The benefits of agency, choice, and student-centered learning

By Anne Collier

“More and more of society at large, and consequently many students, are demanding an educational system that works for and with them,” wrote high school math teacher Paul Bogdan in Edutopia (emphasis mine). “A student-centered learning environment encourages students to become independent learners and ultimately to be in charge of their own education.”

Student-centered learning just makes sense as school walls “disappear” and as learning is globally sourced and happens 24/7. How could a teacher, school or curriculum possibly keep up with, much less decide what any single student needs to learn from a constantly changing, instantly accessible, global knowledge base that students can access anytime? A task force I have the privilege of serving on is all about promoting student-centered learning, which will not – as Joshua Davis put it in Wired last fall – only “unleash a generation of geniuses.” It will, by definition, grow learning’s relevance and student engagement and unleash their creativity, inspire young people’s own solutions to social problems and incite countless positive and probably planet-changing uses of connected media. In other words, it will help bring out the genius in each child.

Game designer Mark Healey in the UK told fellow game designer Katie Salen that, when you empower a player to do something, it’s “like a force flows through your veins like you can change the world around you.”

The beauty of it is, play is part of learning – especially in a time of rapid change (see this), and one of play’s properties is choice, or agency, that student-centered thing.

So to back that up, I’m going to go ahead and quote a big chunk of Davis’s outstanding article about how education is changing and should change:

“Theorists from Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi to Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori have argued that students should learn by playing and following their curiosity. Einstein spent a year at a Pestalozzi-inspired school in the mid-1890s, and he later credited it with giving him the freedom to begin his first thought experiments on the theory of relativity. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin similarly claim that their Montessori schooling imbued them with a spirit of independence and creativity.

“In a 2011 study, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Iowa scanned the brain activity of 16 people sitting in front of a computer screen. The screen was blurred out except for a small, movable square through which subjects could glimpse objects laid out on a grid. Half the time, the subjects controlled the square window, allowing them to determine the pace at which they examined the objects; the rest of the time, they watched a replay of someone else moving the window. The study found that when the subjects controlled their own observations, they exhibited more coordination between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain involved in learning and posted a 23% improvement in their ability to remember objects.” Davis quoted a neuroscientist’s bottom line: that people just don’t learn as well if they don’t control their own learning.

So we need to think hard about frequently used terms such as “classroom management” and “parental controls.” What we need to control more is the urge to control! If we can discipline the desire to control our children (which science now shows is not actually “for their own good”), we will see a lot of desirable outcomes for our children individually and collectively.

Related links