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James Neihof

Putting Students at the Center


Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of joining a group of teachers from across our district to participate in a Personalized Learning Institute and visit several schools in Wisconsin. The school visits, the discussions with students, and the Institute’s learning sessions reinforced our resolve to put students at the center of our work. So today, I’m more convinced than ever that the primary objective of a student-centered learning system is to optimize learning for each student.

While hearing the evening conversations at the Institute and listening in to the insightful discussions on the bus ride home, I reached some realizations. I realized that while the ongoing shift toward student-centered learning makes so much sense, teachers struggle mightily with the re-learning and new learning required to make the shift. For the teachers we observed in Wisconsin, this meant that while doing the difficult work of transforming classroom structures and practices, there was also the necessity to develop, refine and apply a fundamental set of technologies to handle the sheer volume of work personalization mandated. That wasn't easy work. Yet, as our teachers watched students leading learning, they knew the work was worth it and wanted to do similar things here.

Long after dark and somewhere around Indianapolis, some recent reading came to mind as I listened to West Middle’s teachers talk about their anticipated next steps. Unknown to them, they pinpointed four common and interconnected design principles I’m seeing in other districts where teachers are making the shifts to a more student-centered approach.

graphic displaying the 4 components of student-centered educationLearning is Personalized:  Personalized learning recognizes that students engage in different ways and in different places. Students benefit from individually paced, targeted learning tasks that formatively assess existing skills and knowledge and address their needs and interests. (Our MAP data is beginning to show evidence of this.)

Learning is Competency-Based:  Students move ahead when they have demonstrated mastery of content, not when they’ve reached a certain birthday or undergone the required hours in a classroom. (Standards-based grading exemplifies this.)

Learning Happens Anytime, Anywhere: Learning takes place beyond the traditional school day and even the school year. The school’s walls are permeable—learning is not restricted to the classroom. (Technology is making this possible.)

Students Take Ownership Over Their Learning:  Student-centered learning engages students in their own success and incorporates their interests and skills into the learning process. Students support one another’s progress and celebrate success. (This will really become powerful as your students conduct public exhibitions of their learning.)

These four simple design principles are becoming more apparent as each month of this school year passes. I encourage you to keep leading learning through them. And remember that you aren't alone in this transformational shift. Teachers all across America are in pursuit of deeper learning outcomes through personalization. Resources abound. Two of my favorite websites for resources are http://studentsatthecenterhub.org/ and http://www.inacol.org/ . Dig around and see if you can find these four design principles in use elsewhere.


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