Student-centered Teaching Tradition (Part 1)

The above photos of elementary and secondary school classrooms are snapshots of what educators would call student-centered classrooms. Because the photos are at a moment in time, we have no idea what happens over a six-hour school day in these teachers classrooms. The dead-give-aways in these photos, however, are the furniture arrangement (e.g., no rows of desks) and the small group activity (e.g., students talk and work with one another). Those two clues are often sufficient to describe the lesson–at least what is captured in a snapshot–as student-centered. Is an entire lesson done in this manner?

Hardly. Teachers are expected to cover content and skills required by the district and state and insure that students have learned both. So, more often than not, a mix of activities make up a daily lesson, depending upon the subject and grade. Mini- or maxi-lectures, textbook passages reviewed, quizzes, whiteboard exercises, independent work–all occur during lessons in most academic subjects to varying degrees. Nonetheless, getting students to participate, collaborate with class-mates, and make decisions mark the student-centered way of teaching.

As with any set of teaching practices, there is a history to the tradition of student-centered instruction. Note the word “tradition” because student-centered lessons go back to the mid-19th century but gained most prominence during the early decades of the 20th century with the progressive education movement, itself a part of the larger social and political progressivism sweeping state legislatures and the nation under Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Then called “child-centered” teaching, the student-centered tradition of instruction refers to classrooms where students exercise a substantial degree of responsibility for what is taught and how it is learned. Teachers see children as more than brains; they bring to school an array of physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual needs plus experiences that require both nurturing and prodding.

Were you to sit for a while in such a classroom you would see that the furniture is arranged and rearranged frequently to permit students to work independently or together in large and small groups. Student talk is at least equal to, if not greater than, teacher talk. Varied materials (e.g., science and art centers, math manipulatives) are spread around the room. Guided by teachers, students learn content and skills through different tasks such as going to activity centers in the room, joining a team to produce a project, and working independently. Scholars have tracked this tradition to its historical roots in ancient Greece and labeled it over the centuries as “child-centered,” “progressive,” and often “constructivist” in the 21st century.

Such ways of teaching slowly spread across American schools a century ago. While challenging the dominant tradition of teacher-centered instruction, student-centered teaching made inroads into practitioner and policymaker vocabulary, scholarly writing, and district programming but never dominated how most U.S. teachers teach.

Look, for example, at mentions of the phrase “progressive education” in Google’s Ngram viewer (i.e., books, articles, and other printed materials in English). The phrase appears initially in the early 1900s, begins rising to a peak in 1939, and slackens considerably by the 1960s where the phrase again becomes popular and then decreases in mentions until the 1990s when it again rises a tad and continue to be present until 2019.[i]

Beyond the words used in printed matter as a clue to the popularity of the movement, progressive schools appeared and disappeared over the decades. For example, in the early decades of the 21st century, scattered public and private schools still committed to child-centered instruction exist in public schools such as Prairie Creek Community School in Northfield (MN), Mission Hill K-8 School in Boston (MA), and Camarillo Academy of Progressive Education in Camarillo (CA). There are also many progressive private schools (e.g., Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., Peninsula School in Menlo Park (CA), and The Park School in Baltimore (MD)) across the U.S.  Overall, however, such schools are a miniscule fraction of the over 100,000 schools in the nation.[ii]

Beyond the small number of U.S. schools that embraced Progressive ideas, the influential place where Progressive ideas of effective teaching and learning became cant and curriclum beginning in the 1920s was in university departments and colleges of education. These schools produced generation after generation of new teachers and administrators.  

I take up how university schools of education became havens for progressive thought and teacher preparation in Part 2.


[i]I entered the phrase “progressive education” in the Ngram Viewer on December 2, 2021 at:

[ii] One listing of both public and private schools that I used is the Progressive Education Network at:

My own contacts with schools over the past quarter-century have included progressive schools.


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6 responses to “Student-centered Teaching Tradition (Part 1)

  1. Ann Staley

    Looks like the kind of classroom I needed as a child. Student-centered learning, of course. Ann


    • EB

      I would say that I needed both. Did get the teacher-centered, which worked well for basic skill building. Got far less of the student-centered (class size of 35+ had something to do with that, of course). Most of my “student-centered” learning happened outside the classroom — at home, in the neighborhood, through self-chosen reading, in the part-time jobs I had. I think today’s educators have far less confidence that children are able to have these enriching experiences outside the classroom, and they are probably right.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks or taking the time to comment, Ann. I am thinking of you.

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