Getting Started, Student-Centered Learning, Part 2: It’s All About You

[Cross-posted from HASTAC]

Part One: How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom Part I

Part Two: It’s All About You

Part Three: The Syllabus

Part Four: Students

Part Five: Collectively Writing a Constitution

Part Six: Contract Grading and Peer Review


If learning were the sole objective of schooling, it would make good, common sense to teach to the needs, requirements, experience, and interests of each and every student. That is the most effective way to teach outside of school so why wouldn’t it be the most effective way to teach in?

However, formal education has many other social functions, including certification (i.e. official verification that a prescribed body of knowledge has been mastered in a prescribed way as judged by experts/teachers/professors who have themselves been certified by the same process). Changing the focus from the certification to the learning, from what the teacher knows to how the student (and the teacher) learns unsettles some of the deepest assumptions about education, hierarchy apprenticeship, society, authority, power, knowledge, discipline, and authority.  No wonder change is  so difficult!

If you are committed to turning your traditional classroom into a student-centered space, you are working against at least five obstacles:


2-the regulatory system of education, kindergarten to professional school;

3-the students;


5-everyone else in society (pundits, legislators, technocrats, every know-it-all-who-has-ever-been-to-school-and-who-is-sure-that-qualifies-him/her-as-an-expert).

The only one of those five over which you have control is the first:  you.  So let’s start there.  (Don’t worry.  We’ll be dealing with the other four later in this series. . . .)

So that’s where we need to put our own energies first.  On our selves.  The prof.  You. Me. Moi.   The teacher.  The expert.  You spent  a long time getting to the front of the class.  The big question:  What’s in it for you to give up that power?  

So much!  Really.  There is so much to gain.  Unless you enjoy hanging out with other middle-aged (or middle-aged- acting) adults who like to spend their time complaining about “the younger generation” (as if that were a novel complaint in the course of human history . . .), the great thing about student-centered learning is that it pretty much changes your alignment.  You become allied with instead of arrayed against your students.  Instead of a narrow-minded focus where they–students– are the enemy, the colonial subjects, the unruly people who must be subjugated, disciplined, tamed, shamed, humiliated, or otherwise taught a lesson (what a metaphor!), with student-centered learning, you become–in the phrase I associate with Howard Rheingold (I’m not sure if he coined it or just used it with panache):  co-learners.

If my choice is between being stodgy Ichabod Crane, the disciplinarian, or being an active, engaged, and activist co-learner, I will take the co-learner role every time.  It’s a lot more fun.

(Yes, I know there’s a lot of space in the middle…  but our whole society has tipped so much in the direction of outcomes, accountability, standards, summative testing, and other metrics that it is really time for a bit of rabble-rousing in the other direction.  Please John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Lev Vygotsky, et al, rise from your graves:  we need you again to inspire us again with some progressive principles.  Taylorite education has won, even in our era of interactive DIY learning.)

But before we can even begin to get rid of Ichabod Crane, we need to do a lot of exorcism of our own training, thinking, reflexes, habits, and comfort levels.  (Here’s the good news:  you don’t have to be perfect, and, the great thing about co-learning is you can tell your students up front that you are using the experimental method and they are part of the learning experiment.  They will come up with great ideas if you let yourself let them.)

Here is my rule of thumb in pushing myself out of the expert role and into the co-learner role:  I like to ask myself how much or how little I can stand in their way.  It’s a choice, and I survey what the options are.  Then, I ask how much can I build a platform or an opportunity or a method or a system or a community or a network upon which students (collectively) can together do far much more than I ever dreamed possible.

This doesn’t mean I do less work.  What it means is that I do a different kind of work. There is more teamwork.  More trusting in others.  More uncertainty about outcomes.  More introspection. More attention to method and process.  More awareness that content is far less important (and is retained less) than experience, practice, theory put into use, and on and on.  Imagine if medical school were only sitting in lectures and taking multiple choice exams, not being an intern, then a resident?  A lot of what I do in my classrooms borrows from the classic “See one. Do one. Teach one” model of surgical training but adds a fourth one:  “Share One” since I believe student-centered learning is also about public contributions to knowledge, believing in the value of learning enough to share it with others beyond one’s self.

That means peer mentoring but also contributing to the world.  I never have students do work that only I, as a teacher, will see.  That’s another way of getting over myself.  I am not the first, last, or only audience of my student’s work.  Any more than I, as a supervisor of a new surgeon, would be the first, last, or only audience of that surgeon’s work:  the patient is.  In my classrooms, there has to always be the equivalent of a patient.  That is why I insist upon building an online community, on having my students talk to one another on line, why they become editors of one another’s published works, why they–not me–set the standards.

We’ll be looking at each of these things in this series.  But none of them work, none of them count, unless I can get out of the way, unless I understand that I am in the way.

Here is an example. To my knowledge, I have not had one plagiarized paper in the decade or more since I’ve been offering a student-centered classroom.  My students take roles in editing an online publication of final works or they write a final book or they make a final website and they edit one another’s work to perfection in order to be publishable both under the work of the individual author and under the group, with their own names attached as editors.  I help them write their own resumes in order to give themselves author and editor credit for this work in a professional way.  But that means they take professional responsibility for the work under their charge. To date, no one has accepted a plagiarized paper (to my knowledge at least) from another student, not when their name has been attached as the editor.

I have had students who are terrible proofreaders ask other students to help them, but it is almost always followed by an offer such as: “I am good at formatting and, if you proofread for me, I’m happy to put in all the images and work with the HTML and format your essay.”   As long as they tell me how they have worked out this collaborative arrangement equitably, so no one is taking advantage of anyone, and so everyone has learned from the process, I am happy to oblige.  That is a major life skill.

And I don’t have to be a dictator.

All of this is about getting over that first obstacle to student-centered learning:  myself.

Finally, if you are rethinking all your own reflexes as a professor in order to transform your traditional methods of teaching, you need the equivalent of an energy drink.  Here are some very quick, direct, simple resources that I find inspiring and motivating. There are lots of more intense, theoretical texts you can be reading.  I offer these quick, popular, trade audience (non-scholarly) reads and viewings just to get started:

Katherine Reynolds, “What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?” Negative consequences, timeouts, and punishment just make bad behavior worse. But a new approach really works. Mother Jones, July/August 2015 Issue

Excellent retrospective article in Mother Jones on the long, distinguished career of educator Ross Greene who reverses the Skinnerite tradition of “consequences” (good or bad) for kids’ behavior and action and instead works with kids who are acting out to come up with solutions, on their own or with the help of adults, to the quandary they are acting out about.   This gets to the deep root of student-centered learning and all that, as college professors, we have to think about reversing in the college classroom.  This is not a superficial fix.  It is a deep social and psychological transformation to a new way of thinking about individuals, authority, society, difference, and dissent.


“An Ecological View of Equity” by Nichole Pinkard

In her Digital Media and Learning Conference keynote, Pinkard examines the importance of working toward equity by both strengthening individuals and fixing broken systems.


Marina Krakovsky, “The Effort Effect,” Stanford Alumni,

A concise overview of the career of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck whose work shows that students who believe they have the capacity to grow do, in fact grow.  More important, students from disadvantaged backgrounds have absorbed the idea that they are innately inferior and lack this potential.  But–here’s the good news–students can be shown that this is untrue, that they can, in fact, learn and grow.  And they do.


Michael Wesch, “Digital Ethnography”  (

Wesch is one of the most radical practitioners of student-centered learning.  His blog, Digital Ethnography (, is a gold mine of ideas, but here’s one:  to study agining and the sociology of a retirement community, the students in Wesch’s Digital Ethnography class at Kansas State University moved into a retirement community for a semester.  One year, the students made a beautiful video based on ethnographic interviews with the residents; this year, they are making a single-player game based on the consequential life choices and circumstances being faced by the residents they lived with for the year.   Their work can be viewed on Mike’s site.  More inspiration for all of us.   And for a particularly charming talk by Mike Wesch, featuring his one-year old son learning to walk down a stair by himself:


Steven L. Berg, “Scholarly Voices,”

On the HASTAC site, history and English professor Steven L. Berg has created a student site, Scholarly Voices, where his students at Schoolcraft College, a community college in Livonia, Michigan, blog their own work.  The range and quality is unfailingly interesting.  Even more inspiring, the Schoolcraft students often venture off the student blog and make comments (sometimes quite pointed) on the opinions and research offered by senior scholars.  They can be fearless, and they are always respecful, smart, and serious–true role models.

Steven L. Berg, Student portal and project on “Unflattening by Nick Sousanis”

This is inspiring several times over.  Nick Sousanis wrote Unflattening, a comic about comics and visual literacy, as a dissertation at Columbia Teacher’s College.  Prof Berg’s students are writing a variety of projects inspired by, annotating, using, and creating lesson plans for Unflattening (the stunningly beautiful and provocative dissertation was almost immediately published as a book by Harvard University Press).  Every part of this should be inspiring to any professor who is self censoring.  Nick, Steve, and these Schoolcraft undergrads are all role models for the rest of us.


Lee Skallerup, “College Ready Writing – Peer-Driven Learning,”

This series of blog posts explores Professor Skallerup’s 3-plus year peer-driven learning project, sharing everything from her motivations, to the challenges, to nuts-and-bolts explanations of how she did what she did. Quoting her:  “What I am most proud of is that this was done with students from a rural state institution, students who came from ‘failing’ schools, students who came in under-prepared, students who were first-generation, students who were from some of the poorest zip-codes in the country. They did it. Never accept that ‘it can’t be done here, with these students.’”   Lee and her students again inspire us with their example.


How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom

Read Part I; Part 2

The series is being posted on a Google Doc for editing, comments, suggestions, revisions, additions:


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309