The Danger of ‘Student-Centered’ (25/365)

Photo by Vladimir Kramer on Unsplash

Raise your hand if you’ve said or heard the term “student-centered” in relation to whatever system you’re working in?

Okay. That looks like everyone. Now, let’s stop doing that.

Unfeeling monster that I am, I cringe each time I hear the term student-centered. Lest you start thinking me beyond salvation, give me a chance to explain.

It has to do with the Law of Unintended Consequences. If we claim we want our educational systems to be student-centered, it behooves us to then ask, “What is the worst consequence of our best idea?

Student-centered systems (or worse, student-centered philosophies) will inevitably justify inhumane, uncaring, or incompassionate practices toward non-student members of the system. You’ve been in this faculty meeting. Adults’ negative feelings or alternative points of view are shut down by the gentle but firm reminder, “We are a student-centered school.” No one wants to raise their hand and appear anti-student, so they remain quiet and passive. Or, at least they do so outwardly.

Repeated over the course of several months or years, this anti-adult or myopic view of who our educational organizations must consider as being in their care starts to burn out some of its most caring members because they begin to resent the lack of a reciprocity of care and valuing of well being. When these people leave, they may be easy to write off by leadership as not being able to hack it in a truly student-centered environment. Even if this is the true cause of teachers’ resignations, it is cause for great concern.

Student-centered organizations are naturally incentivized to be harmful to teachers and, in turn, to students. The cumulative effect of being repeatedly asked to set aside one’s own legitimate self-interests and care in exchange for an other is likely to be some level of quiet resentment of the other.

Then What?
To argue against student-centered and suggest nothing in its place could be akin to saying, “Do what feels right” in schools. That’s also not an argument I’m interested in supporting.

Instead of student-centered, let us make decisions based on whether a given choice is learning-centered. More specifically, let us decide matters based on the answer to the question, “All things considered, which choice or action is most likely to improve the learning in this space?”

Asking some variation of this question when considering shifting teaching loads, revising a schedule, adopting new resources, implementing new systems of student or teacher assessment, planning professional development – you get the idea. Asking it in any situation and realizing “all things considered” includes adults and children inside and outside the school is more likely to lead to a decision that is more sustainable than the “Is it student-centered?” question is likely to surface.

Such an inclusive approach to shifting within a system is also more likely to invite input and conversation along the way. An administrator can sit at their desk and more easily make the student-centered decision on her own. To make the learning-centered decision, she is more likely to recognize the factors unknown to her. These realizations are the likely to lead her to seek opinions and input from those who know what she does not.

An example.

I have always been uncoupled in my work as an educator. Single and without kids of my own, I’ve consistently been on my school or district’s go-to team for activities outside the school day. Back to school nights, open houses, coaching, chaperoning – you know the stuff. I and my other single, childless friends have always been not asked, but expected to fill these roles. While I’m always happy to pitch in and help, it’s not always in my best interest. In some of the more frantic times of the year, the rapid fire of these requests becomes deleterious to my ability to perform regular, day-to-day tasks. You know, teaching and stuff.

Having the singles perform these roles is easier for the system and gets the bodies a system needs in the room. (You know, for the kids.) It is a student-centered way of thinking that fails to take into account how repeated asks of a specific group of adults might adversely effect students and learning later.

A learning-centered approach would recognize these constraints and invite input and conversation for how to more equitably meet the needs of all people in the system in service of learning. At the least, it would make room for concerns to be raised. At the most, it might uncover other ways systems aren’t working and re-evaluate approaches to such events.

A final word on the use of student-centered touched on only lightly above. That is the use of the term to incite guilt in those voicing opposition to a view or action. Those who do so are using the term as shorthand for “If you don’t like this idea, you’re probably against kids.” Not only is this mean, it is choosing what is easiest over what is right. Learning is messy work and it is difficult work requiring many voices and uncomfortable conversations. Making choices because they are easy and can be couched in language when we fear or prefer to avoid the messiness builds systems on ideas unworthy of the public good with which we have been entrusted.

Diagnosing the Teaching of Adults and Children


So many ways to think about the differences between teaching children and teaching adults. Let’s frame it up a bit first. For starters, let’s put both of our groups in a traditional setting. The schools in which they learn and teach have 7.5 hours of classes, desks are in rows, grades are delineated by age. For the adults, there’s someone in charge of meetings if not scheduling PD. These happen once a month or once every two weeks. At a district level, trainings are offered by a PD department. These are staffed by teachers in one of two categories – they were either exemplary teachers and were pulled out of the classroom in a move to create economies of scale with their practice, or they are ineffective and were pulled out of the classroom so as not to cause too much damage.

There’s our system. It might be your system with a few different creaks and cracks in the floorboards.

Now, back to the question of the difference between teaching the adults and the children in this system. For the children, instruction is most likely a collection of linear timelines of facts and skills separated by artificial disciplines. While not completely dependent upon rote memorization of facts and procedures from the earliest days of public education, students are expected to await the topics and information teachers have scheduled. A student might happen into a unit or lesson of study that ignites his interest or curiosity, but this is left to chance and requires a great deal of social capital and individual agency to pursue outside of the regular schedule of study.

Reading this from the outside, this can seem a horrible way to pass your time. From the inside, though, many of our students don’t know any different. And those who try to demand something different often find themselves breaking against the system. They become examples for the others of why the status quo is preferable to something else, no matter how much they might enjoy that something else.

Teaching these students means moving along the well-worn path of covering content and using discipline or classroom management to control them when they stray from that path. While the schools we’re discussing may accept creativity in practice, they do not encourage it outright and certainly do not require it.

It is easy to imagine the same is true of teaching the adults in this system as is true of teaching the children. Almost.

These adults find themselves as caretakers of a system in which they were once the children. Here, let me point out, they are rewarded for being caretakers of the system rather than of the people in the system. So long as things move smoothly throughout the year, they may remain.

Teaching the adults means reinforcing that smooth movement. To keep their attention, it often means re-packaging old efforts and presenting them as a new advancement. The more veteran teachers can sense the repetition. They’ve likely taught through several cycles.

The key difference in teaching the adults here is their increased agency – personally if not professionally. Should they find the system so distasteful or unsatisfying that they no longer wish to be in it, they can move on. Whether top or bottom performers, when they leave, they allow the system to move closer to stasis. The status quo remains.

Unlike the children in the system, it is no longer necessary to prepare lessons across multiple disciplines for the adults. They’ve become specialists in specific content.

Teachers are allowed to shrug off math as English teachers, and disdain history as science teachers. This makes the dosage of professional development easier as well.

The needs of the adults as they have been shaped by the system require only content-specific reinforcement. They have no need for understanding or presenting how their respective content interacts with and is interdependent upon colleagues across the hall.

Teaching the adults means presenting information in ways that make it seem new and exciting without the requirement of a well-balanced intellectual diet. When adults leave, similar to when children are asked to leave, it is because they don’t fit the system, not because the system could not fit them.

Obviously, the above is a bleak perspective. In writing it, I attempted to be more pragmatic than pessimistic. Sometimes the two intersect. If the question is “How should teaching these two groups be different?” Then the answers are going to be specific to the individuals and cultures within schools and districts. As Chris and I suss out in our book, it means realizing asking the right questions is key. To beginning to make the system framed above a more humanistic one, the following three questions are the place to start:

  1. How do we honor and care for the humanity of each of the adults and children in our care?
  2. How do we make our learning spaces places where children choose to be, and where they make the education they need?
  3. How do we ensure each adult has a balanced learning diet, and the same opportunities to explore new curiosities that we hope they create for children in their classes?

If we take an informed, participatory citizenry as the goal of public education, and decision reflects that goal, then these three questions can help us create the schools we need.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Question, don’t Copy


When doing the work to transform learning in a system, simply copying what other people are doing won’t get you what you need in the long run – not with the consistency another approach might provide.

That other approach? Find out what questions the other folks asked, and then ask those same questions within the system in which you find yourself.

Lifting the work of others, specifically highly-effective work deeply seated within a specific community (and these are the projects that most are most often ripe for replication) guarantees unsustainable or less-effective results.

An example?

Let’s say a principle and leadership team from a rural high school makes a trip to visit several highly-touted urban high schools within a few hours drive. While touring, they note that one of the schools has an internship program for its students that allows them to partner with local companies, non-profits, and service organizations for academic credit.
Talking with the leadership and participating students in the urban school, the rural school team hears strong testimony about the success of the program in helping students to discover and develop nascent interests and build networks of social capital they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to without the internship program.

“Yes,” the members of the rural team agree on their drive home, “This is a program we need to start when we get home.” And they do. The next school year, they start the program, placing 11th- and 12th-grade students with similar partners in larger neighboring communities.

Midway through the school year, despite the best intentions and hard work by a dedicated faculty and staff, the program is failing spectacularly.

Students often beg off the drive to partner organizations, citing travel times as unfair burdens and complaining about the added schedule demands on homework and extra curricular participation. Those without access to transportation find themselves relegated to a less diverse selection of partner organizations and are understandably jealous of their better-resourced partners.

By the end of the year, the rural leadership team decides the program more arduous than worthwhile given its diminishing returns. “The urban school,” they agree, “is better resourced to offer such dynamic experiences to it’s students.”

If only they’d asked questions instead of building someone else’s solution.

What questions? How about:

  •  What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • What resources – physical and virtual – are at our disposal to help us solve that problem?
  • What is it about the urban program that we would like our students to experience in our own community?
  • What are the differences between our setting and the urban school and how do those differences present advantages and disadvantages?
  • What questions did the urban school ask as they developed their program?

Coming at the issue from a questioning rather than copying standpoint would likely have allowed our rural school to head off many, if not all, of the problems it experienced in implementation.

Perhaps the school would realize the lack of immediately local partners was an opportunity for students to identify local needs for community organizing and coordination. Perhaps the school would recognize that students could build these partnerships for the betterment of their town and leverage online access to experts and information to help build student capacity where deficits existed.

Questioning, not copying, would likely have resulted in a product that looks little like the urban program on the surface, but a product that provides the rural students with the same kinds of learning experiences that excited the rural team in the first place.

In the same way we don’t borrow from another puzzle when we realize we are missing a few pieces from the jigsaw we’re currently working, we cannot expect copying from other systems will provide the fit we need to serve the people in our care.

I’m Counting on Someone Else to Take Care of That

For the last 11 years or so, my life, the people, and the conversations that have comprised that life have been largely focused on education. Few are the folks I call friends who cannot hang in a conversation about education, school, learning, and the like.

I decided a little over a decade ago that this field, this ecosystem, would be the thing on which I focused my attention, my days and nights. I’ve had the opportunity to approach the conversation from various vantage points throughout the last few years. From a classroom, to a school, to a district, to a national perspective.

Talking with family over the recent holidays, someone asked how I could resist working in other fields outside of education. “Why not work on affordable housing or civic infrastructure,” they’d asked. The crux of it was a question as to how I could ignore these other problems and focus solely on improving one system.

It’s a good question, and I’d be lying if I claimed to not have wrestled with it pretty regularly.

Here’s the answer I keep coming back to, “This is the thing I’m trying to work on, and I am best at working on that if I have faith other smart, dedicated, curious people are working on the other problems I care about.”

This isn’t a claim of being especially talented at the work I show up to do each day. I do my best, and hope it’s good enough.

It’s really more a statement of faith that there are folks who have shown up to do work to solve the other problems I care about as well – climate change, institutional poverty, civic infrastructure, voter rights. The list goes on.

Sometimes, there’s a feeling that not making something my life’s work is the same thing as not making something a thing I care about in my life. The answer for this is the informal focus I try to throw on the stuff that’s not my day-to-day. I’m working on being a Jack of all trades and master of one.

And whether it’s well-placed or not, I’ve gotta believe that other people show up to their jobs each day with the same feeling and approach. Believing otherwise would be to invite a feeling that it’s all too much. I can’t be all the changes I wish to see in the world. Instead, I have to try to be one of those changes and hope everyone else read that quote as a charge to do something else.

146/365 Do we want what our students want or what we want our students to want?

Unmistakable Impact by Jim Knight

“Not surprisingly,” Jim Knight writes in Chapter 2 of his Unmistakable Impact, “when the thinking is taken out of teaching, teachers resist.”

Knight is correct. It is not surprise. While he discusses partnerships throughout the chapter, though, it is refreshing to be reminded of the need for equity of partnerships.

“A Simple Truth About Helping: People aren’t motivated by other people’s goals,” Knight writes a few pages later.

I struggled with this one when I returned to my notes. I like to think that I am motivated by other people’s goals. As a classroom teacher, I was always asking my students what they wanted to do, be, answer, etc. Wherever possible, I would then find ways for thinking, speaking, reading, and writing to help them accomplish those goals. I realize now, I wasn’t motivated by their goals, not immediately. I was motivated by my goals of developing their skills as they related to English Language Arts through the lens of what they wanted.

Even now, it’s how I work with teachers and others in the district. It’s my most common answer to the question, “How do I get folks to use X?”

My answer: Find the the thing about what they do that is the most frustrating, most broken, most inefficient; and show them how X can make that better.

In the questions for discussion as our district’s Learning Leaders consider this chapter, we are asked, “Many of our schools and teachers have been successful, so why change?”

I suppose that’s easy from the outside and difficult from the inside. We change because there’s always something on which we can improve. We are resistant to change because we feel have gotten where we need to go. Maybe there’s a middle ground. Maybe we resist change because we simply need a break to collect our faculties, consider our resources and plot the course. Stopping at good is often really pausing to plan for great.



140/365 In Improving Teaching & Learning, it Turns Out We Need to Do all the Work

Children working, playing, and learning on art projects, writing, and a laptop computer

As is my wont, I’ve been having a (figurative) conversation with Jim Knight as I work my way through his Unmistakable Impact. Like many before him, Knight has narrowed down the qualities of the best schools to a list of 5:

The professional learning occurring in Impact Schools is built around the following five concepts: humanity, focus, leverage, simplicity, and precision.

Five is an interesting number. It avoids the vague simplicity of 3 without taking on the complexity of a list of 7, 11, or some other prime number.

And I don’t disagree with him. In that list of 5, there’s not a concept with which I disagree, and I’d imagine that’s by design. Keeping the list safe keeps the book marketable.

Not long after we’ve encountered the 5 concepts behind impact schools, though, Knight introduces the 7 principles of the “partnership approach”:

(1) equality, (2) choice, (3) voice, (4) reflection, (5) dialogue, (6) praxis, and (7) reciprocity.

He goes on to say, “These principles represent the theory that underlies professional learning in Impact Schools.”

This brings the list to an almost unwieldy 12. Twelve! Here Knight runs the risk of losing the leaders of education organizations. The book is no longer presenting a silver bullet like so many that have come before it. Knight begins to present a more complex picture of what must be done to create quality learning spaces and teams functioning in such a way that supports that quality.

This is, beyond all of the citations of other sources and vignettes, what I am appreciating as I work through Knight’s book. As he attempts to offer guidance and strategies for improving schools, he adds to the complexity of the work.

It isn’t just five or seven things that need be done to improve the lives and learning of students and teachers. The list is potentially infinite.

As I come to each list of qualities schools must have to make an unmistakable impact, I picture the principal or district leader who’s picked this up as the tome to lead their organization for the next year angrily crossing out the list from the last chapter and saying to themselves, “OH! These are the things we should be doing. Got it.”

If anything, I’d say Knight doesn’t go far enough in highlighting the importance of paying attention to all of the qualities he’s listed. At. The. Same. Time.

As I consider the systems and procedures he lays out, I realize they create a balance and that each is important (if fairly innocuous on the ground-breaking scale of ideas).

From that initial list of five, it is not difficult to imagine the type of leader who decides to make focus, leverage, and precision the watch words of their school while leaving out or downplaying humanity and simplicity. The opposite is true as well. I’ve met many school and district leaders who are all about the people and streamlining.

If we are to improve teaching and learning, we cannot cherry pick the pieces of the system we wish to improve. We cannot simply change the things that are cheapest, easiest, or most urgent.

We must see the whole board. We must lean in to the hard work, and we must accept the complexity of meeting the needs of a system composed of people who walk into our buildings with equally complex lives.

If doing that takes a list of 5, 7 or 12, then so be it. Let us make sure that we honor each one and not only those that fit our style or our comfort zones.

Image via intrepid teacher on flickr

89/365 Adopt Change at a School Zone Speed Limit

As soon as it was taken up as a tentpole issue for the champions of “21st Century Skills,” collaborative effort was destined to wiggle its way into the goals of any school’s annual planning for at least the first two decades of the 21st century. By 2030, we’re likely to be championing “22nd Century Skills.” For now, though, let us focus on the century at hand.

In the rush to adopt a practice of collaboration, many schools have set decrees and adopted protocols to ensure collaboration in actions if not in spirit. Lest a school’s culture – its leaders, its teachers, its students – has decided to own the effort of collaboration, practice by decree is sure to be mired in “almost implimentation.”

The schools we need allow for a school zone speed limit to taking up a practice of collaboration.

For schools having difficulties initiating collaborative approaches, the danger lies not in doing something new or different, but in doing something much more quickly than is comfortable to those responsible for the work.

While we are firm believers in learning the work by doing the work, this does not mean doing all the work at once and expecting it is all done well.

A school zone speed limit adoption method takes on all the practical implications of asking drivers to slow down when traveling through a school zone. Moving at full speed in these areas will mean they are not likely to fully appreciate where they are doing, and they will be much more liable to interfere or endanger the travels of others who are attempting to move through the same space.

The same principles apply to full-speed adoption of collaboration. Asking people to jump in to a practice of collaboration with full integration of lesson planning, peer observation, brainstorming, curriculum planning, etc. makes it entirely unlikely this newly adopted approach will not notice the small but significant details important to improving collaborative practices.

They will go through the motions of collaborating, as the drive will likely still stop at a stop sign, speed zone or not. They will not, take or have the time to reflect on what happens when they change this or that element of their practice.

A school speed zone approach to adopting a new practice and adapting a system to this practice’s inclusion might include the following steps:

  • At the top of each school-wide meeting, asking all teachers to share with those around them a single sentence explaining something they are working on with their students.
  • Asking for a group of teachers to volunteer to sit in on at least one of their peers’ classes during a week and to welcome others to do the same in their own classes.
  • The creation of a common physical or online space where teachers are asked to share questions and ideas relevant to what they are teaching or planning to teach with immediate means for others to offer answers and suggestions.
  • The allocation of 5 minutes at the beginning of every faculty meeting for teachers to stand and share those things they saw that they identified as good in a peer’s classrooms since the previous meeting.

The list could continue forever. Indeed, as a learning organization feels more and more comfortable with collaborative practice and begin to speed up, the list is likely to lengthen exponentially. It should do.

Slowing down, focusing on a few key elements of practice will allow those being asked for mindfulnes to see and reflect on the shifting of the organization. They will have the ability to refine these new efforts and the practice will evolve.

We can surely get somewhere as quickly as possible. To do so often means sacrificing safety and ignoring our surroundings. It’s possible, but rarely worth it.

We Should Embrace Confusion

The video below, from Yes to the Mess author Frank Barrett, touches on the idea of disruption of routine as a catalyst to innovation, that wimpiest of buzzwords.

Still, if your goal is to get folks – let’s say teachers and students – thinking differently and creatively about their learning, it’s an interesting line of thinking. More important than Barrett’s point about disruption, though, is the point he (mostly indirectly) makes about the role of confusion in helping people think differently.

It connected nicely with a passage from John Holt’s How Children Learn, which I’d re-visited for class this past week:

Bill Hull once said to me, “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” I thought at first he was joking. By now I realize that it was a very important truth. Suppose we decided that we had to “teach” children to speak. How would we go about it? First, some committee of experts would analyze speech and break it down into a number of separate “speech skills.” We would probably say that, since speech is made up of sounds, a child must be taught to make all the sounds of his language before he can be taught to speak the language itself. Doubtless we would list these sounds, easiest and commonest ones first, harder and rarer ones next. Then we would begin to teach infants these sounds, working our way down the list. Perhaps, in order not to “confuse” the child-“con- fuse” is an evil word to many educators-we would not let the child hear much ordinary speech, but would only expose him to the sounds we were trying to teach. (emphasis mine)

John Holt. How Children Learn (Classics in Child Development) (p. 84). Kindle Edition.

Perhaps we’re getting less and less out of teachers and students (and I’m not convinced that we are) because the systems in which they operate are working at top speed to make certain they avoid confusion at all levels. Teaching scripts, standardized test instructions, online learning platforms, google search – all are designed in ways that make it as difficult as possible to be confused.

If a teacher working from a pre-packaged lesson plan never has to wrestle with how to solve the problems of student engagement or differentiated instruction because the introductory set is included and the lesson’s been pre-leveled, there’s very little thinking to be done. If I’m not confused, I’m not likely be solving problems.

Similarly, if the directions to an assignment spend a few paragraphs explaining what information I should include in the heading, how many sentences constitute a paragraph, what I should include in each of said paragraphs, and the topics from which I’m allowed to choose, it’s unlikely I’ll risk the type of thinking that could perplex or confuse me as to what my exact position regarding my topic might be.

To be certain, obtuseness that renders teaching and learning inaccessible is not helpful. At the same time, clarity that renders the two unnecessary is harmful.

To Innovate, Disrupt Your Routine – Video – Harvard Business Review.

16 Proposals for Radically Changing Schools (for the better)

I was finally able to finish Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity yesterday. (What else was I supposed to do the day after graduating?) That I’d made it so long without encountering this text baffled me, but I’m willing to chalk it up to the right books coming into our lives at the right time.

Toward the end of the book, Postman and Weingartner list a group of proposals “that attempt to change radically the existing school system.”

I should like to learn and teach in a school that honors these proposals. In the case of a few of them, I’ve already done just that.

  1. Declare a five-year moratorium on the use of all textbooks.
  2. Have “English” teachers “teach” Math, Math teachers English, Social Studies teachers Science, Science teachers Art, and so on.
  3. Transfer all the elementary-school teachers to high school and vice versa.
  4. Require every teacher who thinks he knows his “subject” to write a book on it.
  5. Dissolve all “subjects,” “courses,” and especially “course requirements.”
  6. Limit each teacher to three declarative sentences per class, and 15 interrogative.
  7. Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answers to.
  8. Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades.
  9. Require all teachers to undergo some form of psycho-therapy as part of their in-service training.
  10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public.
  11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students on what the students know.
  12. Make every class an elective and withhold a teacher’s monthly check if his students do not show any interest in going to next month’s classes.
  13. Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some “field” other than education.
  14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one human being.
  15. Require that all the graffiti accumulated in the school toilets be reproduced on large paper and be hung in the school halls.
  16. There should be a general prohibition against the use of the following words and phrases: teach, syllabus, covering ground, I.Q., makeup, text, disadvantaged, gifted, accelerated, enhanced, course, grade, score, human nature, dumb, college material, and administrative necessity.
I’ve not stopped thinking about how much the teachers in schools adopting this list of proposals would learn and how much more effectively they would begin to teach.
What else deserves to be on this list?
Citation: Postman, Neil, and Charles Weingartner. Teaching As a Subversive Activity. Delta, 1971.

Things I Know 320 of 365: YouTube for Schools is here because schools couldn’t be bothered to learn

My first inclination is to praise the advent of YouTube for Schools. I want to say, “Finally, we can get the content to the classrooms.” And that is true. At least, it’s more likely.

I can’t say that without also pointing out it was easier for one of the world’s largest corporations to change content streams, test and market a new product, and launch it than it was for America’s schools to consider changing how they think about the Internet.

There’s a reason other nations are outperforming America in tests of thinking.