Amidst a pandemic, student-centered learning makes progress

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Oct 2, 2020

In challenging times such as these, a focus on silver linings can help you muster the strength to persevere. For innovative K–12 educators, one such silver lining is the progress being made toward student-centered learning. 

In our research on why educators change their instructional practices, we’ve discovered that educators are far more likely to try new practices—such as student-centered learning—when a change in their teaching assignments makes their tried-and-true practices less relevant. This year’s forced shift to remote teaching is just that type of change. 

As they navigate remote instruction, teachers have had to set their favorite unit plans and reliable classroom management strategies aside to learn new teaching methods that are better suited to current circumstances. For example, some are providing direct instruction through pre-recorded online videos so they can focus their video calls with students on personal check-ins, group discussions, individualized feedback, and targeted instruction. These encouraging steps have the potential to transform teaching not just during COVID, but well beyond. By freeing up facetime with students for more student-centered activities and one-on-one instruction, teachers will build stronger connections with their students and greater capacity to meet students’ needs. As Kareem Farah, co-founder of the Modern Classrooms Project, points out in a recent podcast, these benefits to teachers make it likely that they will keep using some of the helpful tools and practices they discover during COVID-19.

Yet even with these signs of progress, one major hurdle that has long slowed adoption of student-centered learning remains. True student-centered learning involves more than just picking up a few new tools or lesson strategies. It requires educators to fundamentally rethink instruction: giving students more control and responsibility for their learning, letting go of the notion that a teachers’ job is to manage classrooms and cover content, and leveraging technology in new ways to enable things like self-directed, open-walled, and mastery-based learning. Given the immensity of the undertaking, it’s no surprise that many schools and educators haven’t seized the opportunity to pursue more student-centered practices, instead opting to replicate conventional instruction over Zoom.

A new path forward for student-centered learning

Fortunately, a new solution for advancing student-centered learning is on the horizon: micro-credentials for student-centered teaching. Micro-credentials are digital certifications that verify an individual’s competency in a specific skill or set of skills. New micro-credentials for student-centered teaching, paired with corresponding professional development (PD) opportunities, offer a major advance toward student-centered education at scale.

Over the last eight months, I’ve worked with my colleague Heather Staker and Allison Powell of the Digital Learning Collaborative on a new paper that explores how student-centered teaching micro-credentials could be a key catalyst in getting student-centered teaching to a tipping point where its practices gain wide-spread adoption across K–12 education. Below are a few of the key benefits that this innovative form of educator development has to offer.

Chunk-able: The baseline knowledge and skills for student-centered teaching could fill whole multi-year university degree programs. And even after that kind of training, most educators would still need months to years of on-the-job experience to be true masters of student-centered instruction. Micro-credentials break that mountain of PD into manageable chunks that educators can tackle over time, one at a time.

Customizable: Like conventional K–12 instruction, most conventional PD is one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t account for the specific problems of practice a teacher will face helping her students develop their understanding in the context of their school and community. In contrast, micro-credentials allow educators to focus just on the particular knowledge, skills, and dispositions most relevant to their needs. To illustrate, consider the 14 different stacks of micro-credentials (listed in part 3 of our paper) that student-centered pioneers identified as most essential for their unique contexts.

Competency-based: The breakthrough idea that sets micro-credentials apart from most other forms of PD is their competency-based design—rewarding skills mastery rather than mere completion of assigned learning activities. This means educators can learn from a variety of PD providers to earn a particular micro-credential, allowing them to choose PD offerings that work best for them. It also means educators can work more efficiently toward earning micro-credentials because they can focus just on the competencies they need to master, rather than having to complete a body of required coursework. Additionally, the competency-based nature of micro-credentials promises to raise the bar on PD quality. Because educators have to demonstrate mastery to earn micro-credentials, a micro-credentials ecosystem should screen out PD offerings that don’t actually lead to mastery.

To learn more about the emerging ecosystem of micro-credentials for student-centered teaching, and to discover how education leaders can help bring this ecosystem to fruition, see our paper, Developing a student-centered workforce through micro-credentials.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on identifying strategies to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education through Disruptive Innovation. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.