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Student-Centered Learning: The First Steps Are the Hardest Ones

Voice of ExperienceEducator Melba Smithwick never had too much difficulty trying out new ideas. But when a new principal encouraged a small group of teachers to give students more say in their learning, Smithwick hesitated. Included: Smithwick shares her first, tentative steps.

Melba Smithwick

I have always been a risk-taker. I never have been afraid to try new ideas. But I hesitated when my new principal described the concept of student-centered learning. Letting middle-school students take charge of their learning -- or of anything else, for that matter -- seemed a little risky. How can they take charge when they don't even know what they are supposed to be learning?, I wondered.

That year, in the school where I taught math, five teachers were assigned to a take a yearlong course in student-centered learning, attending one session each month. Toward the end of the training, we were to prepare a classroom project employing all we had learned. After implementing that project, as the culminating activity of the course, we would share our students' products.

During the first months of the course, I began to think more deeply about my instructional practices and the projects I assigned my students. Were those projects in line with this new philosophy? Were they student-centered enough? Were they based on standards?

I always thought my classroom was student-centered. After all, I always thought of their learning first. That was student-centered, right?

After more reading, more informal discussions with my principal, and more training, however, I accidentally stumbled upon a true student-centered learning situation in my very own classroom.


Sam loved to stir up the class and then sit back and watch us go at it. One day, during my year of my training, Sam made the following controversial statement: A parallelogram is a square. On that day, instead of responding to Sam's statement, I decided that he should take charge. I let him lead the discussion. I sat back, only stepping forward from time to time to encourage Sam's classmates to use their mathematical knowledge to defend their positions. The discussion, which went on for 90 minutes, was exhilarating.

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As the class wound to an end that day, several students asked me if Sam was correct. I told them we would continue our discussion the following day; but I did not expect them to remember the day's discussion, let alone continue it the following day.

The next morning, when I met the students again, they asked if they could continue their discussion. They had gone home, researched, called up one another, asked parents and relatives, and looked in their books for the appropriate vocabulary, definitions, and properties -- and they were ready for the kill!

Again, Sam took charge of the discussion, but this time my students had organized themselves. They took turns at the overhead projector demonstrating their points. As the discussion came to a close, I asked students to write their conclusions; those conclusions, I told them, must be supported with the appropriate mathematical criteria.

All students, including four special education students in the class, were able to state their positions correctly and support their conclusions with the appropriate facts. Some students even wrote down the textbook pages for additional support.

Sam, of course, wrote about his success in getting the "students to think for themselves."


That eye-opening experience, which helped me realize the true meaning of "student-centered learning," also got me thinking: If Sam could get the students to think for themselves, what was I waiting for?

I decided to start small, limiting my experiment to that first-period Algebra Preparatory class. For the remainder of the year, I would work toward creating a truly standards-based and student-centered classroom. If the experiment proved successful, I would later expand it to include my regular sixth grade math classes. I told my Algebra Preparatory students about the change: From that day forward, I would be a facilitator as they took charge of their own learning. They would "discover" math concepts instead of being "taught" them.

During those months, the hardest part for me was letting go. The lessons I taught from then on were set up as a series of contracts, and I would teach mini lessons as needed. Instead of teaching the entire class at the beginning of each class period, I floated from one cooperative group to another, teaching the math skills each group needed and wanted. Ultimately, those students became their own teachers, each learning from the others. Truly, I had become a facilitator to their learning, more a spectator than an instructor.

Students taught one another within the groups. That often led to groups teaching other groups. A student in one group would ask a question and, before I could open my mouth, a student from another group would get up, move to the group or student in need, and offer his or her help.

As students began to take charge of their own learning, I began to feel a little left out, unneeded. One day, I announced that I was going to lead them in their learning of linear equations. The response was a united, "Why aren't we going to learn it for ourselves? You know, discovery?"

My students had become self-learners and I could not stop them. Why would I want to go back to being the teacher I had left behind the day Sam took over the class and taught me one of the most valuable lessons I will ever learn?

That was three years ago; those students now are freshmen in high school. I am now the campus-based staff developer at my middle school. Each day, I work with other teachers, spreading the lessons of student-centered learning that I learned from my students. Many of the teachers I work with, I am happy to report, are making great strides in changing their instructional practices from traditional to student-centered and standards-based. Nothing is more exciting for me than to be able to make an impact and to see the joy in others as they discover that students can take charge of their own learning.


Melba Smithwick is a campus-based staff developer at Paul R. Haas Middle School in Corpus Christi, Texas. She has been an educator for 29 years. In those years, she has been both an elementary and middle school classroom teacher. In addition to her duties as a staff developer, she is also the campus literacy coach.

Article by Melba Smithwick
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Originally published 03/15/2004
Links last updated 01/30/2007