There was a moment in graduate school, towards the end of my final semester, when I looked around at my classmates who I had come to know over the past year and I felt truly overwhelmed with joy. (Except perhaps that one woman who liked to ask complex questions about pedagogy in the last five minutes of a three hour class EVERY SINGLE WEEK- I admittedly did not feel joy in her presence). We were all very different, of different backgrounds, ages, experiences, and yet we were unified in our desire to teach. We had taken all the same classes. We spoke the same nerdy teacher language. We could talk about balanced literacy, math workshop, and differentiating instruction in the way others talk about their fantasy football league. We were motivated and passionate about our vocations, to put all of our new knowledge into practice. We had completed our student teaching and our portfolio full of unit plans, curriculum resources, and an in-depth classroom management plan. But aside from all of this, we had our original purpose for getting into the educational game in the first place, our desire to work with students. Before we even set foot in our first graduate class, we knew we wanted children to be the focus of our work. Now, at the end of our program, we still felt this way- we just had a bit more sense of what it actually looked like- or at least, what it should look like.

And this is the thing, I still know what it should like: students at the center of the learning experience. No one will disagree with this. No educational researcher, administrator or teacher will say that student-centered learning is not best practice. And yet, we are still struggling with this. We agree on the importance of teaching “21st Century Skills”; Collaboration and teamwork, Creativity and imagination, Critical thinking, and Problem solving; and yet we have been painfully slow in creating the student-centered environments that will cultivate and nurture these skills.

Many schools are not merely dipping their toes in the water. They realize this is inadequate and ineffective. They are laser focused. They are all-in. Student-centered learning is actually happening in these schools.  These are places where teachers like to be because their work is aligned with their original purpose. These are schools where students like to be because learning is fun and meaningful. They are not perfect- no school is. But they are clear on what a student-centered education is and, because of this clarity, deep, lasting and joyful learning is taking place. Learning that would undoubtedly fall under the umbrella of these prized 21st century skills.

In my ten-plus years of teaching in various schools, this is how I have come to define a student-centered school.

A student centered school focuses on a child’s strengths and unique interests.  They see themselves as “talent development” centers and draw from a strength-based model (rather than deficit model). They understand we need students to understand their talents so they can use them to make the world a better place. Students may be able to pursue interests through enrichment classes built into the school day on a weekly basis, where they can dive into a topic of interest. In some schools, students are given choice and voice through project-based learning, which is tied to the curriculum but still allows students freedom in how they learn and show their understanding of a concept. Teachers take into account the multiple intelligences in the room when lesson planning. They are intentional in creating the type of classroom learning environment that meets the needs of the individual student, rather than making the student fit the classroom. Performance based assessments and individual conferences with students are of equal or greater importance than traditional tests.

A student centered school provides opportunities for students to lead. Whether it’s through student-led school assemblies, cross-grade buddy programs, or student-led service learning projects, these types of activities show even our youngest students that they are co-creators in their learning rather than passive recipients of information being thrown at them. Teachers see students as leaders and students see themselves as leaders- it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Students who have a sense of agency and purpose will always continue to surprise me.

A student-centered school is developmentally appropriate. Happy, joyful children will learn. Rushed, overwhelmed children do not. Good schools honor childhood for the special time it is and adjust the pace and schedule to reflect this. Recess is as needed. Everyone agrees that young bodies need to move and young minds work best when movement and physical activity is an important part of the school day. Students are given time for imaginative play and experiential, hands-on activities. Classroom expectations and consequences are developmentally appropriate.

In practice, this is what it means for a school to be student-centered. There are many great schools already doing this- living out their mission statements, cultivating our future critical thinkers, collaborators and problem solvers. We can learn from these schools. There are many schools who aren’t there yet, but are undoubtedly moving in the right direction. And yet, there are many schools who are curriculum-centered schools disguised as student-centered. Their intentions are good, but there is a breakdown between their mission statements and what is actually happening within the school walls.

With clarity on what a student-centered education actually is, perhaps we can all move in the right direction, towards the vision we held in our minds as starry-eyed graduates, ready to do the work we felt called to do. Work that focuses on the child, above all else. Work that is crucial in developing the future problem solvers, activists, and creative thinkers we so desperately need.

If we step-off track and forget what this work should look like, we just need to look to the children. If we are paying attention, they will show us how to teach them.