Is Your Classroom Student-Centered?


Have you ever had a feeling that after all the years of teaching and training experience there are still questions that are not answered? Moreover, sometimes those questions seem to be the same ones as years ago, but you are not sure about your own answers to them? I guess this post will be an example of such a question to me, and reflect on my answer. Well, as of now.

Yes, I am going to share what I think about Student-Centered classroom. A lot has been written and said about it. You can hear this term on any teacher training course, professional development session — anywhere. I am wondering if this has already become ‘new traditional’ characteristics of an ELT classroom. My main question at the moment is about any potential pitfalls of a ‘Student-Centered classroom’, and any possible alternatives, if they exist.

To me, ‘Student-Centered’ means that it is the Student, the Learner who is in the center of Teacher planning, teaching, and reflecting on the lessons. This could sound too simplistic, but it is my definition of it: if I am as a teacher focusing on student learning objectives (outcomes) during my lesson preparation time, I think about my student’s interests, needs, learning goals, habits, mood, etc. and make sure my lesson responds to that.


I plan lesson activities that meet the goal and help this particular learner succeed, think what might challenge him/her and brainstorm solutions. In class I observe his/her learning and help, gradually stepping back more and letting the student do the work. I reflect if a lesson was a success based on the evidence of learning (the objective achievement) and the feedback which I collected from my student. And then the cycle begins all over again.


‘Student-Centered’ to me is a lot about the idea of Choice: who chooses the topic, the activities, the materials, the small group partners, the time to respond, who asks the questions, gives the answers, maintains the pace of a lesson, etc.? And if the answers to all the above is ‘students’, does it mean that these lessons are the most effective, helpful, successful to those students?


One problem with ‘Student-Centered’ approach is that I teach a group of students, and in this group there are people whose age, professional background, learning needs, personal preferences, mood are different at any given point of a lesson. I did not even mention the language proficiency levels which are never the same in my experience, even after the best placement test procedure in the world. This means that if I ask the group what they want to talk about today, I could get 10 different answers. Or 30, depending on how many people there are in class. It also means that even if we negotiate or vote for the topic that interests the group, there would be people who wanted to focus on something else.


How does this impact a lesson? Well, sometimes the discussion itself about which choices to make takes such a long time in class that the learning itself is delayed. There could be arguments that while students are discussing what to do in English they are using English and learning to cooperate in a foreign language (however, from my own experience, it is often more confident students who take the lead and the other students, who actually need a lot more practice, are keeping quiet)


Another problem I see is that sometimes ‘Student-Centered’ approach in teaching simply turns into ‘unprepared teaching’. The excuses sound something like this: ‘Well, I let the students do the work’ or ‘I don’t want to limit them by the materials I choose for them’, etc. While it might work in some learning contexts, I personally dealt with a number of ‘The teacher does not know what to do’ complaints from a paying customer in a private language school.


Which perhaps brings us to another potential problem of a ‘Student-Centered’ classroom: does the teacher feel ready for such teaching? Does s/he have language knowledge, spontaneous teaching skills and general confidence to be able to help with what students come up with in class? I might be wrong, but I think it takes some time (years?) to learn how to be able either promptly help with a clear example of some grammar structure, or to say ‘I don’t know but will tell you on Friday’; to be able to clarify the subtle difference between two close synonyms; or to ask a cool question if a discussion is fading away.

It might seem now that I am against Student-Centered-ness in ELT. Well, no. What I am trying to say is that ‘Student-Centered’ lessons evolve together with a learning teacher:


  • putting students in pairs and small groups as much as possible
  • ‘presenting’ new language in a student-centered way (eliciting the answers, letting stronger students do the explanation and writing on the board, etc.)
  • maintaining whole-class activities without much teacher participation
  • reducing teacher talk time whenever possible
  • letting students make immediate choices (which speaking task to do, how to do a task, who to work with, etc.)
  • using a variety of resources to help students find the (right) answers to their questions (instead of teacher being the only resource)
  • involving students into longer-term planning: asking about the course book chapters and the topics that are interesting (or not), re-visiting their personal learning goals and evaluating progress, letting the students decide which homework to do, etc.
  • involving students into making decisions about a lesson (putting an agenda on the board and deciding on the order together with students as one example)


As you see, the earlier stages only ‘seem’ student-centered, because the main decisions are still made by the teacher, but they are carried out in a format that allows students take the floor in class. I think it is already a huge step.


When I re-read the bullet points above I noticed a pattern: listen more at the beginning, learn more about the student, and then attempt at ‘more global’ decisions to the learning process. I think being Student-Centered means that you care about Student Learning. Caring about learning sometimes means reminding the students about their own learning goals (we are all humans, and those of us who chose to study in a group most likely need some motivation and support), and sometimes it means saying a couple of encouraging words.


I realized it is hard for me to stop talking about Student-Centered teaching. What does it mean to you? Do you agree with how I see it, and if yes, which stage of becoming a ‘ Student-Centered’ teacher are you experiencing now? If not, what are the major differences? 

posted by Zhenya

2 thoughts on “Is Your Classroom Student-Centered?

  1. “Have you ever had a feeling that after all the years of teaching and training experience there are still questions that are not answered?” > Constantly, Zhenya 🙂
    In your post, you’re dealing with a very interesting issue. One of the definitions sees student-centered classroom as focusing on the interests of the students and not others involved (teachers, administrators, etc.). I can’t say I disagree but my view changes if I look at the problem from a different angle. Rose Bard wrote in her recent post: “Education is much more than just preparing for work and getting better jobs.” So my question is: should we only focus on our students’ needs, interests and individual objectives or rather on the needs of the society as a whole (the teacher’s needs included)?
    And if you have a class of 30 students, as you say, you can’t possibly fulfill all of the individual wishes of each and every student. But as an educated person, you have some idea of what is good for them – you are aware of some common goal shared by all human beings. Aren’t we educating a generation of self-centered human beings by only and exclusively focusing on our students’ needs? So to put my initial view more accurately, for me student-centered classroom means keeping students needs in mind and adjusting my teaching whenever possible. However, I can’t utterly exclude my personality from the learning process, and honestly, I don’t even want to. You put it nicely: Student-Centered lessons evolve together with a learning teacher.
    Finally, I agree with all the bullet points above – you described a perfect way of gradually making your classroom student-centered.


  2. Dear Hana
    Thank you for your comment, and for joining me in the constant search for answers, or rather, for new questions. 🙂

    I think the question you are raising about the role of education in more general sense is a great one. I guess too often (and sadly?) I tend to think about ELT field as more commercial than educational projects, more ‘business’ than education, and also more ‘service’ than education. It may be because I used to work in a private language center where the students were paying customers (adults), and therefore the main goal was to help them achieve the goals they had. At the same time, some students were young learners (children, teenagers) whose parents were paying customers, but who were learning English as a part of their education.

    You asked: ‘Aren’t we educating a generation of self-centered human beings by only and exclusively focusing on our students’ needs?’ – I love the question.
    I am wondering to which extent learning and teaching English has become a business (as well as teacher training and publishing?) and therefore it is often enough to take a short course and start teaching? Perhaps it is one of those days when I am more pessimistic than usual. It will be another day tomorrow, and I think your question encourages a wonderful reflection on a more global view of the reasons people are learning English, and maybe it is one of our ‘missions’ to show that it is much more than getting a well-paid job in the future?

    Thank you for your insights and for sharing them here! I am off now to read about the most inspiring teacher you wrote about on your blog!


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