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Student-centered teaching: How to get the most out of the classroom experience

Courtesy audiolucistore on Flickr

I was just at a conference last week here in Japan, and as conferences go, the speakers were somewhat interesting. The real heart of most conferences is in networking, of course, and sharing great ideas on improving, and making our jobs more efficient, more productive, and easier while at the same time providing a high quality of learning opportunities for students. One thing that I heard at the table I was sitting at, when we were on some down time before the next speaker, and there were about 9 teachers at this table having various types of coffee, was “how to make my class more involved, since discussions usually go nowhere.” The teacher was asking us how to make it more productive, because he said it was like “pulling teeth.” He told me he usually stands in front of the class and merely asks questions about what the students read. Now I’m sure everyone has been to the dentist and knows that it is not always the most enjoyable time one can spend in an afternoon, or anytime of the day for that matter, but the real questions is “how to make the class so inviting that everyone wants to participate.”

Like all great classes, there has to be specific and attainable goals, clear objectives, and absolutely particular standards, so that everyone will be able to learn something and not just offer an opinion willy-nilly (that phrase tells you how old I am.)

Fundamental questions should be asked before every time a teacher wants to have a great class:

  1. What is the real purpose of the class?
  2. What are the roles of the students for the class?
  3. What are the goals and objectives the class are working towards?
  4. What standards should students be working on by participating?
  5. And, the most important, how does one actually enable each and every student to participate when the average class size is reaching 30, 35 and for some classes, 40 students?

So when several people looked at me for my response to this dilemma, I said, “You can’t be standing in front of the class all the time, expecting students to participate when they really have no idea what to say half the time.”

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And then I told them of the six- principle system that I use every single class period, and one that I have been using for years. I told them I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a great deal of answers. The key is to be efficient and utilize a more student-centered approach. Just because a teacher says his or her class is student-centered, does not make it so. Students need real autonomy and real responsibility– which I might talk about in my next blog post–to enable them to be fully immersed in the class without having to “buy into” any one teaching approach or philosophy.

The format of my class has very distinct elements that I use on a daily basis, regardless of time, or level. (If the time decreases, I decrease everything proportionately):

  1. The essential question. From the very first moment after the bell rings, I want students to write in one sentence—which is an invaluable formative assessment of their style, diction, syntax and vocabulary. I always have them write one sentence down. Many teachers might throw one out at the class, and then quickly move on to the subject at hand, but that dramatically loses momentum and actual educational impact of the essential question itself, and almost makes the entire purpose of the essential question meaningless. My purpose is to get students thinking of a bigger picture, a more general concept that they can see in their own daily lives. This generally takes anywhere from two to three minutes, allowing for me to randomly call on one or two students This one question allows them to write every class and demonstrate their writing ability in a short timed-writing requirement.

  2. Next is what I like to call my opening activity, or engaging activity. It is usually the only time that I do most of the talking. It is my eight to ten minutes of the class where I tell the students what they will be able to do at the end of the class; what skill they will have mastered by the end of the class; and the particular things they will have to do and need to do. It is like my mini-lesson of the day’s activities. If I need them to analyze, synthesize, understand, remember, create or use, I demonstrate to them exactly how I do it, how they should do it, and it gives them the skills and tools they need to master the content for whatever we are studying. By modelling what they have to do, they know precisely what is expected of them, and the results they should obtain.

  3. I then give them the opportunity to reproduce the activity that I just went over and expect them to accomplish it on their own or in groups. I typically allow them eight to ten minutes for them to get it done. I go around the class helping them individually, answering questions, providing feedback motivating and encouraging. I rarely stay in front of the class. Behind the lectern. Far too many teachers ensconce themselves in the front of the class that it appears they have their moat, and can raise their drawbridge at a given notice.

  4. Right after they finish the activity that everyone has just completed, students are given a more challenging activity. Stronger performing students receive a more challenging activity, while weaker performing students receive only a slightly more challenging activity, and they are usually on their own to complete the assignment without my help. They trust me to let them alone when they need it and to help them when it’s required. Many times, no assistance is required, but I still make my presence felt around the class and offer suggestions or tips to help them along the way. I can also give stronger students more challenging tasks, and give weaker students easier tasks. Their ability throughout the class determines where and when I need to differentiate. This may take 10 to 15 minutes.

  5. Right after their two activities, I give them what I call my Exit Ticket. It is a one or two-question summative assessment about the things we did in class, to see if they can apply what we learned in class and use it successfully. This may take the form of everything from multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, true-false, matching, short answer, or a quick paragraph. Usually, students can complete it in two to three minutes.

  6. Finally, I plan for a one or two-minute reflection, and have them reveal their feelings about the class activities, what they would like to see, and what they would like not to see, the next time we do something like that.

This model has saved me hours and hours of time, energy and resources. It is time that I can use more efficiently to help students achieve more. I spend time working to fill the 10 minutes at the beginning of every class, making exit tickets, and spending more quality time doing the things I love to do, along with teaching. I have built up a great library of openings, activities, and exit tickets that allow me to tweak them a little for different classes, and upgrade their creativity every once in a while.

So rather than stand in front of the class and pepper students with questions for something they may or may not have read and be prepared to discuss, establish a classroom where students have a real opportunity to develop their skills.

Let me know what you think of this.

Eric J Pollock
Eric Pollock is an award-winning English Literature Teacher in Ota, Japan with over two decades of teaching experience in Asia (including Korea)