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Student-centered learning, collaboration, and more may be the keys to transforming schools.

It is not terribly difficult to get people to agree on the need for school transformation. The expression of this need comes not only from the “usual suspects,” i.e. politicians and academics, but also from teachers, administrators, and parents. Yet, despite this agreement the specific nature of what the transformed school should look like is harder to pin down.

The agenda for school transformative change reveals five critical terms. Each of these terms have been used when talking about teaching and learning in schools for decades. That’s the problem!

It may seem that school transformation simply means doing what we have always tried to do but better. But school transformation is actually about establishing a new vision of schooling.

What those five terms mean to those who are serious proponents of major school transformation is quite different from how they have traditionally been used in conversations about schools. Our challenge is to get beyond just using the right words to implementing the right practices. This requires us to sort out the somewhat more technical use of the five terms from the common usage of them.

1. Student or learner centered learning is used frequently by school personnel when describing the nature of teaching and learning in their classrooms. Yet, anyone who visits schools that claim to be student centered will find that many of them are as traditional as any school one might have visited decades ago. What the personnel in those schools seem to mean by “student centered” is that school personnel care about their students and want to what is right for them.

In a student centered school, when the term is used by those involved with school transformation, the student becomes a key decision maker with regard to their educational program, and plays an active role in shaping their learning experience in the classroom according to their own unique nature, interests, and needs. The axiom “teacher knows best” gives way to a situation where the student has ownership and a high degree of control of what they will learn and how they will learn it.

2. Collaboration is ability to work together with others to produce a product, and is a valuable life skill. Group work is a longstanding practice in classrooms, but group work and collaboration are not synonyms. The fact that a group of students may be working on a project together does not mean that they are engaged in effective collaboration. In reality, the way that group work typically is done in schools may be more of a detriment to expanding capabilities of students to collaborate since students, too, might conflate the two terms. True collaboration features much a much more focused approach to working in groups, with clear expectations, roles, and feedback systems addressed upfront.

3. Engagement is one of the most critical terms in the transformation lexicon. Paying attention and being on task may or may constitute engagement. One can require the student to pay attention or to stay on task, but compelling engagement is a different matter. Engagement pertains to the relationship between the learner and the content of the learning. The engaged student is motivated by the sense that the knowledge or skill to be learned has deep relevance for her or him that goes beyond any extrinsic motivating force, such as teacher approval or a good grade. While it is often not an easy job to get students to stay on task and to pay attention, engagement in the learning process cannot be mandated. Student centered learning is a key factor in students becoming engaged in their learning. Engaged students are committed to making persistent effort even in the face of difficulties and obstacles, and without prodding from their teacher, because they see personal value in the knowledge or skill they are seeking to learn.

4. Participatory learning is another problematic term. It is easy to get agreement among teachers and administrators that students need to participate in what is occurring in the classroom and school. Participatory learning, as used by proponents of transformation, means that the student has many ongoing opportunities to become involved with their community and the world. Rather than just occasional field trips or special projects, participation with the appropriate media and information outlets, people, and communities via both conventional and digital media means is the modus operandi of the school. The classroom becomes permeable. Students not only have the opportunity to learn from others beyond the school as they work with them, but also make contributions to civic affairs, the arts, and other disciplines and activities. Rather than being a walled garden, the classroom becomes a magic carpet.

5. Connected learning
is closely related to participatory learning. Some use the two terms interchangeably. Connectivity is a word that in common usage generally refers to the ability to access the internet. To speak of “connected learning” is often taken to mean that student are making uses of computers or hand held devices for their school work. For those proposing school transformation connected learning takes on a different meaning; the extent of connected learning is not determined by how many computers there are in the school and how often they are used. Connected learning is as much about the human element as it is about the technical element. It involves relationships, and the sense of the term is quite similar to what is meant when we speak of a person who is “well connected.”

Any of the five terms can be used as buzz words. They can provide sense of something being done that is important and current—as long as no one probes the meaning of them too closely. Progress in changing teaching and learning in the classroom in ways that fall within the common usage of these terms is not easy. Accomplishing the practices in the transformative use of the terms is a much tougher challenge and demands all the skill and persistence the person can bring to the task.

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