Why is the teacher’s role so important in creating a student-centered classroom?

August 9, 2018 / By

Teacher supporting students in their learningWe are at a crossroads in education. The role of the teacher has been changing dramatically during the past few decades, reflecting a more student-centric classroom. We have shifted from a viewpoint that emphasized  “how we teach” to one that now focuses on “how they learn.”
What do we expect to see in today’s student-centered or learner-centered classroom?

    • Students creating products that are meaningful to them
    • Students confidently amplifying their voices, each in their own unique and genuine style
    • Students thinking with complexity and applying knowledge and skills to new situations
    • Students using tools to communicate in compelling ways
    • Students reflecting on their learning and experiences through discovery

This change in perspective does not mean the teacher’s role is diminished; actually, quite the opposite is true. Teachers have never been more essential to ensuring student outcomes.

Building the student-centered classroom

In every classroom, the most successful learning occurs when teachers are facilitators or activators of learning. Instead of giving formulaic sets of worksheets, tasks, or practice problems, teachers today are designing active, engaging learning experiences that build on student strengths and interests. During these learning experiences, students are empowered to think more complexly while creating and engaging with content through real-life problem solving and perseverance.

Below are four contributions teacher make to ensure that they create a structure in which  student-centered classrooms thrive:

  1. Creating a safe environment
  2. Communicate learning goals
  3. Provide a structure for feedback
  4. Emphasize responsibility
Creating a safe environment

The foundation for any learning must be built in the context of a safe, nurturing classroom with positive, open communication. Learning is most meaningful and engaging when the classroom climate is one of welcoming errors and disconfirmation as a natural and positive part of developing and exercising new skills. As teachers, we care deeply about our students, our work, and our goals. Our actions and efforts reflect the values of the school community, the classroom, and the education profession. By creating a mutually respectful classroom that embraces a diversity of thoughts and ideas, students can articulate their thinking judgment-free even if those thoughts may differ from others’ thoughts and ideas.

Communicating learning goals

Because of this instructional and professional shift, it’s important that teachers communicate the teacher-student relationship clearly. Establishing and sharing clear procedures with students early will set the structure for positive interactions and aspirations later.

From the start of the school year or when students first enroll in a class, clarify what the student expects from being in that class. This challenges conventional methods. Instead of the teacher telling the students what to expect, this approach begins the process of co-creating learning goals and proactively addresses any anxieties or misconceptions that students may have about the teacher, class, or content in general. The most successful teacher-student relationships are ones built on safety, trust, and respect. Those foundations are established only when students fully understand and share their teacher’s vision for learning success.

Providing a structure for feedback

Another important aspect in establishing operating principles is for teachers to provide a structure and establish a frequency for communication and feedback with students and parents. In the past, teachers would communicate through grades, report cards, phone calls, or parent meetings at specific points throughout the year Providing continuous feedback to students on a daily basis instead provides more specific, meaningful and productive feedback that leads to higher growth over time.

Fisher and Frey (2011) explain that feedback must be timely, understandable, and actionable. It’s crucial that teachers give timely feedback throughout the problem-solving process, both in small groups and in individual conversations, and not just on a concluding assessment. This communication ensures students have time to react to and implement the feedback through revisions. The specific or understandable nature of feedback ensures that students know exactly what parts of their reasoning need revision or what parts of their solution path contain inaccuracies. Actionable feedback ensures students can take an objective view of teacher or student feedback and immediately make changes. It’s important language isn’t vague or praising a student for the right answer.  This is the appropriate time for clear, direct input, not praise or vague statements. Affirmation is important, but a separate part aspect of feedback.
Thought should be given to how feedback is delivered. Is it in conversation? If working in a google doc will the teacher provide comments in the document itself or in another creative platform?  How often are academic or learning conferences held? Will feedback take precedence over grades? Will students be encouraged to reflect on feedback and how? These are structures, and expectations, that a teacher would explicitly communicate to students.

Emphasizing responsibility

Responsibility is a very important principle in the classroom. Responsible behaviors include showing how they arrived at the solution, showing work, recording their reflections, and being open about their creative processes. Teachers must communicate to students that expectations of responsibility are non-negotiable by setting expectations early, making requirements clear, telling students how they will be evaluated and given feedback, sharing rubrics at the beginning of projects, and asking students to set goals. This clarity encourages students to take an ownership stake in their learning, while teachers create the best conditions for learning.  If a student produces work that doesn’t meet expectations as measured by a rubric, it’s the responsibility of the teacher and the student to determine why it doesn’t meet expectations and develop a plan for the student to revise work in order meet or exceed expectations. Part of ensuring responsibility is making sure that students feel valued in the class. Responsibility isn’t compliance or a rule, but a mutually agreed upon operating principle based on the ultimate goal of having students succeed to learn at the highest levels.

Creating a student-centric classroom doesn’t mean we advocate chaos or de-emphasize high expectations. It does mean we provide a fun, positive, and safe learning environment to help students think, learn, collaborate, and create in a new and previously unimagined way.

We’d love to hear from you! What do you believe is the biggest shift that must occur to promote a learner-centered classroom? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter using #WeListenEDU.


Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2011). The formative assessment action plan: Practical steps to more successful teaching and learning. Alexandria, Virginia USA: ASCD

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