Student-centered Teaching Tradition (Part 3)

There are many definitions of “student-centered instruction.” Historically, it was called the “New Education” in the late 1890s and then “child-centered instruction” during the first decades of the 20th century by progressive educators.

In each instance when the label changed, defining what it looked like in classrooms varied greatly among academics and practitioners. Nonetheless, student-centered instruction and similar labels continue in 2021. It is, after all, a tradition of teaching that goes back more than a century.

This post on student-centered comes from a former private school fifth grade teacher with 12 years of classroom experience who went on to found a consulting company. Jeff Lisciandrello is committed to student-centered teaching and learning; this is his take on what it is and how it should be practiced in public and private schools. I would expect readers to differ with his definition and picture that he paints of a classroom.

Note the final paragraph of the post. Lisciandrello acknowledges that no classroom can be “entirely student centered” because the content and skill may be new or for other reasons. That acknowledgement fits my experiences as a teacher and observer of hundreds of lessons across the nation; it opens the door to what I have called “hybrids” of both teaching traditions.

Imagine walking into a student-centered classroom. What do you see? What do you hear?  Where is the teacher standing? What are the students doing?

It’s been over 100 years since John Dewey began advocating for what we would now call student-centered learning (SCL). Since then, countless educators, researchers, and professional development providers have championed the student-centered classroom.

But just how student-centered are today’s classrooms? Compared to schools of 100 years ago, today’s classrooms are very student-centered.

But though progress has made, most schools still rely heavily on teacher-centered learning models. The teacher decides what and how students will learn. She does most of the talking during a lesson. And when a student does speak, the teacher decides whether or not their answer was correct.

The challenge in making classes more student-centered, is that there are so many definitions of student-centered learning.

In some schools, SCL means that students sit at tables instead of desks. At others, it refers to differentiated instruction. In the most progressive schools, a classroom is only considered student-centered if students create their own assignments and grade their own work.

Now all of these are great examples of student-centered learning. But examples are not definitions.

And if you want to figure out just how student-centered your classroom is, we’ll need a shared definition.

During my years as a classroom teacher, I assumed student-centered learning was pretty self-explanatory

But as soon as I moved into instructional coaching, I learned otherwise. During one of my first coaching assignments, at a middle school in Harlem, a pair of teachers asked me to observe a lesson and give them feedback.

As the class started, one teacher stood by the door and the other stood in the back. The students walked silently to their desks, which were in rows, and sat down to a ten-page packet.

A loud, sharp voice announced, “Open your packets to page 1!

The teachers walked up and down the rows to ensure everyone was on the right page. One teacher read from the textbook. “The coordinate plane consists of two axes. The x-axis is horizontal. The y-axis is vertical.”

Then, a cold-call. “Jonathan, which axis is horizontal?” 

Jonathan: “The x-axis.”


They continued up and down the aisles throughout the period. If anyone talked, their name was announced, and they were given a warning. (Whatever the consequence was, it seemed to be effective).

After the direct instruction, students worked silently and independently. Finally, the teachers collected the packets and dismissed the class.

When we met to debrief, I commended the pair for their organization and classroom management. But I wanted to know if they’d consider planning planning and co-teaching “a student centered lesson.”

They looked at me in shock, “You don’t think our classroom is student-centered?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. It felt like we were speaking different languages. I had just witnessed the least student-centered classroom I’d ever seen. But to them, a student-centered classroom had nothing to do with differentiation, collaboration or ownership. It meant caring about their students. And they deeply believed that their “tough love” approach was the best they could do for their students.

This experience taught me two important lessons. First, as an instructional coach, I should never make suggestions without first listening to a teacher’s thoughts, perspectives, and goals.

Second, I realized that I needed a way to clearly and concisely define and describe a student-centered classroom. 

The Teacher-Centered Classroom

Defining a student-centered classroom begins by defining the traditional model of education: the teacher-centered classroom.

It’s entirely possible for an effective and caring teacher to rely on a teacher-centered model. Caring for our students is necessary, but not sufficient, for cultivating a student-centered classroom

Simply put, in a teacher-centered classroom, the teacher is at the center of the learning: 

  • Information flows from teacher to students
  • Students look to the teacher to make decisions
  • Students pay more attention to the teacher than each other
  • The teacher does most of the talking
  • The teacher sets the rules and the goals

When I was a student, I found it hard to stay focused and motivated in this type of classroom. Everyone was expected to learn the same content at the same time. Our job was to follow directions, get the right answers, and do our homework.

When I daydreamed or didn’t get my work done, it was because I wasn’t focused or driven enough. Eventually, this manifested as an aversion to school work. I figured out the minimum necessary to get the grades I wanted, and did that.

It made perfect sense – the teacher owned the learning. They told me what needed to be done, and rated me on how well I did it. So as long as they rated me favorably, it would be silly to do more.

But I wasn’t lazy. I worked really hard at a lot of things. My interests were an odd mix: computers, acting, and classic rock. I rushed through most of my school work to put my energy into these hobbies.

Student-Centered Learning Begins with a Mindset

My favorite teachers helped me to harness my passions and channel them into my school work. They made learning feel like a collaborative effort. And always found ways to challenge us and to make their content more interesting. 

Mr. Myslik loved to sit back and listen as his students took over a discussion about Walden or The Great Gatsby. And in Mr. Faubert’s German class, we spent a month translating and dubbing an entire Simpsons episode. I still remember what “abgelaufene Medizin” means, only because I had to say it in Homer’s voice.

The challenge in spotting a student-centered classroom is that there’s no single strategy or resource that makes learning student-centered. You can’t just buy a student-centered textbook or student-centered software. It’s a way of thinking about education, and there are a thousand ways to do it right.

But the definition of a student-centered classroom is right in the name. Instead of focusing on the teacher or the curriculum, the focus is on the students. What do they want to learn? What do they need to succeed? 

Students have control over what they learn and how they learn it. They can work together to create the class rules. And when teachers provide feedback, it’s to support learning. Not just to rate and sort students.

Of course, no classroom is entirely student-centered. If students showed up to my math class and decided we were doing pottery that day, I could turn teacher-centered pretty darn quick. Every class exists somewhere on the spectrum. But for most of us, a shift to the student-centered side would be beneficial.



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8 responses to “Student-centered Teaching Tradition (Part 3)

  1. David F

    Hi Larry, thanks for sharing this. I guess it’s not a surprise that I disagree with this author and his interpretation of what learning is an what its goals should be. But this reminded me of something I ran into recently I wanted to call to your attention which ties together with this series you are posting. The article is “Discourses on Learning in Education: Making Sense of a Landscape of Difference” by Brett Davis and Kirsta Francis of the U of Calgary.

    They’ve have developed a mapping schema for different learning theories and some things not necessarily theory. To make a long story short, they’ve mapped all of these out, which is complicated to say the least. You can find this at their website:

    Their database now has 2000 entries, which is a good indicator of all the stuff that gets thrown at educators, be it theory, models, and fads. No wonder our field is so messy compared to other professions.

    • larrycuban

      Again, David, thanks for putting me on to Davis and Francis and their effort to capture the map of educational theory. I will look at it.

  2. I wrote a blog called the “5 meanings of student centered learning” a couple posts back that I bet you’d find interesting. Caring about students was one of the meanings. Because the term has come to mean different things for everyone I try not to use it unless I know I’m talking to someone who understands where the lines are drawn. Same for traditional/progressive.


    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Zach. I will catch up with your posts on student-centered “learning.” Note that I write about “student-centered teaching” not “learning” because I see teaching and learning as two separate processes at work in a classroom.

  3. rlotan

    I propose to think about “teacher-centered” classroom and “student-centered” classroom as a false dichotomy.

    • Hi Rachel,
      OK, what do you propose? Recall that I include hybrids of both. Interested in other ways of describing the classroom teaching that both of us have seen over decades.

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