In a recent TED Talk, Dr. Michael Nagler advocated for student-centered learning, saying, “If I give students choice in the work that they’re doing, then they’re more likely to be engaged and produce better products. Choice matters.” Students need to do more than master skills and standards in order to find success after graduation. Until recently, many educators felt that creativity, a defining attribute of many successful people regardless of their industry or educational background, couldn’t be taught in a classroom.
Educators like Dr. Nagler, Superintendent at Long Island’s Mineola UFSD, have come to believe that creativity can be nurtured and developed so long as teachers steer clear of outdated methods of instruction. He argues that rather than planning lectures or presenting one lesson to a class of students with diverse abilities, interests, and learning styles, educators should invest time in differentiating instruction and plan projects that use choice to encourage the creative application of knowledge.
Student choice can be found throughout Mineola’s elementary and middle school classrooms, and the district encourages students to show of their own unique ways of thinking through creative activities and authentic projects. By prioritizing programs and curriculum in which learning is student-centered, districts both increase engagement and prepare learners for better outcomes.
While all districts should be differentiating instruction to meet each student at his or her level, there are several ways to enhance student-centered learning to help students develop the skills they need to creatively apply their knowledge.
“From day one, I’ve told my students they can sit wherever they want as long as they’re safe,” says Katie Collins, a 2nd grade teacher at Woodbrook Elementary School in Charlottesville, VA. Rows of forward-facing desks might work for some students, but do little in the way of encouraging collaboration and peer feedback. Allowing students the option of working at a desk, on the floor, or on a comfy couch, introduces the concept of student choice at an early age and encourages students to develop a sense of ownership and agency over their classroom behavior and learning.
Older students should be allowed to select from a variety of different final project models. When students are allowed to express their thinking in a way that reflects their unique skills, interests, or experiences, their engagement and effort is bound to increase. During his TED Talk, Dr. Nagler recalled a recent conversation he had with a student in his district. After coming across an old stop motion video about the Battle of Bemis Heights that a student had made in 5th grade, Dr. Nagler found the student, now in high school, and asked what he remembered about his project. Dr. Nagler was shocked to find that while the highschooler still remembered key details from a historic event he had studied years before, he hadn’t had the opportunity to work on similar creative projects since. “We don’t cultivate this notion that students should demonstrate and show off their best work,” concluded Dr. Nagler, adding that students can gain a better understanding of standards when they’re allowed to synthesize their learning in their own way.
Relating skills and standards to real-world problems can make class time seem more purposeful and relevant to students. After administering a survey of student interests at the beginning of the year, educators can allow students to chose from a variety of different research project topics. Topics should be varied in scope and theme, culturally inclusive, and worked into essential questions that ask students to use key standards or skills. Incorporating collaborative instructional strategies into the class day such as writing workshops or peer editing sessions allows students to catch the excitement their classmates have for personal interests and develop a more nuanced understanding of key standards.