How Student-Centered is Your Classroom?


In the education world, the term student-centered classroom is one we hear a lot. And many educators would agree that when it comes to 21st-century learning, having a student-centered classroom is certainly a best practice.

Whether you instruct first grade or university students, take some time to think about where you are with creating a learning space where your students have ample voice, engage frequently with each other, and are given opportunities to make choices.

Guiding Questions

Use these questions to reflect on the learning environment you design for students:

  • In what ways do students feel respected, feel valued, and feel part of the whole group?
  • In what ways do students have ownership of the classroom? Do they ever make decisions about resources, environment, or use of time? When? How often?
  • Do they have ownership in their learning? Do they have choices and options for projects, assignments, and partners for group work?
  • When are students comfortable with expressing who they are and their thoughts and ideas? When are they not?
  • When do you inquire about the needs of your students? How often do you do this? How often do you check for group understanding and adjust the instruction accordingly?
  • How are desks arranged? Are students facing each other? Do they have multiple opportunities each week to share with fellow classmates, and to share with a variety of classmates?
  • As the instructor, what is my “air time” each class session? How much direct instruction is there? How might I change some of that directing teaching to facilitating? (Here’s a post I wrote on this topic, How to Transform Direct Instruction.)

Balancing Teacher Roles

So let’s talk about that last question, and specifically, direct instruction versus facilitation. When considering various teaching approaches, balance is the key word. If we turn to the work of educational researchers Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and their seminal book, Understanding by Design (UbD), they make a call for educators to reflect on how they balance the following three teaching roles:

  • Facilitation: open-ended questioning, problem posing, Socratic seminar, and guided inquiry
  • Direct instruction: demonstration, modeling, and lecturing
  • Coaching: providing feedback, conferencing, and guided practice

How do you decide on how much of one role and not enough of another? Well, when designing learning for your students, keep this is mind: There needs to be a healthy balance between student construction of meaning and teacher guidance.

In other words, yes, you need to tell them stuff and show them how to do things, but you also need to let your learners discover, experiment, and practice even if they miss the mark or target. Educational research tell us time and time again that all learners (young or old) need time to muddle through and make meaning of new content, ideas, and concepts with some coaching and guidance, but also independently.

In the comments section below, share with us your ideas and practices for fostering a learning environment that is student centered.


Let Them Be Bored

Let Them Be Bored

It’s been only a few days since the last final exams were turned in, summer has not yet officially begun, and yet teens in my practice are already talking about clashes with their parents around not being busy and productive enough. John, for example, puts enormous pressure on himself to get good grades in his academically rigorous independent high school despite having significant dyslexia. He became tearful as he told me that his mother has been yelling at him for “doing nothing” and waking him up at 9 AM “so he won’t sleep the day away.” Natalie, who left her freshman year of college a month early to get treated for a debilitating medical condition, got upset while relating that her mother has been “hovering over” her and asking “what I’m going to do with myself so I don’t get bored.”

Although teens experience these parental behaviors as critical, I believe that they’re really about anxiety. Like most mothers and fathers, you may have many understandable reasons to worry if your sons and daughters look as if they’re going to be sitting around all summer. You might be afraid they’re going to get bored, lonely, unhappy, or depressed unless they have planned activities. You might fear that idleness could lead to them getting into mischief or real trouble. These days, empty calendar weeks can make you lament lost opportunities for activities that could build their skills and resumes. And let’s be honest, seeing your own kids lounging around watching TV or glued to their devices when you hear about all the fabulous internships, community service projects, college programs and jobs other teens are doing can evoke all sorts of uncomfortable feelings that can make you question your parenting as well as your teen.

And yet, in my experience, there is much to be said for boredom. Here are some considerations in favor of not preempting that experience this summer by signing up your teens for a myriad of experiences that fill their schedules.

1. Give Them a Much-Needed Break

Teens today are busier than ever. Between classes, never-ending homework assignments, projects, exams, clubs, sports practices and games, tutoring sessions, after school jobs, volunteer commitments, and standardized test prep, many kids’ days start at dawn and end at midnight. Add to that the pressure of feeling as if every activity is a performance that determines their futures—not to mention the approval or disappointment of their parents—and you can imagine the state of constant frenzy that is modern teenage life. As one girl explained, “I can only see you in August when I get back from my program because once school starts in September I won’t have time to talk until I graduate.”

Many teens are so exhausted, mentally and physically, that all they want to do is sleep and “veg.” Believing in the mantra “Work hard, play hard,” I would argue that this is exactly what they need: days to get up whenever they awaken, without setting an alarm, without rushing, without having unfinished tasks hanging over their heads. Much-needed relaxation prevents the cognitive impairment, burnout, and depression that result from sleep deprivation. Getting rest at night and taking delicious summer naps can spark teens’ motivation and boost their energy.

2. Encourage Reflection

In my experience, too many teens are so swept up by their desires to achieve—to get stellar grades, shine in their extracurricular activities, join the most desirable friendship groups, look good, impress their parents and teachers, and get accepted to prestigious colleges—that they are not examining their reasons for doing so. As I was testing a rising high school junior the other day, Samantha burst into tears as she said she desperately hoped to be allowed to take AP English this fall. When I asked why she wanted to take this class so badly, she replied, “That’s what people do in my school.”

Samantha’s goal is not based on her personal interests or needs; in fact, she hasn’t even considered them. She wants to be in an AP class only because she wants to be seen as one of the smart kids. But because of her dyslexia, she finds reading difficult and slow going. If she were to take on the challenge of such a rigorous course, she would have to decide if she could keep up with the faster pace of assignments, how the extra work might affect her other classes, whether she can realistically get the As she strives for in the non-AP English class and, if not, how she would feel about lower grades. Samantha is intent upon doing something that may be not at all in her best interest and in fact totally inappropriate for her.

It is not unusual for teens to go through the motions in adhering to plans that have been set out for them. If they’re fortunate, they’ve been able to follow their own path; too many, however, feel as if they have been railroaded by others’ expectations, either explicit or tacit. And even if they have decided, say, to play Varsity soccer or take AP Bio or get recruited for lacrosse, if circumstances or their own wishes change it is nearly impossible for them to make mid-course corrections.

As a result, many teens are arriving at college with little awareness of why and how they got there. Ironically, and more worrisome, the frantic compulsion to prove their worth has prevented them from getting to know who they really are. Time for self-reflection can be the antidote, giving teens the means to becoming more self-aware, authentic, and confident.

3. Facilitate Executive Function Skills

One of the reasons many students are not making it in college is they can’t manage their lives when they’re living away from home. Trouble self-regulating sleeping, eating, and study habits or poor management of socializing and partying lead to problems such as academic probation, suspension, and legal issues. Professionals believe this is becoming more prevalent because teens these days have precious little practice in developing these crucial skills.

It’s become the norm, for example, for teens to expect their parents to wake them up for school (often repeatedly, sometimes by dragging covers off them), monitor their assignments online, remind them of due dates, ask if they’ve studied for tests, and track their extracurricular commitments and appointments. When there are conflicts with teachers or coaches, parents often call or email to intervene on their kids’ behalf. So great is the fear of mistakes and their “consequences” (such as lower grades or late assignments or missed athletic practices) that teens are not given the chance to figure out how to avoid such incidents in the future.

When you allow them to become bored, however, teens get to sit with their feelings and decide for themselves what to do about them. They may be impelled to make and implement plans. Or if that strategy fails, to flexibly think of alternatives. Teens who are given the space to get bored have the chance to monitor and satisfy their needs without relying on others—or by learning to ask for whatever help they realize they need. Left to their own devices, they figure out how to manage their time. Eventually, they develop problem-solving skills that serve them well once they get to college and beyond.


I’m not suggesting it’s easy to allow kids to become bored. As parents, we’ve all jumped on the bandwagon of using teens’ “productivity” as markers of their success—and our own. It’s also admittedly hard to see half-asleep sons and daughters emerge from their darkened bedrooms well past noon. “Wasting away their days” is the thought that comes to many adult minds. (Giving them the chance to be bored doesn’t mean giving them a reprieve from chores, either, which any responsible family member should do while living at home.)

The hardest thing for parents, by far, may be dealing with our own anxiety so we can resist criticizing teens for doing “nothing,” making suggestions about what they could do, and jumping in to “protect” them from possible discomfort. But I believe it’s worth the effort. Leaving teens with their real thoughts and feelings, which teaches them how to channel them constructively, is one of the best ways to raise capable, confident, and successful young adults.

Students building hover cars with 3D design

Iowa City Press Citizen

Hover cars soon will fly at M.C. Ginsberg Objects of Art, where middle-school students began taking a class on 3D design this week.

The class, which covers design, additive manufacturing and 3D printing, is one of several offerings for students in grades 6-8 through the University of Iowa Belin-Blank Center’s one-week Junior Scholars Institute. The class also is the first of its kind to be offered at a business rather than a classroom, said Lori Ihrig, supervisor for curriculum and instruction at the Belin-Blank Center.

Students must apply to participate in the institute, which includes room and board, and those accepted receive $325 scholarships to help cover the $1,025 fee.

Ihrig said the 3D design course exposes students to artistry, engineering and entrepreneurship, and that the partnership with M.C. Ginsberg allows students to work in an authentic space.

She said students will go above and beyond simply using technology by engaging creative, integrative thinking and problem solving.

“It’s not 3D printing for the sake of 3D printing,” Ihrig said.

Tuesday, students designed and assembled Styrofoam, cube-shaped puzzles at M.C. Ginsberg’s Studio for Advanced Design. In the coming days, they will design and build model hover cars using 3D printers and other materials.

Kevin Wilkinson, a teacher at Williamsburg High School, taught the students Tuesday and said the class encourages kids to be creative. He said it also exposes them to 3D printers as they become more user-friendly.

“It allows children to now create, design and build these products,” he said.

Hayden Johnson, 13, an eighth-grader living in Iowa City, said he loves building things. He said interests in 3D modeling and computer graphics drew him to the class, and that he hopes to get firsthand experience in these areas.

Ananya Albrecht-Buehler, 12, a seventh-grader living in Iowa City, said the opportunity to work with new technology drew her to the class.

“I just like technology and designing things,” she said.

Mark Ginsberg, owner of M.C. Ginsberg Objects of Art, said he was excited to partner with Belin-Blank on a class where students could gain experience in a non-traditional setting. He said these settings give students freedom to explore a variety of disciplines.

“They get to see real-world applications,” he said.

U.S. Millennials Know Technology, But Not How to Solve Problems With It, Study Says


By Guest Blogger Michele Molnar

The U.S. education system isn’t adequately preparing students to use technology for problem-solving, according to a newly released analysis, which recommends what public schools and businesses can do to address that problem.

Change the Equation, a Washington-based organization promoting science, technology, engineering, and math, or “STEM” studies, looked at how American millennials—the first “digital natives” because they were born after the Internet—fared in an international study of adult skillsin 19 countries.

To do so, the organization conducted an original analysis of data from the 2012 Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which tested the key cognitive and workplace skills needed to participate in society.Digital Native Does Not Need Tech Savvy.JPG

“Yes, [millennials] can take selfies,” said Linda Rosen, CEO of Change the Equation, in a presentation announcing the organization’s findings this week. “Yes, they can use social media.”

What they are not so capable of doing is solving high-level problems with technology, she said. In fact, 58 percent of millennials struggle to use digital tools and networks to solve relatively simple problems that involve skills like sorting, searching for, and emailing information from a spreadsheet, the study found.

Beyond that, 19 percent of the U.S. population sampled cannot categorize using technology, she said. That capability involves a task as simple as creating folders to handle the daily deluge of email.

Translated into earning capability, a person with the highest ability to problem-solve with technology is likely to earn more than double what a person at the lowest level earns, according to the organization’s analysis.

At the event to announce the STEM study, Jo Handelsman, the White House’s associate director for science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, offered three suggestions for schools and businesses:

  1. Add relevance to what is taught in the classroom by asking students to solve real-world problems, including ones that businesses allow students to tackle. “This is particularly significant for women and minorities,” she said. Studies show that they have a higher need for relevance to keep them interested in STEM, according to Handelsman.
  2. Change how teachers teach. “So much of K-12 education is passive,” she said. “It’s the old-fashioned lecture model, with rote memorization.” Injecting the “exciting aspect of real-world work” like coding and creation will increase students’ receptivity to STEM, Handelsman said, noting that students need to learn with “hands-on, active techniques” in science and technology. Kids will “start expecting it,” she said, “and teachers will come along.”
  3. Improve the image of STEM and STEM careers. “That’s an area where we have to work with the larger media,” she said, emphasizing the importance of “getting images of exciting people in exciting careers” into the public’s eye.

The work of Techbridge, a nonprofit that inspires girls to pursue technology, science and math, was also in the spotlight at the event, as was the involvement of Chevron, one of that organization’s corporate sponsors. Several organizations’ work in trying to increase participation in STEM has been profiled in the new brief published by Change the Equation, “Does Not Compute: The High Cost of Low Technology Skills in the U.S.—and What We Can Do About It.”  

To learn more about how problem-solving in technology-rich environments was measured in the 2012 Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, visit this link.

Study Ties Procrastination to Lower Scores

Data mining finds lessons about procrastination

Highest grades achieved by college students who start their homework at least three days in advance

The Hechinger Report

Photo of Jill Barshay

Education by the Numbers

Students scored 3 percent points worse than the class average when they waited until the last day to start their college chemistry homework. Source: “The Early Bird Gets the Grade: How Procrastination Affects Student Scores,” by Hillary Green-Lerman at Knewton.

Many college students say they procrastinate because they do their best work under pressure. And there’s usually no way to prove that they’re wrong. But now that more college students are logging onto a computer to do their assignments, data scientists can sometimes measure what the actual cost of procrastination is.

In one recent data-mining analysis, researchers from an education technology company found that almost one third of the students they studied waited until the day before the due date to start their chemistry homework  (typically weekly problem sets). And these students scored 3 percentage points lower, on average, than their classmates. In other words, if the class average was 88, the procrastinators scored 85.

Of course, there were individual bright students who waited until the last moment and still scored well. But the average procrastinator did worse.

The sweet spot to start weekly assignments was at least three days before they were due. But fewer than half the students had the discipline to start their work that early in the week. Interestingly, students who began even sooner —  four, five or six days before the due date — scored about the same as the students who gave themselves only three days.

“You’d expect the earlier you start, the better you do. But we don’t see that,” said Hillary Green-Lerman, a data scientist at New York-based Knewton, who analyzed homework grades for 5,000 students who were using its educational software across 27 introductory chemistry classes at different colleges.

“You don’t do any better for starting six days before it’s due. We don’t know what’s causing that,” Green-Lerman added.

(One theory is that if you start too early, the professor hasn’t covered that material in class yet. So you might as well wait for the next lecture first.)

The cost to last-minute procrastination echoes what psychologists have previously found in traditional experiments. Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University, said that students who waited until the last minute thought they did better than they actually did, in his 1993 study.

“A lot of students think, ‘I work best under pressure,’ ” he said. “There’s a real misperception.” Commenting on the Knewton analysis, he added, “Even with computers, people are still waiting, and they do worse.”

Procrastination is an important issue for companies like Knewton, which develop algorithms to tailor computer instruction to each student’s needs. The company believes that many student behaviors, from boredom to confusion, can play an important role in student achievement, and that they should be factored in to what the computer recommends to a student.

In the chemistry-course data analysis, Knewton was able to see when students first opened up a homework assignment, and how that timing correlated with the grade they received on it. Not counted were how many hours a student worked on the assignment each day. A student who simply opened up the homework on the first day, but didn’t do much work on it until the night before, would still be credited with starting the homework six days ahead of time. However, the company said the assignments in this particular analysis were generally completed on the same day on which they were started. (More details on the analysis on the company’s websitehere.)

Right now, Knewton is still collecting data on procrastination behavior. It hasn’t reprogrammed its algorithms to remind students to start their homework three days before it’s due, for example. This analysis was only for college chemistry, and most of the 325 homework assignments the company looked at were only one week long. It’s likely that procrastination’s consequences are different in different subjects, or with longer, more complicated projects.

But this first glimpse shows that it’s often a modest cost to wait until the last moment, and you don’t need to start on homework too early. Go ahead and play some ultimate frisbee first.


by  • June 9, 2015

Connected Principals

I will change roles next year. I will now be responsible for the school’s Middle School (grades seven and eight). The other day I went around talking to each Middle School teacher sharing a little bit about myself, my beliefs and some initial thoughts on my vision of where I see our school going. I prepared every teacher for the fact that I will be continually asking “why?” and I invite and encourage them to do the same of me. It  is not that I necessarily believe we are doing something wrong, but I will always want to know the purpose and challenge if there are other more effective methods to reach the goal of doing what is best for students.

As I sat with a couple of young teachers, I noticed a stack of traditional final exams, all the same, photocopied and ready to be handed out to grade seven students for a timed test. I asked why? What ensued was a great conversation. No one in the room truly felt that these final exams were the best way for students to demonstrate what they have learned, so why are we still doing it?

I confessed that I have many whys. Why do we still have parent-teacher conferences that often don’t even involve the student?  Why do we celebrate academic achievement in such way that honours only those who have reached a certain percentage and a way that ranks students? Why do we make decisions without consulting students?

What’s your why question?

Are We Helping Our Kids or Nagging Them?

The New York Times Motherlode Blog

It’s a parent’s job to teach our children: to do the right thing, use the right words, learn and practice the skills they’ll need to handle life at school and out in the world. But some mornings — after a seemingly endless stream of corrections intended to help my daughter — I end up feeling as if I am sending my unlucky child off to school with the extra burden of never getting anything right.

For parents of a child with any kind of “special need,” reminders and corrections are especially complicated. Prodding a child to pronounce the “s” at the end of the word or to look into someone’s face when they’re speaking or to finish a task or use a developing physical skill — can dominate the relationship between parent and child and become the focus of every interaction.

Striking a balance between the help that seems necessary and the loving, nonjudgmental relationship you want to have is harder than it sounds. Parents of children in various therapies are often coached by professionals on how to support their work — to encourage a correct pronunciation or redirect an interaction with a friend. But parents rarely receive guidance on when to step back and be parents, not teachers.

I live this dilemma daily, which is why a friend sent me “Being Mindful Of Our Nice To Nag Ratio” by Andrea Nair. My ratio I thought, surveying the headline, was singularly unimpressive.

I was clearly in a pattern where the “bulk of communication” to my child was corrective. “It can be hard to be nice to a child who, in your mind, is always blowing it,” Ms. Nair wrote.

“Blowing it?” That’s not the language I would ever use, but I suspect that is effectively what my child hears when the drumbeat of correction becomes louder than anything else.

I emailed Ms. Nair to ask for some ideas for parents on how to balance “corrective communication” with support. “How often do you correct,” I asked her, “and how often do you let it go?”

“I like to reframe ‘nagging’ as ‘redirection,’” she wrote. “We can still guide our children, even often if necessary, without making the child feel like we’re being hard on them.” Try wording directions neutrally, she suggested, like catching a child’s gaze and using a single word “eyes” to encourage eye contact.

Children, she said, do need a break from being redirected. “They need opportunities to feel they are doing something well.” With special needs, redirection can be tricky. Too much can start to be interpreted by the child as an inherent fault in who they are. Ms. Nair suggests using words focused on growth, and watching carefully for any language that may suggest that a child is incapable of getting it right.

“Parents can use the child’s behavior as an indicator when there have been too many redirections. Children might start snapping at parents, friends or siblings if they feel too hounded. Some kids even get absorbed in video games because that’s a world their parents can’t correct them in. ”

I still wish I knew precisely how often I need to help my child read social cues in order to help her grow. And I struggle with how often I can let things slide to make sure she knows that I love her even when she walks up to her third-grade teacher in the middle of the onstage presentation to the classroom parent and demands to be given a drink. (I let the teacher handle that one.) For now, I’ll mind my “nice to nag ratio” with all of my children.

How do you find the balance between correcting and lovingly allowing, for children with special needs and without?