What does Student Centred look like?

Student Centred is one of those vague buzzwords that is used regularly but never really defined in practical terms. This post (based on an Ignite talk I gave last week) attempts to paint a picture of what student centred practices actually look like, both in the classroom and from a leadership perspective.

For me, the key to student centred practices is empathy. Truly seeking to understand how students are experiencing their learning, where each student is at and what their individual needs are, so you can help improve their learning. Student centred practice is focused on doing what is needed to help each student understand and excel in their learning.


As I have written about previously, data is a great place to start in getting to know your learners, but there is a whole lot more to do if you want to understand them. Achievement data, personal data, surveys, observations and good old fashioned conversations should all work together to help you empathise with your students.

Student centred teaching is not just about what they like but about thinking how what they like/are interested in links with what they need to understand in class. How can their interests be used to help them understand the key concepts and skills from the curriculum.

Student choice is a good starting point for this, but student voice is far more powerful. Student choices can increase student engagement and start to give some ownership over aspects of their learning. Most of these choices, however are decided upon by the teacher and students just get the limited choice within.


So, the next level of this is to incorporate student voice. This isn’t the end of year student voice either. Teachers are experts at gathering student voice about their courses and teaching as the year ends. Supposedly to help influence planning the next year – but how does that help the students whose voice you are collecting? Why are you not including their voice in the learning throughout the year?

What are the choices that they would like to have in the class? What are their interests and how can they be brought into the classroom? What are the learning activities that students feel help them to understand the information? What class layout do your students like or need? Google forms, surveys or conversations about this type of information should be happening regularly throughout the year rather than when it is too late to take any action on it for these learners. (These last 2 paragraphs are also in a post I wrote last year on Learner Agency)

This is not a free for all, with all things decided by students – that is not student centred at all. It must actually meet their needs. Daniel Willingham, in Why Don’t Students Like School, talks about “the pleasurable rush of problem solving.” If we are meeting a student’s needs by pitching learning at the right level for them, they will experience this rush. If we aim too high or too low, students won’t get that feeling. Instead, we run the risk of them disengaging through either frustration or boredom.

That is where your professional knowledge comes in. Co-construction is just that, CO construction, building it together, your knowledge with their interests.

This is hard work. Much harder than getting out last years unit, much harder than letting kids learn whatever they want but not progressing in their actual needs. But hard work doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth it. If we are to move forward in seeing educational outcomes improve for all learners, then we must do better for them.

Student centred practices are not just for the classroom, it is also about leadership. Student Centred Leadership is all about what will help students to learn. Which decision here increases the learning opportunities for students. Which decision helps teachers to make great learning happen for each of their students?

To do this we may have to flip our perspective, see these things from a student’s point of view.


What does it look like, feel like from a student’s shoes? It may be useful for you, but do they understand why?

In my efforts to understand how students are experiencing learning, I took part in the Shadow a Student challenge. I got see how students experience Lynfield College. It gave me great insight and opened up many conversation opportunities not just with the student I shadowed, but also all the other students who saw or heard about what I was doing.

Leaders also need to actively take onboard student voice. Listen to student complaints, find out what they feel the school needs to work on. Have students involved in Department and School reviews. Get out of the office, into classrooms and the playground and talk with your students. Find out what they feel are the important next steps for the school to take.

The critical part here is that students see you follow through on it. If they see their voice being treated as a token experiment that is then ignored, it will take a long time to build that trust and authenticity back up again.

The final step in what student centred can mean in practice is hinted at with the move towards Communities of Learning in NZ. No longer just the school looking at their students’ needs but the whole community looking at each young person and seeing how they all can contribute to meeting that person’s needs now and in the future.


If we can get that happening across the country, then we can really say we have a student-centred education system here in New Zealand.


3 thoughts on “What does Student Centred look like?

  1. Gaining empathy is quite a good way to frame gathering data for teaching as inquiry projects. Thanks Steve. No surprises it fits in with Design Thinking, your bag.

  2. Pingback: What does Student Centred look like? | Teaching...

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