3 Questions to Explore When Placing Learners at the Center

Practice  21 July 2016
By Dr. Jim Rickabaugh

“WHERE DO WE START?” This is a question we hear often. Once educators grasp the potential impact of placing learners at the center of the learning process, they want to know where to start. After all, transforming the focus from instruction to learning can be unsettling, and most of us were trained to deliver instruction, not to focus on nurturing learning.

Obviously, it does not make sense—nor is it realistic—to shift everything at once. In fact, the risk of an all-or-nothing approach is becoming overwhelmed and defaulting back to a focus on tasks and activities, rather than a focus on real learning. Over our six years of working with educators to personalize the learning experience, we have found that the approach that works best for most is to start by changing one or two practices that move you and your learners in the direction of being learning- centered. Making a few strategic changes can reveal the potential benefits of greater change, while simultaneously acclimating learners to playing a different role in their learning experience.

I recall a fourth-grade teacher a couple of years ago who wanted her learners to become more engaged, take more ownership, and show greater agency in their learning. But, she was struggling because she assumed that unless she changed everything, her students would remain stuck in their old, compliance-driven habits. Following our conversation about limiting the number of things she changed to get started, she made a commitment to spend a month giving her learners more choices in their learning paths. She started with just two options and gradually expanded to a wider range of choices. Eventually, she invited her students to suggest alternatives for how they would approach learning tasks and demonstrate their learning. To her amazement, in just a few weeks, the combination of giving her learners more choices and listening more to their perspectives and ideas was making a dramatic difference in their learning and behavior. Students were completing more of their work, com-plaining less, showing more enthusiasm, and offering lots of ideas and suggestions to make their learning experience even better.


..in just a few weeks, the combination of giving her learners more choices and listening more to their perspectives and ideas was making a number of differences in their learning and behavior.

As the story illustrates, giving learners more choice and voice in their learning are safe and useful first steps (Mitra, 2008). In your classroom, try allowing learners to choose the learning activity or task in which to engage from a list of options. Have conversations with your learners to determine their preferences in approaching a learning challenge. Even a few minutes spent conferring individually with learners can give them greater voice. This process also reveals for learners the potential benefits of playing a more active role in their learning. These first steps become the building blocks toward student ownership of their learning.As initial steps, providing greater learner choice and voice will not add significantly to your workload or dramatically disrupt the current classroom culture and expectations. Yet, it will open the door and provide an invitation to explore further.

An “Ah-Ha” Moment

Nevertheless, as educators move in this direction and see the impact it has, they may also worry that it will add to their workload. Early experiences can lead educators to think that full personalization means planning, managing, and assessing each individual learner’s path and progress by themselves.

It is at about this point where many of them experience an epiphany. They begin to realize that the transformation to a personalized or learning-centered approach is about repositioning and building the capacity of learners to play a more active role in—and take more responsibility for—their learning. As learners begin to take greater ownership, they also become more effective learners. And, it builds greater capacity for learning independence.


Helping learners understand ‘whyʼ is a powerful potential motivator and invites them to commit to learn, rather than just comply.

Last year, we invited a group of teachers, who were transforming their learning environments to become more learner-centered, to speak at a regional meeting of superintendents. They talked about how they are supporting learners to become more active, take more responsibility and ownership, and build independent learning skills. In short, they were positioning learners to build their learning capacity and “share the load.” They described that many of the tasks that we—as educators—have traditionally managed alone now become shared and, in some cases, the purview of learners. They noted how this shift prepares learners for a life of learning—and real life is not usually presented in a well-crafted, perfectly timed lesson. Building these skills, dispositions, and competencies will prepare them to engage and succeed for their future—living and working in a rapidly changing, unpredictable environment where waiting to be told what to do and simply being a good student will not bring them success. You can imagine the response of the superintendents who were  getting their first exposure to personalized learning practices. They could not wait to learn more.

Answering the Age-Old Question, “Why Do I Have to Learn This?”

So, where can you go after you’ve given learners a taste of having their voice respected and making meaningful choices about their learning? Many educators have found that the next powerful step is to introduce the idea of purposeful learning (Pink, 2009). In the traditional instruction-centered system, purpose is often assumed. The focus is on the next topic in the textbook or the next task or skill to be covered. Too often, when learners ask, “why do we have to learn this?” answers from educators have dodged real purpose and defaulted to “for the test,” “you will need to know it in middle school/high school/college/real life,” or “because I say so.” None of these answers are very effective in supporting real, lasting learning.

Starting with the purpose of learning positions what comes next as being something worth engaging in and giving learning effort to. Purpose can be discovered through dialogue, sharing potential benefits that resonate with learners, or specifically pointing to one or more universal benefits. Helping learners understand “why” is a powerful, potential motivator and invites them to commit to learn, rather than just to comply.

Three Questions to Explore

Once the purpose of learning is identified and understood, we position learners to build some of the most important skills they will need for future learning. This sets us up to stabilize and maintain a learning-centered approach. This process can be driven by three key questions.

1. “What am I doing that my learners could do?”

A great place to start is with learning goals. Most educators have traditionally felt responsibility for setting learning goals. Typically, goals have encompassed the entire class, and this has been a part of the workload and a driver of our planning and instruction. Yet, we know that when learners are engaged in setting goals for their learning, they become clearer about their learning, will take greater ownership, and persist more when they struggle. In short, they learn more (Zimmerman et al, 1992). At first, helping learners set goals will require your instruction and support, but, over time, as learners build the capacity to set goals, this task can be shared or, in some cases, delegated to learners with your guidance.

2. “What am I doing that my learners should do?”

Here, you might consider involving learners in the development of the paths they will follow to move from current knowledge and skills to what they have set as goals for their learning. While educators typically have assumed this responsibility on behalf of learners, having learners participate in building their own path supports a key life skill, while also sharing responsibility for their progress. For example, once the learning goal is set, you might have a brief conference with the learner, during which the instructional support and resources you can provide are presented and clarified. Then, ask the learner what they will contribute to the plan and what commitments they will make to following the plan for their learning. This step not only helps learners to see how they can get from where they are to where they want to be but also allows them to become co-creators and shared investors in the plan.

3. “What else can my learners do that will build their learning and increase their capacity to learn?”

At this point, you can challenge learners to clarify how they know they are making progress. Typically, learners will refer to the activities contained in their learning plans and assume that completing tasks equates to learning. Here, you can coach learners to generate, analyze, and apply formative assessment data for themselves—rather than relying solely on you for information and feedback on their progress. We know that when learners develop the capacity to accurately self-assess, their learning grows and accelerates significantly over learners who do not possess this capacity (Hattie, 2012). Of course, you will also need to monitor, analyze, and apply the information to guide instructional decisions, but now you have an active partner in the work.

Without question, the shift to a learning-centered approach is more of a journey than an event. Starting with small steps and building on experience, confidence, and competence can move your practice from hoping that learners will benefit from your instruction to ensuring that learning grows. Meanwhile, learners begin to play a more active role and take greater responsibility and ownership of their learning journey.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

Mitra, D. (2008) Amplifying Student Voice. Educational Leadership. 66 (3), 20-25.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Zimmerman, B. J., Bandura, A., & Martinez-Pons, M. (1992). Self-motivation for academic attainment: The role of self-efficacy beliefs and personal goal setting. American Educational Research Journal, 29(3), 663–676. doi: 10.2307/1163261

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