Getting Started 4: Students (What if students are an obstacle to student-centered learning?)

[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: Getting Started 6: Contract Grading and Peer Review


What do you do if one of your biggest obstacles to student-centered learning is the students?  This fourth post in my personal, anecdotal step-by-step blog series on getting started in student-centered learning considers the role of the student in student-centered learning.

Sometimes students love it.  In fact, most students I encounter embrace this rare opportunity to take responsibility for reshaping their own learning. They report that they work harder in my student-centered classes than in conventional ones, sometimes pursuing individual research projects that rival doctoral dissertations in scope and significance!  I often have to limit rather than encourage them to do more because they so often crave the opportunity to learn beyond the credential or the test or the prof or even the degree.  They relish taking on the skills (hilarious that they are often called “soft skills”) that will serve them after graduation is over, especially the ability to unlearn and relearn, to analyze and manage change, to take an inventory of what they need and to understand how to find the best tools, partners, and methods to hel them in confusing situations, when the world is changing, when life is changing, when they are changing.  It happens.

Having the resources within yourself to address change creatively, resourcefully, and resiliently–not passively–is not intuitive or natural.  Nor is it an inheritance. These skills can be learned along with whatever content one masters in a course.

Knowing one can learn complex new material is, in itself, an invaluable resource for the future, and we have several decades of research now to document the sheer power of confidence in your own ability to learn.  Carol Dweck and others have show that “growth mindset” is not a genetic inheritance but something that can be cultivated if you are not lucky enough to be born with a trust fund or citizenship or the privilege of being born into the right racial or religious group or the most esteemed gender in your society.  Student-centered learning is about helping learners of all backgrounds to go deep inside themselves to find and nurture their own talents, skills, and dispositions for successful learning–and also to be able to find others with whom they can collaborate or network successfully. 

But . . .  not every student wants to face such a formidable challenge.

It never surprises me when some students just want to sleep or sneak time on their cell phones in the lecture hall and then cram their way through a final exam and throw a paper together the night before it is due.  You do the minimal, you have fun, you get your degree:  you postpone LIFE four more years.   Life is scary.  Why not try to postpone it a little longer?

Then again, procrastinating never makes a problem go away.

Nor does it surprise me when the traditional A+ student just wants to get another A+ in the traditional way.  Why not have perfect grades, ace the LSAT’s or the M-CAT’s, and go straight through to a career without ever stopping to really think about it?  (That’s not a rhetorical question. It’s one I ask my students all the time.)

I believe a professor’s job is to help students who come out of traditional credential-centered and teacher-centered formal education to feel confident and ready enough to take on the world.  Not every student wants to take on the world in a radically progressive way.  Here are my thoughts on how to address the student who just doesn’t want to rock the boat, change the system, shake up the assumptions in the classroom or out, or do the hard and often disturbing work of being introspective.


First: Begin with a clear definition.  It’s very useful, in talking to students, to start by defining student-centered or progressive or peer or connected learning without all the baggage of educational jargon or prescriptive methodology.

Here’s my simple, jargon-free, bare-bones definition:  Student-centered learning is any form of learning that sets the student’s success as its goal.   

That may not seem radical but it reverses the Darwinian principle of selection implicit in the modern social order and reinforced by modern education, including higher education. Higher education puts the professor at the center of the merit process.  The professor decides who is or isn’t smart.  The university and all of the credentialing bodies of the university make selectivity the gold standard of excellence.  The more people you reject, the better you are as an institution in credential-centered learning.  Traditional education arranges everything according to how students are sorted, selected, graded, ranked, rated, and then credentialed as part of that sort.

But is that trickle-down selectivity valid? What if being #1 at the top ranked school is not the student’s own idea of success?

But that raises a really hard question:  What do I mean by student success?  I have no idea.  I’m not the student. Only the student can determine that.

So I suppose I would have to add one secondary characteristic:  Student-centered learning begins with student’s being introspective about the kind and level of success they desire. (In a future post, I’ll be writing about contract grading, writing a class constitution, students’ writing their own goals, and other ways that students take an inventory of their own deepest motivations for being in school, for wanting to being in school, for what they hope to achieve beyond the grade, the major, and the diploma).

No wonder some students hate it.  Student-centered learning demands a lot of self-knowledge. That’s scary. It requires responsibility.  Some students just are not ready yet.

Second: Choice. Therefore… I never try to convince a student who wants a traditional course to take my course.  I have had many students drop my course during the first week only to lurk around the edges and come back and take it a semester later.  The key feature of being in college–whether being a traditional residential student at Harvard or a returning student at your local community college–is it is voluntary.  No law says you must be in college.  No one forces you to finish a class.  If a student hates student-centered learning, I often volunteer to help them find a more suitable, traditional course that meets their needs. Since I conduct my classes online and in public, I invite them to follow along if they wish, and I wish them well.

Third: Empathy.  If they decide to stay but are nervous, I empathize with their hesitation.  I listen.  Can you blame these students for the expectation that college will be credential-centered and teacher-centered? They have survived, even excelled at, twelve years of a regime of formal education micromanaged to a degree never seen before in human history.  18 years of helicopter parents arranging every playdate, teachers standardizing (often against their will) subjects in which kids once bristled with curiosity, and legislators insisting that accountability, outputs, and skills are what the 21st century workplace needs.  (Really? You expect to believe that?  The kids aren’t fooled. They know it’s pointless being trained to be robots when there are real robots coming for their jobs.  No human can compete with robots for jobs that require nothing more than skills and outputs . . . ).  

You know those students sitting in the lecture hall playing games on their cell phones?  A lot of them are angry. They are bored. They know the world is changing all around them but often they feel it’s too late for them to late.  They feel they’ve been left behind. At 18.  That is a tragedy.

Listen to Ta-Nehesi Coates, in his brilliantly outraged Between the World and Me, that so clearly makes the case that educational injustice and racial injustice go hand-in-hand:  “If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left…. I suffered at the hands of both, but I resent the schools more.  …  To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant always packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly…. I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity.  They were concerned with compliance.”

Fourth: Meta-Cognition (yes, that’s educational jargon but it’s useful jargon: it means that you need to underscore, over and over,  what life skills are being mastered by the non-traditional processes).  The old three-step cliche about how to give a great talk is true about how to teach a great student-centered class:  1- Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em; 2-Tell ‘em; 3-Tell ‘em what you told ‘em.

Meta-cognition is the technical term for thinking about how we think. In student-centered learning, it’s easy to miss that the real learning is about process, collaboration, working together, time management, project management, collaboration by difference (a subject of a future blog), peer mentoring, peer learning, applying theory to practice, taking real life situations and applying those back to make more meaningful theory, and in all ways thinking about process, not just product.

For students who decide to stay in the class, in addition to knowing that they will be learning life skills is important and another step that I emphasize:  constantly underscoring what is being learned.  It is not intuitive.  It’s important to say what is going to be learned, to say what is being learned, and then to summarize what was learned on a given day.  Even better:  have students do that.

Fifth: THINK-PAIR-SHARE: This is a quick, informal technique that helps students access what they are thinking, share it with another student, collaborate on a refinement of that idea, and then share it with others.  The whole process is extremely useful for the student and the class and helps to re-center any discussion that is becoming too professor-centered.

I try to do TPS in every class and I try to do it at least one or more times in every public lecture I give.  ( I did it once in the Philadelphia 76’ers auditorium with an audience of 6000+ high school teachers!). I’ve written on Think-Pair-Share so many times  I’m going to borrow from myself and paraphrase a previous blog  about TPS.

Here’s the original blog:…


1–Hand out index cards and pencils (this is not necessary but it somehow ritualizes the event and sets the mood fast and fast is important in TPS).

2-Set a timer for 90 seconds (really, 90 seconds).

3-Pose a question.  For example, I might ask: “What Do You Do When Students are the Biggest Obstacle to Student-Centered Learning?” I would ask everyone to take 90 seconds to jot down three things (there are no right or wrong answers) they would do to engage or convince students.

4-When the timer sounds, I then have students work in pairs.

5-Set the timer for another 90 seconds.  During this time, the students take turns reading to one another the three things they’ve written on their cards.  This step is very important.  One person is silent while the other reads; then the next person.

Hearing your own voice in a classroom—and witnessing being heard– is the beginning of taking responsibility for your own learning.  It’s not only about meeting someone else’s criteria but setting the bar for yourself.  There is also something about the ritual of writing down, then reading to someone else, that allows the introvert to speak up in a way that avoids the panic of being called on and having to speak extemp before a group.  It is extremely egalitarian—it structures equality.

6-In that same 90 seconds, the pair quickly chooses one thing from among the six that they will read to the whole group.  They can edit, merge two things, but they have to agree on one.

7–Go around the room, and each pair reads aloud their one contribution.

8–Each of these is then added to a public Google Doc or a Word Press or another website and shared with the larger world.

For more details:…

I guess there is a sixth:

SIX:  ENJOY! If there is no joy, the first five don’t matter.


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