Whatever Happened to Learning Centers?

Beginning in the late 1960s and extending through most of the next decade, an innovation swept across American elementary schools called “learning centers.”



The idea was for teachers to give students far more choice than they would ordinarily have in classrooms where teachers made all decisions about what students should learn and how. Borrowed from Great Britain’s enthusiasm for “open classrooms” in the late-1960s, many U.S. educators critical of traditional ways of teaching and seeking ways of increasing student participation in their own learning imported the idea and adapted it to urban and suburban schools across the nation. These were years when the ideas of John Dewey and other educational progressives over a half-century earlier gained center-stage in educational rhetoric, media attention, and district policies.

Then the media hype for “learning centers” waned and eventually disappeared–a common occurrence for educational changes–as most (but not all) elementary school teachers adopted and adapted their version of learning centers. After the initial rapture for learning centers, decline in interest occurred in the late 1970s (see Google Ngram viewer for arc of mentions of “learning centers” between 1960s and 2019).

What are learning centers?

The most concise definition I’ve seen is: “A learning center is a self-contained section of the classroom in which students engage in independent and self-directed learning activities.” Of course, many teachers who create and institutionalize centers into their daily routines may define them a tad differently but the above definition should cover the essentials of what centers are.

How do elementary school teachers set up and schedule centers?

There is no one way to establish and schedule learning centers during the school day. Much depends upon the teacher’s experience, grade level, and strengths in reading, math, writing, science, and social studies. Here are some examples of how one teacher arranged time for her students to work in classroom centers:

What do centers look like in the 2020s?

Some photos taken from the Internet of classroom centers in preschool and primary grades:

From the evidence I have seen in articles and photos, learning centers are common in preschool and kindergarten classrooms. Many primary grade teachers (first to third grades) continue to have one or more centers devoted to such subjects as reading, art, drama, math, science, and technology use.

But how common are learning centers in U.S. elementary schools? Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that centers are widespread. Beyond scattered surveys and stories, however, I do not know the answer to the question since data on how teachers actually teach once the classroom door closes are, in a word, scant.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Whatever Happened to Learning Centers?

  1. Debbie Franks

    Mrs. Croney, 1968-69, Brookside Elementary, Nashville, TN: my middle-aged (I think! She had wrinkles…)fifth-grade teacher in the conservative South had learning centers we partook of for part of every day, sometimes while she was leading various Reading groups. I don’t remember a lot of the content, but I think they were usually science and social studies centered, maybe with some language arts too, involving some reading or research, perhaps a crucial question, and an activity to perform. I’m sure they didn’t work well for all students, but I distinctly remember that sense of engaging and directing (though guided and formatted by her) my own education. It was thrilling and valuable. Ah, Mrs. Croney, how I loved you! because we knew you loved and valued us.

  2. Pingback: Relationship Mapping / What Happened to Learning Centers? / New Car Battery Approach « Dr. Doug Green

  3. Pingback: Whatever Happened to Learning Centers? — Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice | David R. Taylor

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