Putting Students in Charge of Their Learning

By Nancy Hoffman, Rebecca E. Wolfe, Adria Steinberg
March 28, 2013

From ASCD’s Putting Students at the Center issue.

“You need to teach students how to take initiative to pursue learning, and that’s it, and that’s all that matters.” This statement was made by a teacher at a school profiled recently for Students at the Center, an initiative of Jobs for the Future with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

In the past two years, the Students at the Center project has sought to synthesize and probe the evidence base for such beliefs and to describe schools where teachers routinely practice student-centered learning approaches.

More Choices Create More Initiative

The teachers at the schools highlighted in the Students at the Center project encourage initiative by building student choice into the school day. They believe that students who have a say in their own learning are more invested in it.

Dante, a senior at Dayton (Ohio) Early College Academy, agrees: “One of the things they tell you here is to do what you love and love what you do,” he says. “Having choices helps make that happen, even if it’s just choosing the side you’ll take in a classroom debate.”

Another student says, “It’s more important that the choices are constant than big.”

At Noble High School in Maine, one teacher says that students may make more than a dozen schoolwork-related decisions each day—everything from choosing among the week’s algebra assignments to deciding which team to join in a research project.

Increasing choice, and thereby validating each student’s personal preferences and inclinations, is only one of the many student-centered practices that encourage learners to take initiative. The practices detailed in the Students at the Center project provide additional answers to the question, “What does student-centered teaching and learning look like in schools today?”

Barbara Cervone and Kathleen Cushman, two of the project’s contributing researchers, identified eight elements schools need to practice to be student-centered (see Fig. 1) and then analyzed the changes required by teachers who deliver these elements. Some practices, such as forging strong relationships with students and attending to their social and emotional growth along with their academic growth, are familiar to anyone acquainted with good teaching practices and recent studies of what constitutes effective teaching. Others, such as anywhere, anytime learning; personalization; and authentic choice in curricular tasks, reflect newer reforms and are closely linked to technology.

Whether describing a familiar or new practice, Cervone and Cushman demonstrate that the effect of having all eight core elements consistently in place across all classrooms is a much heavier lift than is transforming a single classroom.

The Neuroscience of Learning

What distinguishes the Students at the Center project from other compelling descriptions of classroom and schoolwide student-centered practices is that the research papers, website, and forthcoming book—Anytime, Anywhere—provide an evidence base for the very practices that effective teachers carry out intuitively.

Given the difficulty and pushback that teachers and school leaders face in experimenting with practices that “free the sage from the stage” and empower students to take charge of their own learning, teachers need to be able to justify their practices. Intuition needs to be linked to the findings from emerging research about how students learn and what makes them eager to learn.

According to Students at the Center authors Christina Hinton and Kurt Fisher, neuroscientists have shown that neural changes that underlie lasting learning occur when experiences are active and when the brain tags experiences as positive and worth approaching.

As any good teacher will tell you, each student has a complex profile of strengths and limitations and learns best through experiences tailored to his or her own needs and interests. Giving students real choices of what and how to learn makes a great deal of sense in the context of this expanding neuroscience knowledge base.

Indeed, teachers need to know that the research on the mind, the brain, and education aligns closely with many student-centered practices: active learning when students are up, out of their chairs, and “doing;” fostering positive relationships with teachers and other adults; frequent formative assessments to help students track their progress and own their goals; and exploring topics students perceive as relevant to their lives and goals, to name just some of the most common.

Student Identity and Motivation

Teachers can also benefit from the large bodies of research and theory on three interrelated topics—motivation, engagement, and student voice—topics treated in the Students at the Center project by Eric Toshalis and Michael Nakkula.

The work of these researchers—much of it focused on classroom learning behaviors—can help teachers support learners’ progress along the trajectory from novice to expert, ensuring that students experience the rewards of hard work on a meaningful challenge. Finally, teachers need to be armed with new approaches to curriculum that meet standards and connect with student identities—a critical aspect of validating student voice.

While the jury is still out on how to evaluate the quality of the rapidly expanding technology tools, some high-quality examples support the findings of neuroscience and motivation theory. Researchers Rochelle Gutiérrez and Sonya Irving, who investigated the mathematics achievement of underserved students, describe a software package called Culturally Situated Design Tools.

This tool enables Latino/a, African American, and American Indian students (Eglash, Bennett, O’Donnell, Jennings, & Cintorino, 2010) to learn standards-based mathematics and reproduce art by leveraging underlying mathematical principles in various art forms, including Latino-Caribbean percussion and hip-hop rhythms (ratios), graffiti (Cartesian and polar coordinates), cornrow hairstyling (transformational geometry, fractals), and break dancing (rotational and sine function).

Students learn about the cultural backgrounds of the art, do tutorials on using the software, and invent their own designs. Teachers get lesson plans, evaluation materials, suggestions for how to use the design tools, and connections to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards.

These examples provide only a brief glimpse of what classrooms, teaching, and learning could look like if we made it a priority to support students in taking initiative for their learning. With a challenging stretch goal in front of the country in implementing the Common Core State Standards, the time is right to put students at the center, where they belong, and where they learn best.

Figure 1: 8 Elements Schools Need to Practice to Be Student-Centered


Eglash, R., Bennett, A., O’Donnell, C., Jennings, S., & Cintorino, M. (2010). Culturally Situated Design Tools: Ethnocomputing from Field Site to Classroom. Anthropology and Education, 108 (2), 347–362.

Nancy Hoffman is vice president and senior advisor at Jobs for the Future (JFF). Rebecca E. Wolfe is project director of Students at the Center and senior program manager, Pathways Through Postsecondary, at JFF. Adria Steinberg is vice president, Pathways Through Postsecondary, at JFF. They are authors of the forthcoming Anytime, Anywhere: Student-Centered Learning for Schools and Teachers (Harvard Education Press, 2013).

ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 11. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.

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