Why Student Centered Learning is Only Half Right

In the past seven years I have attended and participated in approximately one hundred educational conferences around the globe. I have had the privilege of learning from some of the preeminent thought leaders in the world of education. Their presentations have pushed me to think in new ways about education. Many of these thought leaders have been advocates for student-centered learning. Although I have been inspired by their stories and love the idea of students taking ownership for their learning, I think that student-centered learning is only half right.

Maybe I am old school. I still believe that students don’t know what they don’t know. There is a reason departments of education have curriculum guides. Many very smart people have spent countless hours determining what students need to know and be able to accomplish. In 2009 I served on the oversight committee for the rewriting of the Colorado State Standards. I believe that it is important for a society to pass on its values, core beliefs, and key learnings. If students took complete control of their learning, I believe that many of these core teachings would be overlooked. I want all students to be able to read, compute, and know the history of their respective countries.

Before I get the hate comments from those espousing student-centered learning, I want you to know I am a fan. If all we do is teach reading, writing, and math, then we are shortchanging students in the 21st century. In this connected, information-saturated world, students must know how to determine what information is valid, and then use that knowledge to solve unique problems – including those that don’t even exist yet.  Students today need to be able to develop thinking outside of the box.

What I am calling for is a balance. Let’s combine the fundamentals with student-centered education. I feel that this is necessary because I believe the vast majority of teachers realize that students need both. I like to think of this as a continuum.  


When I say we need balance, I feel class time should be a balance between the two extremes. But how do we do this? How do we value the more traditional learning modalities and allow for more student-centered learning?

One of the ways to create this balance is to adopt flipped learning. In flipped learning students get exposed to curriculum through short micro-videos (flipped videos). That then allows class time for students to get a deeper understanding of the traditional curriculum and also to allow for more time for student-centered learning. One of the great examples of this is the adoption of Genius Hour by many flipped educators. Educators who use the genius hour approach might devote 80% of class time to learning content in a flipped manner, while the remaining time is more open-ended and allows for students to ask questions and explore what interests them.  


  What do you think? What does your gut tell you about student-centered learning? Are some educators going too far as I suppose? Or are we not going far enough?  

10 Responses

  1. Dena

    I totally agree. I have a curriculum that is given to me that is designed to prepare students for the next level. Students would not be able to “discover” all of this on their own. I believe in guided learning. Students need direction on WHAT to learn and HOW to learn – and hopefully it will lead them to LOVE to learn.

  2. Maryjane Utley

    Young learners will always need guidance in the educational process until they have discovered how they learn best. They do not need, however, an adult always dictating to them what is important for them to know and deciding what is the most direct route to mastery.
    We, as teachers, were trained in the traditional sense of being the experts and imparting knowledge to our students. As the digital age continues to increase access to more and more “data” and real time information, we must provide opportunities for alternative paths to learning. BUT, do not ditch everything we know has worked, instead, add to those tools and build a solid foundation for all kids.

  3. Michelle Zgombic

    So true, I’ll never forget a few years ago when I had an administrator come in for an observation when I was introducing World War I. When I had my post-observation meeting he commented on how it wasn’t a PBL or student centered instructional day. Believe me, we have this type of learning pretty regularly in my class, and he knew it. I had to remind him that I didn’t want students learning that material for the first time by searching on their own. I wasn’t comfortable that they would be able to read and decipher website material and piece World War together at ages 12-13. That was the moment that I realized that I too feel strongly about this, there are parts of the curricula that I know I will always have to be traditional, whether it be sensitive content or difficult reading level, balance is key- thank you for making me secure in having made that decision! ; )

    1. Jon Bergmann

      Michelle: thanks for your thoughtful reply. It sounds like you are really putting the learning of your students first. Keep on keeping on.

  4. Joanne Ward

    I can’t agree with this article more. As a teacher, we want our students to challenge themselves and reach the best of their lives through the education we provided. However, some students’ “immaturity” and maybe “laziness” have blocked them away from being who they are born to be. Flipped Classroom provides a pathway for teachers to step in at the right time and help their students walk toward their best and even out of their best. Love this article!

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  6. Your portrayal of student-centered learning does not align with what I have come to know and experience of it. It is not “student-directed” learning. We are not handing them the reigns and saying, “Do as you will.” There should be clear learning outcomes and goals that are based on the curriculum and desired outcomes of the teacher. Student-centered instruction provides a start and end point; accountability is placed on the students to design, direct, collaborate, and decide for themselves what methods work best for them to achieve comprehension. My general description of student-centered learning would be to shift educator approach from “Did all students comprehend the material as I provided it?” to “Did I meet the needs of every student?”

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