vacancy, students had to step up.
And really, most of them found they wanted to. Seriously — even the most challenging students took steps in the right direction eventually, as we created our safe space for learning by building our relationships and classroom culture. It really worked!
But My Students Also Needed Support As We Transitioned To A More Student-Centered Classroom
“Removing myself from the equation” meant I had to transform the structure of my classroom. I wasn’t front-and-center anymore — but I also couldn’t always be with every single student. Here are a few tips that helped me embrace a more student-centered approach in the day-to-day in my class. (You can also explore some additional strategies to increase student independence from SadlerScience right here!)
🤝 Group Work
My students worked in groups almost always. (I called them “stations” because we moved to tables in the back of the room, but there wasn’t always rotating involved.) I typically spent just 2-3 minutes giving a quick breakdown of the task at hand. Then, students moved back to their assigned/chosen tables and began to work.
Each table had a complete set of instructions for the task — think, big print and numbered lists. Each task also had a student organizer or worksheet — something to guide them through the exploration or assignment. Instead of spending lots of time explaining things up front, I meandered around the room, answering questions and offering support.
All tasks had an allotted time. I started with small intervals — 5 minutes, 10 minutes. If a task was designed to take way more time, I might break it up. “Section One should be done in 5 minutes!” and I would stamp the interval on their worksheet/guide. No need to check answers in the middle of the task, but I could still recognize students who were complete on time. If students were working, I might simply note, “It looks like you are still working. I’m going to add 5 minutes to the timer.” The timer was visible for all students to see.
When necessary, I scaffolded the assignments by assigning groups and modifying the task at certain stations. No one really paid that much attention to what was happening at the other groups, so it often wasn’t terribly noticeable.
👩🏼🏫 Small Group Instruction
When I had a task that did require my close guidance (like the kind of guidance you would walk students through during a whole-class instruction lesson), I still broke into stations… but I led one station.
Remember how in preschool and elementary school, teachers would sit at their little kidney shaped table and call up student group to work with? Everyone else was playing or coloring or doing something independently? Yah, do that.
There are lots of tasks your students can do on their own. (Use your timers and stamps to hold everyone accountable!) Leave students to those, and work closely on the harder tasks with students in small groups. It’s way easier than battling for attention and order during whole-group time, and you get a little more one-on-one (or one-to-five?) time with students to strengthen relationships and get a feel for student understanding.
Is There A Place For Whole Group Learning?
Of course! Personally, I found it really successful to bring students back together from their small group work to engage in meaning-making (sense-making) discussions. Because students had the opportunity to spend the majority of their time working independently/in small groups at their own pace, I found them more willing to engage in a whole-class activity. There were fewer challenging behaviors and disruptions, because I wasn’t monopolizing their time at the front of the room.
That said, how you carry out your whole group learning will also impact students’ response to it. Remember, these meaning-making discussions aren’t about your ideas — they are an opportunity for students to explain and make sense of their learning. Your role is to facilitate the discussion, add in vocabulary terms when relevant, and help to clarify and expand student understanding. But give students the chance to express their thinking and learning first!