Jennifer Davis Bowman


Cincinnati, OH

Interests: Instructional...

  • Posted 2 Years ago
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That Awkward Moment v3: Student-Centered Lessons Make a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I believe that if awkwardness disappeared right now, if we never presented a lesson clumsily, or never lectured self-consciously, we would be at a disadvantage. Feeling awkward alerts teachers that we have more work to do with our students (and with ourselves). It's a reminder that we're not quite there yet. And where is there? It's on the corner of effective instruction and authentic learning.

That Awkward Moment is a blog series that highlights difficult learning scenarios and provides resources to help. Did you miss the beginning of the series? Take a look at the first post for resources to improve class discussions or the second post on effective ways to upgrade student assessments. Today we will examine that awkward moment when your student-centered learning goes bad.


Why student-centered learning can be awkward:

1)  Student-Centered instruction is complicated. It requires that teachers train students to be proficient in skills like:

a) Teaching others

b) Practicing by doing

c) Leading peer discussion groups

2)  We use multiple names interchangeably when discussing student-centered Learning. Does this indicate we are uncertain of what it really entails? Think about it, we use the following terms to describe it:

a) Personalized Learning

b) Project-based Learning

c) Problem-based Learning

d) Active Learning

e) Inquiry-based Learning

f) Cooperative Learning

3) We talk about the multiple benefits all the time, but student-centered lessons are used less often than we admit. Research shows that when faced with the pressures of high-stakes testing, teachers are likely to stick with direct instruction (Passman, 2000). Additionally, when teachers try student-centered instruction and meet challenges, they return to methods that are more familiar (Aaronsohn, 1996).

4) The push for student-centered learning neglects to consider the potential disadvantages for decreasing the teacher’s role in learning (reducing teacher talk time and limiting direct instructional time).

5) Teachers talking less (allowing the learners to facilitate more) may model non-curious behavior to the class. When the teacher has less verbal exchanges with students, it provides the teacher with less time to model how to pose questions, draw inferences, and develop conclusions (Hulme, Green, & Ladd, 2013).

6) Talking less increases lesson delivery pressures. If the teacher has less direct instruction time, there is less of an opportunity to build anticipation and mystery within the lesson (Young, & Diekelmann, 2002).

7) It may require an increase in teaching resources such as materials for hands-on activities and project supplies. In addition, more funding dedicated specifically for teacher training on student-centered instruction may be required.

8) It challenges the concept that teachers are experts because it decreases the opportunity to illustrate expertise in a direct, explicit instructional manner (Bundick, Quaglia, Corso, & Haywood, 2014)


Strategies to make student-centered learning less awkward and more powerful:

1)  Understand what the research actually says about the impact of student-centered learning vs. other learning styles. a) In one study conducted by Crystal Jones with students with exceptionalities (that relied on student surveys and teacher reflection journals) there was no significant difference in achievement found between teaching students with direct instruction or student-centered instruction. b) There is some research (highlighted in articles by Paul Bruno and Bettina Chang) that indicates student-centered learning is less effective with struggling students and those learners that are easily distracted by their peers.

2)  Plan Student-Centered Instruction brainstorm sessions. Call it a student-centered instruction Pary and I guarantee more people will come.  Invite colleagues and review resources (blogs, educational publications) that may help inform your practice.

3)  Don't feel that the challenges you experience are all your fault. Assess the various factors that make or break a successful student-centered learning environment.  Pernille Ripp writes a great article to help teachers remember that engagement is not the teacher's burden alone. 

4)  Brush up on exactly why students resist Student-Centered Learning. News flash: Students don’t always want to put forth the effort the Student-Center Learning requires. Also, it seems that Student-Centered Instruction does not align with what students believe learning looks like. Terry Doyle elaborates on these factors and provides additional reasons students resist Student-Centered Learning in this short summary of his book.

5)  Communicate with students in advance regarding the challenges they may encounter during Student-Centered Learning. According to an article by Hansen and Stephens, it is beneficial to consider:

a) student learned helplessness

b) social loafing

c) low tolerance for learning challenges

d) role of political correctness

Examining our response to a not-so-good student-centered lesson brings to mind the quote near the end of Judith Viorst’s classic children's book of Alexander’s awful day:


Some days are like that...

The big take-away from this post, is that your day with student-centered Learning Doesn't Have To Be Terrible, Horrible, and No Good. Don’t Give up. Don’t settle for a bad student-centered lesson. Be proactive. Challenge yourself to try one tip in this post. Increase your odds of thriving even when your students resist student-centered instruction.

PS. While we prepare the next Awkward Moment post, are you interested in Terrific, Hackable, So Good, Very Rad Day teaching resources? If so, check out my Pinterest Boards Teaching Strategiesor or Teacher To-Don't List.

PPS. What do you think genuinely warms students up to student-centered instruction-in spite of their conditioning to Direct Instruction? Share your secrets (or cautions) in the comment section below.



Aaronsohn, E. (1996). Going against the grain. Supporting the student-centered teacher. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Inc.

Bundick, M.J., Quaglia, R.J., Corso, M.J., & Haywood, D.E. (2013). Teachers College Record, 116(4).

Hulme, E., Green, D.T., & Ladd, K.S. (2013). Fostering student engagement by cultivating curiosity. New Directions for Stuedent Services, 143, 53-64.

Passman, R (2000). Pressure cooker. Experiences with student-centered teaching and learning in high-stakes assessment environments. Retrieved from ERIC database.

Young, P., & Diekelmann, N. (2002). Learning to lecture: Exploring the skills, strategies, and practices of new teachers in nursing education. Journal of Nursing Education, 41(9), 405-412.

1 Comment

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

05 Dec 15, 09:48 PM

Hey Jennifer! This is such a great question. I think students warm up to student-centered instruction when they genuinely know you enjoying talking to them as well as just letting them do the discussing. Students like talking to you. They want to hear from you. It just has to be a two-way street of dialogue. A room that reflects a teacher who LOVES to hear her students talk, who LOVES to engage in debate with them or help analyze the world verbally with them, is a room where there is more buy-in for student-centered instruction. As Kelly Gallagher says in Write Like Me, teachers are a connective wire between the students and the world outside our schools. We must, in real-time, model how we conduct elements of communication. It applies to discourse and independent learning as much as it does to writing. I think kids warm to this style of learning when teachers genuinely enjoy engaging in it. -Heather Wolpert-Gawron

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