What Does “Student Centered” Actually Mean?

Student centered classroom

It’s all the rage these days for schools to claim they’re student centered. But what does this phrase actually mean?

In my experience, schools may be talking about three different but related ideas when they use the phrase “student centered.”

Student centered: How decisions are made

When a school says it is student centered, it may mean: “When we make decisions, we prioritize student needs and interests.” You might think this could be taken for granted in all schools, but things get complicated quickly in the real world.

Consider, for example, a public school being pressured by a district directive that requires schools to use a particular curriculum or implement a particular discipline policy. What if the school’s teachers believe this action is not in the interest of their students? A truly student-centered school might subtly defy or at least creatively interpret the district’s directives so that the students are better served.

This is not a straightforward process, of course, even within the walls of the school. Different students have different needs, and parents’ interests can conflict. Think about a school serving children with a wide range of abilities — which is most schools in the U.S. If the school gets access to new resources, should those resources be dedicated to helping students who are behind and need extra support or to students who are advanced and bored?

Student centered: Paying attention to the whole child

The second possibility is that administrators are saying that they pay a lot of attention to students’ social-emotional as well as academic development.

This is frequently at least one component of what schools mean when they say they are “student centered.” Good educators recognize that students are social-emotional creatures and learning is inherently a social and emotional process. They recognize that people’s long-term success depends on their social-emotional intelligence as well as their academic skills.

Students are constantly learning social and emotional lessons, whether or not teachers are explicitly teaching them. The best educators are thinking about what lessons students are learning — and what lessons they’d like them to be learning. They’re asking: What habits and values are children absorbing as they participate in the life of this school? How are adults modeling and reinforcing prized values like kindness and honesty?

Student centered: Student ownership of learning

The third possibility: A school that uses this term may be talking about how it aims to cultivate student ownership of learning. They want students to want to learn, and to take initiative to acquire new information and skills.

When a school uses “student centered” in this context, it is recognizing that, in the long term, people’s development and success hinges a lot on their own initiative to learn and grow. It’s appropriate for schools to depend for a time on students’ desire to jump through the hoops that adults set up for them, but, especially as kids get older, it’s important that kids take more initiative to discover and pursue the challenges they want to take on.

For example, University High School in San Francisco says that it values students “taking risks and growing from the experience; pursuing passions with confidence, creativity, and humility; and discovering and making real their own distinctive and evolving expressions of excellence.” It’s talking about student ownership of learning.

What to make of all this?

When you hear this phrase, I recommend that you follow up to explore which of these ideas the school is referring to. Then, dig a little deeper to see what the school really means and what it is actually doing to advance its vision.

If the school is talking about how it makes decisions, you might ask: What’s an example of a decision you’ve made that shows your commitment to putting students’ interests front and center? How do you make tough decisions when students and families have competing interests?

If the school is talking about its commitment to the whole child, you might ask how it nurtures students’ social and emotional development. What social and emotional skills and/or values do you want students to learn? What are the most prized elements of your school’s culture?

If the school is talking about how it aims to promote student ownership of learning, ask how they do this. What’s the evidence that it’s working? Schools that do a good job should be able to provide compelling stories of student initiative and show work products that reflect student drive and ownership.

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What Does “Student Centered” Actually Mean?