Published Online: July 31, 2012

Commentary

Diving Into How Students Learn Best

In a fortunate turn, advances in research and theory are emerging at a long-awaited moment in U.S. education: the agreement of 46 states and the District of Columbia to adopt the Common Core State Standards. The standards were developed with the recognition that global socioeconomic imperatives, combined with the dizzying pace of technological innovation, create new urgency for the development of engaging and challenging ways to educate our nation’s young people.

Clearly, getting the common-core content right and figuring out how students should demonstrate its mastery is a huge task, yet the conversation must simultaneously address how students are to develop the skills required to learn and to apply those lessons in life. The sine qua non is to adopt learning strategies that engage all students, including those who have been most underserved.

This was the starting point for nine teams that spent the past year synthesizing research on student-centered approaches to learning for Students at the Center, a project of the nonprofit Jobs for the Future where the three of us work, with funding from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Together, their syntheses of research tell a story that is both hopeful and challenging. Some teachers and leaders are beating the odds with traditionally underserved students, the researchers found, using student-centered approaches backed by advances in brain, cognitive science, and motivation research. Still, significant gaps remain in what we know about student-centered approaches, particularly about how to spread them beyond individual classrooms and schools.

Student-centered learning, like the common core, starts from the premise that all young people can master the skills and knowledge needed for college and career success. Taken seriously, it’s actually exciting new territory. Today’s student-centered practices provide an essential updating of a long tradition of innovative educational approaches focused on harnessing the individual interests, abilities, and challenges of each student.

When we look at connections across the research, the flow of ideas and challenges span three overarching areas: learning theory; the application of student-centered approaches; and the scaling-up of student-centered approaches to learning.

The first area considers student-centered approaches in light of recent findings on cognitive processes and in neuroscience and education research. Most important, research has uncovered the plasticity of the brain and how learning experiences continually shape its physical architecture. In other words, students’ abilities are always developing, and learning environments—positive and negative—influence that development.

Teachers can take advantage of this connection by helping students develop positive attitudes toward setting goals, assessing progress, and regulating their emotions, all three of which are considered crucial to achievement. If students believe (or are taught to believe) that they can acquire new skills and improve on existing ones through focus and exertion, their motivation will naturally improve. The more educators give their students choice, control, challenges, and opportunities to collaborate, the more motivation and engagement are likely to rise. Without these elements, students are likely to be disconnected and alienated from learning.

Until now, research on what teaching and learning actually look like in student-centered schools has been sparse. Thus, the Students at the Center project has examined how a set of high-performing schools and teachers are applying student-centered approaches to raise achievement levels and close achievement gaps. These schools call upon teachers to play multiple roles, from curriculum planner and classroom facilitator to adviser and community connector. They make sure that students are engaged in learning, and that teachers support students in undertaking ever-more-complex challenges, becoming more autonomous in addressing those challenges, and expanding their awareness of the connections between their studies and the larger world. The school communities embrace teamwork, risk-taking, reflection, and norms of trust and inclusiveness—among teachers, students, administrators, and families.

In most of the schools examined, the predominant populations are low-income, of color, English-language learners, and labeled as having learning disabilities—populations that are too often on the wrong side of the achievement gap. In recent decades, educators have looked deeply at specific achievement gaps in reading and math—and how to close them. For example, historically, the underlying motivations for promoting literacy among African-American male adolescents have centered on survival, growth, and protection of individuals and their communities. This historical perspective can serve as a productive starting point for conceptualizing high-quality teaching practices, selecting texts, and structuring instructional contexts. Similarly, a student-centered approach to mathematics would make use of the wide variety of math practices and competencies internationally. And it would attend to the voices of the learners—what meanings they place on mathematics and mathematical learning.

"Student-centered learning, like the common core, starts from the premise that all young people can master the skills and knowledge needed for college and career success."

Discussions typically focus on the needs of a mythical “average” learner, but curriculum and pedagogy must be as articulated and differentiated as the learners themselves. In this respect, advances in the design of multimedia learning technologies provide a promising foundation for making student-centered learning a reality.

Finally, the research on scaling up has touched upon an unanswered question: How does society meet the enormous challenge of implementing optimal conditions for learning across schools, districts, and networks of schools? Almost every community has one or more programs or schools in which students thrive, but these schools serve far too few young people.

A current umbrella term for many successful practices around which schools can organize is “personalization.” However, efforts to personalize learning across schools often fall short because individual teachers are acting alone. Whether in small schools or larger ones, teachers and school leaders must work together to develop effective educational experiences that include personalized structures, instruction, and relationships.

Assessments are a further challenge to scaling up student-centered approaches. No one assessment process can inform approaches to learning and instruction, as well as decisions at the school, district, and policy levels. In contrast, it appears that student-centered assessment would be part of a balanced system of formative, interim, and summative assessments.

Of course, a significant scaling-up challenge is that a strong, districtwide, student-centered agenda would likely not only implement special programs and/or schools, but also work simultaneously to change practice in all schools and for all students. Currently, even higher-performing urban districts do not appear to use such practices across most of their schools, let alone all of them. However, implementing student-centered approaches systemwide presents particular problems when it seeks to change long-standing traditions of teacher practice and classroom culture. It may also clash with policy and administrative requirements and state accountability measures.

That said, the consensus among the Students at the Center researchers is that the interest today in these approaches is not simply another swing of the pendulum. Rather, in the face of continuing failures to raise U.S. educational achievement and attainment levels significantly, and the inability to close persistent race and income gaps, we—educators and policymakers—are returning to the power of harnessing what is known about how students learn and what engages them in learning with energy, curiosity, and joy. It’s a necessary shift if all students are to reach the promised outcomes of college and career readiness.

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