Student-Centered Learning

What do we mean when we say student-centered learning is at the heart of a Parker education? Aren’t all schools “student-centered”? It’s a question we get often, and one that deserves some unpacking. While it is true that all schools teach students, it is rare to find a school that actually puts students’ needs at the center of their instruction. 
When looking at how schools prioritize learning, it is helpful to understand that most institutions are “school-centered” in their approach to educating children. For example, in a public school, it is more logistically manageable for all children in one grade to be learning the same content from the same textbook at the same time. Student interest and expression take a back seat to curriculum and assessments handed down from administration and dictated by state standards.
Similarly, ideology based private schools such as Montessori and Waldorf are also beholden first to their methodology, with the expectation that students respond to the model of education being driven by its founders. Montessori education, for example, puts a strong emphasis on their materials and how to interact with them, rather than letting children decide what to do. Children are directed towards a right way of doing things versus discovering knowledge on their own.
Here at Parker, our progressive model of education truly puts students at the center of their learning. This means that every year, in every classroom, Parker teachers respond in real time to the students they have right in front of them. Student ideas and voices are front and center in every Parker classroom. Teachers do not merely stand in front of the room and tell students what to learn. Rather, Parker teachers focus on constructing authentic experiences that respond to students’ interests and needs. The result is that students get to spend their day engaged in projects and learning that is individualized, meaningful, and connected to the real-world. 
Here are just a few examples of what student-centered learning at Parker looks like:

Noticing a continued fascination with cameras amongst her 3-year-olds, Michele Ridgeway orchestrated a photography and camera study for her PreK class. In the past month, the children have studied various cameras and learned about their parts. They created art using photo paper and had a visit with our resident photographer and art teacher, Claire Sherwood. The preschoolers even made a video with the iPad, and experimented with photography themselves using Michele’s digital camera. Next week they will integrate science into their learning, with a visit to Leiana to learn about camera obscuras.

2-3 scientists recently designed their own experiment using paperwhite bulbs. While studying how plants take water up from their roots and distribute it through the entire plant, two students came up with the idea to grow flowers in colored water to see if the blooms would turn colors too. They planted paperwhite bulbs indoors and have been watering them with all the colors of the rainbow. Some of the plants are now close to blooming, and the students are excitedly waiting to see if they will soon have “paper-oranges” and “paper-blues”. Once bloomed, the students will use the flowers to create holiday centerpieces that they will sell to raise money to help others.

Every month, middle school students in English Language Arts present Independent Reading Projects. This is an opportunity for students to exercise choice in both the book they choose and their means of expression for presenting their learning. Students can opt for a traditional report. However, examples of more creative projects in the past month include creating social media accounts to represent characters in the book, crafting three dimensional representations of main characters, cooking and serving foods that main characters would have eaten. All ideas are student-generated and student-executed, and students often delight in seeing the next imaginative thing their classmates will come up with.

The 4-5 class continued their hands-on exploration of Native American techniques and traditions with another visit from Dan Yakobelis this week. Dan taught the students how to build a fire using only friction. These experiences, coupled with copious outdoors time, respond to this classes’ particular need to be out and “doing” things. In the coming weeks, Nellie plans to address another need she has seen among many of her students to widen their interest fields. She will soon launch a “Burning Questions” project with her 4-5 students, encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones and dive into a new interest that they are passionate or curious about. Students will explore and research their topic, ultimately coming up with their own creative ways to present their findings.