Student-Centered Learning at HPS
On January 29, 2020, in Kaitlin Sullivan’s 9th-grade science class at Bulkeley High School, about a dozen students were working in small groups in different areas of the classroom. On the far side of the room, three youths were poised in front of laptops, either following an online lesson or watching a video. In the center aisle, another small group was sitting at a table with a tray and assorted liquids and tubes in front of them. The largest group were seated around another longer table with notebooks or laptops open, working independently as Sullivan and another teacher, Dan Tamkin, checked in and answered questions.
This scene illustrated what’s called student-centered learning or SCL at Bulkeley. By allowing students to choose between several learning options – small-group, online, worksheet or hands-on — Sullivan has found that they are more engaged, better behaved, and actively making decisions about their learning.
“A little bit of choice is a way to get opt-in and motivate kids to do the work,” said Sullivan who is also SCL Site Lead at Bulkeley.
While student-centered learning is still developing at Bulkeley, some teachers are actively adopting it in one way or another, said Sullivan. Over the last five years, she has introduced the practice gradually to her students.
For example, the 9th graders in her class were learning about density by first choosing three out of four “learning suggestions” – a small-group lesson, Edpuzzle video, online lesson, or printed resource. Once they completed three, at their own individual pace, they then moved on to choosing two out of four “practice suggestions,” which included an online exercise, worksheet, Quizlet flash-card activity, or hands-on experimentation.
Sullivan led one hands-on activity that tested the relative density of three liquids: cooking oil, syrup, and hydrogen peroxide. The small group first guessed which liquid was most or least dense, then poured them all into a tube to see how they would separate, and which liquid would rise to the top and which would stay at the bottom. (Answer: Syrup is most dense!)
After students worked through their practice activities, they took an assessment to test their mastery of the material. One student who got most, but not all, questions correct was instructed to repeat an activity before retaking the assessment, allowing her to learn and relearn as needed until she achieved a perfect score.
This approach is “meeting students where they are,” Sullivan said. “They’re mastering the material at their own pace.”
Student Voice and Choice
Sullivan has incorporated student-centered learning in small doses and made adjustments along the way. For example, she recently added more reflection to the process. After students demonstrate mastery of a lesson, she asks them to complete a written reflection to identify the activities that were most helpful to them, what challenged them, and what they might do differently in a future lesson. This approach gives Sullivan and her students insight into what works.
The learning options give student a voice in their education and also keeps them engaged by allowing them to choose the method they find most appealing and helpful to them personally. It also aids students who might otherwise struggle, such as English Learners, by giving them the chance, for example, to watch a video multiple times if they need to. If by the end of class, a student has not completed an activity, they can continue at home to stay on track.
A Growing Model at HPS
Student-centered learning is practiced in varying degrees in a growing number of HPS classrooms, including at Sport and Medical Sciences Academy (SMSA), Weaver High School, Hartford Public High School and Bulkeley. Administrators, coaches, and teachers have drawn on SCL concepts that they’ve gleaned from Education Elements, a national organization that assists districts with SCL, leadership development, and strategy.
At SMSA, there are two cohorts of educators — a total of 12 teachers across all content areas — who are implementing SCL into their classrooms, according to Assistant Principal Allison Giuliano. The first cohort completed training last year and the second cohort will implement SCL practices this semester. In addition, SMSA has also created a SCL Leadership team which develops and delivers monthly professional learning to all of staff in order to build an infrastructure to learn and experiment with SCL strategies.
According to Justin Taylor, director of Educational Initiatives & Innovation at HPS, the vision for student-centered learning at HPS is “one in which teachers routinely implement four core instructional practices. These include (1) using flexible content and digital tools to personalize learning experiences for students; (2) making data-informed decisions that appropriately differentiate instructional experiences; (3) providing targeted small group instruction that is responsive to the needs of our diverse student body; and (4) allowing for student reflection and ownership to promote self-managing behavior and independence.”
While flexibility and choice are built into the model, “standards-based curriculum, formative assessments, and student-friendly feedback” are key, said Taylor. The curriculum provides clear guidelines for success and teachers use assessment strategies to gage student progress. Teachers provide feedback based on assessments through advisory and tools like student success plans (SSPs) to promote goal setting and reflection.
SCL offers an innovative and creative method that delivers the quality instruction that is central to the district’s Teaching & Learning priority. It also promotes critical thinking skills and engagement among students.