What Learner-Centered Education Really Means

16 May

Learner-centered and emotionally safe pedagogy is an attitude or disposition. It is not a handbook of tips and tricks. It is being physically and emotionally present when a student needs us. It is also about focusing on the learning process instead of the product (worksheet, assessment, test score, etc.). It means  engaging in a dialogue, offering help and support, and answering the question every student asks: What’s in it for me? 

Personalization is one of the modern approaches in learning and teaching. However, it is important to remember that designing great learning experiences doesn’t require any special apps, programs or gadgets! We want it to based on Learner-centered pedagogy because it has a long history and it has proven to be very effective. At the simplest form learner-centered means that we are are focusing everything around students needs. (Image below: my starburst mirror in the making)

When I was making my starburst mirror few years back, I was thinking that this is how student-centered learning really works: keeping students in the center and carefully building the individualized support around them. This means purposefully designing the instructional process (teaching methods, lesson planning and classroom management) to meet students’ needs, focusing on supporting students’ individual learning process (learning and development and SEL) and using assessment data to support students’ individual learning processes. Please see TPK for more info about pedagogical knwoledge.

Some students need more support than others. We are not clones and should not be treated like ones, so it is important to abandon the outdated factory model, where learning is seen to be a product (of instruction and testing). To me, one the cringiest examples of the product thinking is seeing 28 pieces of identical “artwork” on classroom walls. Yes, students had learned to follow directions and create a copy of something, but the scary truth is that we will never creat the same competency when following somone else’s thinking. For deep learning to happen we must engage in our own thinking – this is what I learned while working for Head Start. Children were amazingly creative and learned so much every day while playing.

A major problem is that we still talk about learning and teaching like they were just one process. But learning and teaching are two different things! They are two different processes that are often put into the same frame of reference (education) and sometimes even happen in the same physical space (classroom) – but it would be foolish for us to imagine that students only learn at school! The “real” learning often happens after studying has been done, and the newly gained knowledge is used in real-life situations and combined with all the existing knowledge and experiences student have. This is what “deep learning” means: reconstructed personal understanding of the topic.

When we perceive learning as an in-built force within our students, the teaching job became instantly easier! Being a facilitator for learning and guiding  students to build their own knowledge is a huge step towards supporting learner agency. And it is truly learner-centered! 

We want to strive towards the next step in education: schools evolving to places where knowledge is socially constructed and contextually reinvented. We can do this is ANY given classroom  by offering choices for students and making their learning more meaningful. But this also presents the need for mutual intentionality and accountability – students coming to school with the intention to learn, teachers with the intention to support students’ individual learning. Not just meeting the standard of the learning objective of the day. Please understand that I am NOT against standards! But meeting them cannot be the ONLY goal of education.

The one thing that sustains my professional practice after a decade in Higher Ed is that I get to talk and email with my students, one at the time, and ask the most important question:

How can I help and support your learning process today?

4 Responses to “What Learner-Centered Education Really Means”

  1. Ken Powell May 18, 2022 at 11:32 pm #

    Excellent post and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. I see no reason why, across all age groups, it isn’t possible to set up computer learning systems which track progress across subjects giving students both the choice of what they learn at any given moment (and at what speed) and also accountability to make progress in each subject area. With teachers on hand to encourage and equip students to tackle areas they find harder, this gives room for them to fly in the areas they really enjoy. It is possible to be a maths genius but really not have a great interest in geography – and that’s not wrong! But current systems say you have to be at an equal level in both.

    • Dr. Nina May 19, 2022 at 6:32 am #

      Thanks Ken! I appreciate your insight. Yes, featuring global competencies in online learning materials would free free teachers to support the application of knowledge or competencies. I also wish we had more mentoring/coaching approaches in teacher training and PD worldwide to support teachers to make the switch from being a sage on the stage to the guide on the side.


  1. COMPASS learning | NotesFromNina - August 31, 2022

    […] Pedagogy should be the focus in the classroom, and preferably in the literal meaning of the word “to lead the child”, i.e engaging students in learning facilitation instead of pre-scripted instruction. Students’ learning dispositions and the instructor’s teaching dispositions are equally important in the teaching-learning situation! […]

  2. Using positive regard to reframe my perception | NotesFromNina - December 5, 2022

    […] Sometimes we are told – or taught – how to perceive certain things like behaviors. It is important to remember that these perceptions are tightly related to the learning theories we use (behaviorism, constructivism, humanism, etc.). The learner-centered philosophy builds on the humanist worldview emphasizing construction of meaning and knowledge from individual experiences. It also requires showing genuine interest towards learners and practicing unconditional positive regard in teaching-learning interactions, which means that our perception of students’ behavior must stay in the right hand column of the image. Here is more about Learner-centered practices: What learner-centered really means. […]

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