How can I create a student centered classroom atmosphere?How can I create a student-centered classroom atmosphere?
A student-centered classroom is one in which the majority of the learning is actively done by the students. This is in contrast to the more commonly though of set-up with straight rows facing a lectern and students listening to teacher-presented material the majority of the time. Student-centered, however, doesn't mean that the teacher is a highly-paid babysitter, having no purpose other than as a warm body in the room. The teacher's role changes throughout the year. Teacher/student responsibilities and physical environment are areas to consider.
In the beginning the teacher is more of a presenter as the rules and procedures are introduced. Since a student-centered classroom features student-choice and groups of different sizes working on potentially different areas, classroom management is a critical feature to have implemented. Procedures must be set, preferably modeled and created together with the students, for teacher expectations when students are working alone, in a pair, or in a small group; when students are transitioning from one area or activity to the next; or when someone or a group has a question. It is really helpful to the students, once a classroom has been operating in this manner for a year or two, to videotape an example of what works and show it to the new classes. Lead them to define what they observed that was beneficial to learning, then post it in a prominent place around the room. This makes it the students' responsibility to refer to the guidelines for various situations as they arise. As the year goes on, the teacher's role changes. Although there will always be time when direct instruction of the whole class will have a place, the teacher in a student-centered classroom becomes that of a facilitator rather thatn a presenter. This means that the teacher makes it possible for students to acquire their own knowledge rather than the teacher giving it to them. Teachers in this type of classroom will manage the class by constantly evaluating the students - this is not the time for a teacher to sit behind a desk and catch-up on grading! Rather than give answers to questions, the teacher guides the students to acquire and synthesize information on their own or with other students.
Admittedly, sometimes a teacher has little control of the physical set-up due to funding or structural concerns, but flexibility is key. If students are to work in ever-changing groups - both sizes and make-ups - then they need areas in which to do so. Creating clusters out of desks or using tables in lieu of desks could be an option. Small rugs places around the edges of the room with clipboards easily accessible gives students another option for a work area. Access to materials needed, whether computers or construction paper, needs to be student-friendly to limit the number of times a student has to ask the teacher for something. Plastic see-through organizers that are clearly labeled organize materials and look attractive at the same time. A variety of materials is needed. Parents can be invaluable when it comes to this need. If you have, for instance, four sections of one class, send a letter home to the parents of each class asking for donations of different materials. One class could bring in old magazines, another one posterboard, another a package of adhesive notes, etc. Write grants for the pricier things you need. Donorschoose.org is a fantastic source for teacher funding.
Post two gives you the essentials to a student centered classroom and each of the subsequent posts adds helpful ideas. I always start the year in a fairly traditional seating arrangement and with a teacher directed classroom in order to teach procedures, expectations which students and teacher set up together, where everything is in the classroom to function by themselves, and for me to learn their names and a bit of who they are because I cannot do this unless they are in straight rows in some sort of order. As soon as I have the names which is usually two weeks for the 150 names, then I move them into pods of four in a group. Once the group learns that they must function together and I am a resource guide rather than always the direct instructor, we use many different forms of groups. Because 8th graders need to move, many of the instructions are done quickly and then students move around the room WITH PURPOSE. I find that students and teacher are much happier doing things this way even though I cannot sit at my desk the entire day.
I think for some (me especially) the most difficult thing about creating a student-centered environment is letting go of the control. With a teacher-centered classroom, the teacher has all of the control because he/she is typically in the center of the room talking while the students listen and do what they are told to do. With a student-centered classroom, the teacher typically stands in the front of the room only long enough to give instructions, then has to "let go" so the students can take over. At times, it can feel like you are "losing" control of the classroom, which can happen if good classroom management skills aren't established. However, letting go while monitoring learning is essential for this type of environment to work.
One way to promote this kind of atmosphere is definitely moving away from a traditional classroom formation with the desks in rows and all students facing the front. I must admit, I never use this arrangement as a teacher except for exams. I normally have tables in clusters for groups of about 4 to sit on, or a horseshoe arrangement. My favourite is the cluster, cafe-style arrangement, however, as it really allows me to facilitate rather than being the centre of the attention of all students.
One way is to try to teach as much as possible by asking questions and as little as possible by lecturing. Leading questions often help; students often enjoy "figuring out" answers to questions rather than being given answers or information.