The Staffroom: How to develop a student-centred approach

Keeping students engaged is a matter of keeping them out of the performance zone and meeting them where they are - in the learning zone, writes Stacey Salt

Keeping students engaged is a matter of keeping them out of the performance zone and meeting them where they are - in the learning zone, writes Stacey Salt

16 Jan 2023, 5:00

Human connection in the classroom is the golden thread to human flourishing, and this works both ways for teachers and students. I am an advocate for the idea that in order to develop knowledge, skills and behaviours need to be developed and practiced first. This approach to classroom practice is built on values, empathy, trust, ambition, integrity, kindness and belief.

The way I teach is informed by my own lived educational experiences, from a time when I never fitted in and felt I did not belong in a classroom, unnoticed, voiceless and lacking confidence. Now as a teacher, I am inspired by the work of Eduardo Briceño on the performance zone (where all our focus is on immediate results) and the learning zone (where our focus is on improving future performance). His key insight that performance can get in the way of improvement has shaped my classroom and pedagogy for many years.

But for me, the missing part of Briceño’s learning model is the values required to develop a culture where students feel they belong, not just filled with techniques such as retrieval practice, cold calling, and do-now activities. These are great techniques, but they can’t be allowed to overtake connection, community and curiosity.

So my lessons were about connectedness. Students sitting at desks and ‘just getting on with the tasks’ seemed to be to create barriers, damage autonomy and foster dependence. Instead, I set out to create a classroom culture that was student-centred – where the learning zone and values were entwined. This seemed to me like the best way to stay in tune with the world my students were inhabiting, to meet them where they were.

I had a basic classroom. My walls were not full of content or award charts. I had four banks of desks made up of three tables and chairs for six students at each bank. On the walls next to the desks, each group had their own large whiteboard. These were framed each day with a template, and students added to them as part of a retrieval task which would then lead into the lesson. It wasn’t just about what they knew or could remember, but more about identifying any gaps and adapt my lesson accordingly.

Far from isolating us, technology formed our community

An additional benefit was that it encouraged students to get out of their seats, to talk to each other, walk around and help others with their boards. As the teacher, I had time to join the groups, to help and support, and to ask questions that would prevent me from making limiting assumptions about their knowledge. There was a buzz, but more than that; Students said they felt confident when standing up and moving. There was connection and community

I would then capture all the whiteboard content at the end of the lesson with a photo I then added to their Google Classroom. The technology aspect of our classroom culture transformed how students learned as well as how I taught. Indeed, learning to use these new tools was another way that I could reach out and meet my learners where they were – comfortable in the digital world.

Technology connected me to my students beyond our face-to-face lessons – an experience every teacher will have felt deeply during lockdowns. Far from isolating us, it formed our community. It allowed me to include those who had missed lessons and to share lesson content, assignments and lesson recordings, and to review to review and feedback on their work at any time, in and out of lessons. Chat functions enabled me to connect with them and encouraged them to connect with each other. I wasn’t their only champion; They grew to champion each other. Human connection was happening at every stage, building relationships, empathy, trust, ambition, integrity, kindness and belief.

There are many techniques to foster learning and progress. But the enemy of human connection in education is not technology. It is our fixation on performance. By putting our values first, we can create a learning zone all our students want to inhabit and are welcomed into.

This article is one of a number of contributions to The Staffroom from the authors of Great FE Teaching: Sharing Good Practice, edited by Samantha Jones and available from SAGE.

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