Because our middle level learners are ready for more independence, age-appropriate challenges, and they crave mastery of skills, we need to teach them differently. Middle level learners need to spend less time memorizing content and more time developing skills. They need to imagine more, choose more, produce more so that they like school more. A skill-centered curriculum, using content as a vehicle for skill development, is the future of middle level education.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Student-Centered Classrooms Happen Best in Teacher-Centered Schools


In this time of abundant school redesign, many of us are thinking about the ideals of student experience and how those might be made manifest in our existing schools or those we could start from scratch. For those of us with a progressive bent, the tenets of the student-centered classroom are an anchor to this. While this has spatial design and student-teacher ratio ramifications, we need to also think about the redesign of the teacher experience.  If we want to have authentically student-centered classrooms, we need to reconceive our school cultures in relation to what the job of teacher means to those who are filling it.

Student-centered classrooms are predicated on the philosophy that skills are best developed and knowledge best obtained when students are designing and producing products that require they show mastery of content and skills. This is an active paradigm- contructivism- which prizes collaboration, problem-solving, creativity, and application. Educators who have begun to fully actualize this model’s potential report unparalleled student-buy in and skill development and the evolution of a classroom culture that genuinely celebrates collaboration and independent thinking. Imagine how energizing and gratifying teaching would be if the same were asked of the educators? What if our schools could take their fundamental organizing cue from the culture of student-centered classrooms and were reconceived to be “teacher-centered” schools?

Let’s use project-based learning as the analogue to help us imagine how the teacher-centered school would function. PBL has four central tenants: student-choice is important; products must have a practical application; considerable programming time is devoted to individual or small group working time; and there is a facilitating presence which is supportive and evaluative. If you have taught in this way, you know well its power for creating student-buy in, skill development, and ultimately, community. You also know just how difficult it is to effectively orchestrate. And, you know how profoundly gratifying it is to see students engaged in the process of envisioning, creating, refining, and presenting their products for your summative assessments.

In the teacher-centered school, the daily classroom “teaching” is the summative assessment; that is when the fruits of the individual or group labor are made public, thus useful. What happens leading up to that is what makes the teacher-centered school so radically different: it dramatically increases the amount of teacher working time devoted to program development- and has administrators who are devoted to active facilitation of teacher collaboration and program design. The teacher-centered school assumes that teachers will be better at their jobs if they are endeavoring to produce content in a way that honors their intelligence, their drive to succeed, and their creative powers.

And because the teacher-centered school sees deep teacher success as the key to its viability- that is, the key to its delivery of deep student learning- it prioritizes the structured time needed for those endeavors. It’s not an add-on- it’s an integral component. It becomes part of the working day and the school year, and teachers are paid accordingly. This means that teachers have their “planning periods,” but are also meeting collaboratively after school, and that pre- and post-planning times in the summer are substantially expanded. They are working more hours, thus they would get paid more.  What creative, energetic educator would not sign up for that?

Could this be a paradigm for our future schools? Its’ power, in part, is that it elevates teaching and it would draw more of the creative class into the field. Most importantly, however, is that it would be one of the lynch-pins in creating the type of curriculum which will truly deliver the skill development and life-long learning that progressive school reformers value. Think about it, if you could start from scratch, wouldn’t you want to build a teacher-centered school?

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