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Aurora Institute

The Tenets of Student-Centered Learning

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Liz Glowa

Issues: Issues in Practice, How to Get Started


This is the first blog in a series featuring the report Student-Centered Learning: Functional Requirements for Integrated Systems to Optimize Learning.

SCL NMEF graphicAccording to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, there are four tenets of student-centered learning, based on the mind/brain sciences, learning theory and research on youth development:

  1. Learning is Personalized
  2. Learning is Competency-based
  3. Learning Happens Anytime, Anywhere
  4. Students Take Ownership Over Their Learning

These four tenets prove essential to students’ full engagement in achieving Deeper Learning outcomes and to enabling all students to achieve what they need to know and master to succeed in college, careers and civic life.

Learning is Personalized

Personalized learning recognizes that students engage in learning in different ways and in different places. Students benefit from individually-paced, targeted learning tasks that start from the student’s current position, formatively assess existing skills and knowledge, provide ample, frequent and actionable feedback from multiple sources and address the student’s needs and interests. Tasks and learning units might be either individual or collective. Learning is deepened and reinforced through participation in collaborative group work, focused on engaging and increasingly complex and authentic problems and projects, as well as through relationships and community structures in the larger learning environment beyond the classroom itself (e.g., advisory groups, mentoring, internships and community support partnerships).

Learning is Competency-Based

Students move ahead when they have demonstrated mastery of content, not when they’ve reached a certain birthday or met the required hours in a classroom. Competencies are defined by explicit learning objectives that empower students. Students receive timely, differentiated support, and they advance by demonstrating evidence with meaningful assessments via mastery, not seat time. Students have multiple means and opportunities to demonstrate mastery through performance-based and other assessments. Each student is assured of the scaffolding and differentiated support needed to keep progressing at a pace appropriate to reaching college, career and civic outcomes, including when additional resources are required to achieve equity.

In 2011, Chris Sturgis, Co-Founder of CompetencyWorks, and Susan Patrick, President and CEO of iNACOL, proposed a five-part working definition of competency education in partnership with leading practitioners in the field of K-12 competency-based education at the Competency-based Education Summit hosted by iNACOL and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO):

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Learning Happens Anytime, Anywhere

Learning takes place during and beyond the traditional school day—and even the school year. The school’s walls are permeable; learning is not restricted to the classroom or the building. Time and place are used flexibly, in ways that optimize and extend student learning and that allow for educators to engage in reflection and planning. Students have equitable opportunities to take advantage of internships, work study, career and technical educational opportunities, even digital learning to expand access to coursework and advanced courses that may not be offered at their own school. This anytime, everywhere can enhance educational opportunities, offer multiple pathways to graduation and students can earn credit for the learning they do outside of school, based on their demonstration of skills and knowledge.

Students Take Ownership Over Their Learning

Student-centered learning engages students in their own success and incorporates their interests and skills into the learning process. They gain a clear understanding of what they have mastered, set goals for what they need to know and master long-range, determine what they need to master short-term to reach their long-term goals and receive frequent feedback on their progress. They use data to diagnose, direct and drive their learning. They have multiple opportunities to direct, reflect and improve on their own learning through formative assessments and data reports that help them understand their own strengths and learning challenges. Students take increasing responsibility for their own learning, using strategies for self-regulation and reflection. Students support one another’s progress and celebrate success.

While implementing any one of these tenets in isolation can be beneficial, the collective embrace and systemic implementation of all the tenets is critical for transforming learning. There is no one-size-fits all strategy to implementing student-centered learning, and both the implementation vision and approach will vary across organizations. Implementation will also vary according to district priorities and resources.

The importance of student-centered learning for effective education is well established, yet teachers, schools and districts struggle with its implementation. To actually put the tenets of student-centered learning into play requires a whole school and school system transformation supported by a robust, integrated student-centered learning management system.

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 6.31.11 PMThe iNACOL report Student-Centered Learning: Functional Requirements for Integrated Systems to Optimize Learning is the first comprehensive research that compiles information to examine what student-centered learning means for each end user segment across the K-12 education system and determine the fundamental requirements for the technologies needed to support educators’ and students’ needs. A student-centered learning ecosystem must support the complicated set of processes that make up personalized, student-owned, collaborative, anytime, anywhere learning and competency-based education.

This paper examines the functional requirements for how technology can be used by students and educators. It provides use cases for parents, advisors, mentors, and school and district leaders, and it proposes functional requirements for these user groups as well. The paper emphasizes the importance of analyzing and examining our knowledge of what is currently used and needed and what future developments are needed in a student-centered learning integrated information ecosystem based on interviews, site visits and research.

Explore student-centered learning and integrated, student-centered systems:

Learn more about report findings in our upcoming June Leadership webinar: Exploring Integrated Learning Systems to Optimize Student-Centered Learning.