Could Switching to Student Centered Learning Help You Be Less Serious?
Updated: Jul 9, 2021
I’ve just finished my first week of in-service professional development in my 11th year of teaching. Working for a cyber school usually means that the August meetings are full of trainings on new systems and new programs, even new mindsets, designed to implement new policies that will help us make greater gains in student achievement. After all, best practices for virtual learning and cyber schooling have yet to be written, tested, and verified; if they were well-established, the world wouldn’t be having so much difficulty in the wake of COVID-19 and the havoc it’s wreaked on our education system.
... the nature of science is that we learn lessons from every experiment so we can learn more from future experiments, and I’m a scientist at heart! Growth as a value is inherent to the process and the profession.
This year, though, the most meaningful new aspect of school that stood out for me was the promotion of our Director of Curriculum & Instruction to Director of Academic Affairs. I’m not exactly sure how this role compares to the administration at traditional public schools. She’s not the CEO; we do have one of those. She’s one notch lower on the hierarchy, but I find her to be awe-inspiring.
Full of energy and honesty, she devoted an entire hour to leading a self-reflection into our individual, personal values in an attempt to help us realize why we do what we do. My own, personal self-reflect switch is stuck in the “on” position, so while I’d usually rather tend to the laundry list of planning and prep items I need to complete during PD, I listened attentively and eagerly. She shared with us a list of probably 150-200 values and asked us to find only two that really defined us; the nouns and adjectives that propel our decision making in most or every aspect of our lives. Hers, she revealed, were “authenticity” and “joy”. That probably explains why I’m enamored with her. She’s been with our school only two years, I think, and any time I’ve ever approached her about anything, she’s responded with what I could only interpret as true-blue excitement and support. I have never ever felt patronized by her. In my experience, that characteristic is hard to come by in most people, professional or otherwise.
It didn’t take me long to identify my values: EXCELLENCE and GROWTH.
Heavy, right?! In some ways, yes. In some ways, no . . .
One of my favorite things to do is redecorate and add home improvement projects to my honey’s do-list! 😉 When we do decide to make a change, I’m always in favor of the decision that is the most appropriate for the purpose, not the impulsive one and not the budget-conscious one. “We should do it right,” is something you might hear me say.
This mentality applies to my work, my parenting, my cooking, my cleaning, my socializing, and my rest.
I can recall my days as a research and development chemist for a small, employee-owned company. I had forged great friendships with the manufacturing staff by virtue of sharing lab space with them, though I wasn’t with them daily. When I’d enter the lab to prepare some samples and run some tests they’d remark playfully as if under their breath but so I was able to hear, “There she is! All business . . . “.
For me, adopting student centered learning changed all that.
Back then, I’d rationalize that I was on a mission! I had a job to do, and in those moments, I was most concerned with doing it “the right way”. Also, the nature of science is that we learn lessons from every experiment so we can learn more from future experiments, and I’m a scientist at heart! Growth as a value is inherent to the process and the profession.
No matter how much I rationalize why it was okay for others to notice my excellence-driven attitude, I now wonder if that was an early clue that I needed to chill out!
As a second-career teacher, leading a classroom in a teacher centered model only served to fuel this perceived need to “do it right”. My planning was really all about me and those mindsets that fueled my work. The ability for students to learn concepts, annotate and describe images, and answer questions was all dependent on the content I collected, the experiments I demonstrated, and the questions I asked. Considering this, it’s now easier for me to understand why I took it so hard when my students didn’t participate or didn’t pass . . . that, I reasoned, had to be all about me, too.
The ability for students to learn concepts, annotate and describe images, and answer questions was all dependent on the content I collected, the experiments I demonstrated, and the questions I asked.
Though I hadn’t identified my core values at the time I made the switch to student centered learning, I knew it was the heavy responsibility I felt in my rank as teacher that was actually preventing me from truly “doing it right”. I had completely missed out on the notion of creating relationships with students, one that drove others into this profession! When I’d give interviews for other prospective teaching positions and answer the requisite question about why I enjoy teaching, my answer was always about how I enjoyed and thought I was good at transforming the content to make it easier to understand – instructional design, not the art of teaching. While that might be true, it’s not the most desirable answer to that particular interview question. 😊 Apparently, I’m supposed to love working with students?! I’m not supposed to love the content more than the students?!
For me, adopting student centered learning changed all that.
Through the use of interactive science lessons using technology, I was able to connect with almost every one of my students almost every day. Some days, we’d talk about the task at hand. Other days, I’d check in on their progress and it would lead to a conversation about something completely unrelated. I was able to help them through more than the academic part of learning, mastery of a content-specific task. I was able to help them through the sometimes highly-charged, emotional part of learning -- facing our fears and insecurities about what we know and what we don’t know. I answered unique questions every period and experienced every section of students as if it were the first I’d seen that day. This, I’ve learned, is the art of teaching.
Today I spent time reviewing the results of a survey I sent out to all my new students – with whom I have not yet met – this year. I was truly excited about meeting with them soon and couldn’t contain a smile as I was sending them personalized email replies! This was a major milestone for me.
Perhaps there is no better way to exemplify the transformative effect the a student centered approach to learning has had on me than to share the welcome video I prepared for my students this year. It is not a talking head at a desk. It is not at all formal, organized, systematic, or serious. There are no fancy fading transitions between scenes. It’s raw, unfiltered, silly, and real. And, it didn’t come easy! In the spirit of growth, I tried really hard to be haphazard as I self-directed this video! Words can't express how much I LOVE the clean, polished look of fading transitions between scenes and eloquently-spoken script! But when I finally made the time to prepare it, I remembered how much this video was not about me.
Check out the following video I put together using only my iPhone 8, a selfie-stick, and the inexpensive video editing software, Filmora Wondershare 9:
Student centered learning, in my experience and opinion, isn't a process or a product; it is a mentality. If you’re feeling the need to embrace silly over serious . . . adopt student centered learning in your classroom!
If you've had a similar transformative experience to share, please do so in the comments, below, or in our student centered science community!