I became a pre-k through 8th grade teacher in the mid-1980s. I was literally in the last teacher education cohort who was expected to learn how to teach science, music, art, physical education, special education, make puppets out of Pop-Tart boxes, create math manipulatives, and fill a classroom with interdisciplinary projects. Teacher preparation was equal parts art and science. Then around 1985, a couple of years after A Nation at Risklegislatures around the world declared, “Teaching ain’t nothin’,” and replaced rich and varied teacher education curricula with Animal Control and Curriculum Delivery.

Today, anyone who has ever been a billionaire or 7-11 night manager can run the US Department of Education or be a superintendent of schools, while well-prepared and experienced educators are met with suspicion and derision. We say that, “we stand on the shoulders of giants,” but ask a room full of school leaders how many of the authors in this reading list they have read and prepare to be stunned by the blank stares. Suggest any teaching practice not sold by Pearson and you’re likely to have a school principal reply, “Oh! You mean like Montessori?” Quite simply, unqualified is the new qualified.

Elementary teaching has been narrowed and departmentalized in ways that make it as ineffective as high school. Truly getting to know each child and to engage them in meaning making through interdisciplinary projects has been the first casualty of the assault on the art of teaching. As teacher agency has eroded through mistrust, prescriptive curriculum, and standardized testing, teachers become less, not more, thoughtful in their practice. When you mechanize teaching and place it under constant surveillance, teaching quality becomes less human, rewarding, joyful, creative, and more compliant.

Over the past thirty years, educators have lost control, freedom, and memory of classic pedagogical practices. During my work in classrooms around the world, I am often struck by how teachers are unaware of teaching practices I have long taken for granted. For example, I just assumed that every teacher knew about classroom centers, could defend their use, and make them a staple of each learning environment. I was wrong. That’s one of the reasons I wrote “Thoughts on Classroom Centers,” although I would still love to find the seminal work(s) on the topic.

Choice Time

While mentioning this lingering question to one of my heroes, Deborah Meier, she suggested I ask Renée Dinerstein. (I intend to) Ms. Dinnerstein is the author of a fine new book, Choice Time – How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2. The book focuses on the critical element of student choice and what they do during learner-centered classroom time. Classroom centers are the magic carpet of choice time.

I just purchased the book and cannot recommend it highly enough. It is a beautiful guide filled with clear and practical advice for teachers without being condescending or treating its readers like imbeciles. The book is not 500 pages of jargon and reproducibles, but rather 165 pages of inspiration intended to rekindle creative teaching in order to create more productive contexts for learning by children. It also helps teachers observe and understand the thinking of each child.

Although it says that the book’s wiscom is intended for PK-2nd grade, I would recomment the book to teachers at any grade level.

The author maintains a web site, investigatingchoicetime.com, intended to extend the inspiration shared in the book.

 

There are aspects of the “art of teaching” I have long taken for granted, but are apparently no longer taught in preservice education programs. Classroom centers is one such critical topic. Since I cannot find the seminal book(s) or papers on the importance or creation of centers, I created the following document for the school I work for.


Thoughts on Classroom Centers (v 1.0)
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
April 2015

THE CENTER APPROACH

Centers are clearly delineated areas in the classroom where students may work independently or in small groups on purposeful activities without direct or persistent teacher involvement. Centers may be designed by the teacher or co-constructed with students. Deliberate materials are presented in a center to scaffold a child’s learning, or nurture creativity. Such materials may be utilized in both a predictable and serendipitous fashion. Centers afford students with the necessary time to take pride in one’s work, overcome a significant challenge, develop a new talent, or deepen a relationship (with a person or knowledge domain).

“Learning as a process of individual and group construction –

Each child, like each human being, is an active constructor of knowledge, competencies, and autonomies, by means of original learning processes that take shape with methods and times that are unique and subjective in the relationship with peers, adults, and the environment.

The learning process is fostered by strategies of research, comparison of ideas, and co-participation. It makes use of creativity, uncertainty, intuition, [and] curiosity. It is generated in play and in the aesthetic, emotional, relational, and spiritual dimensions, which it interweaves and nurtures. It is based on the centrality of motivation and the pleasures of learning.” (Reggio Children, 2010)

GOALS

  • Minimize direct instruction (lecture)
  • Recognize that students learn differently and at different rates
  • Reduce coercion
  • Honor student choice
  • Increase student agency
  • Make classrooms more democratic
  • Enhance student creativity
  • Build student competence and independence
  • Employ more flexible uses of instructional time
  • Inspire cross-curricular explorations
  • Develop the classroom as the “3rd teacher”
  • Encourage more student-centered classrooms
  • Respect the centrality of the learner in learning
  • Create more productive contexts for learning
  • Supports the Hundred Languages of Children
  • Match a child’s remarkable capacity for intensity
  • Provide opportunities for teachers to sit alongside students
  • Make learning visible
  • Shift the teacher’s role from lecturer to research responsible for making private thinking public – invisible thinking visible
  • Team teaching in the best collegial sense

BENEFITS

  • Increased self-reliance, self-regulation and personal responsibility
  • Shift in agency from teacher to student
  • Development of project-management skill
  • Supports project-based learning
  • Opportunities for “flow” experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991)
  • Intensify learning experiences
  • Encourage focus
  • Expand opportunities for:
    • Creative play
    • Informal collaboration
    • Experimentation
    • Appropriation of powerful ideas
  • Acknowledges the curious, creative, social and active nature of children
  • Matches the individual attention spans of students
  • Reduces boredom
  • Increases student engagement
  • Teachers get to know each student (better)
  • Recognition that quality work takes time
  • Acknowledges the centrality of the learner in knowledge construction
  • Thoughtful documentation of student learning by teachers
  • Minimize misbehavior

CENTER EXAMPLES

Experimentation/laboratory center
A place for experimentation 

Project center
An area where a long-term project may be undertaken and securely stored

Game center
A place where students play games that helps develop specific concepts, logic, or problem-solving skills

Studio center
An art center where children sculpt, paint, animate, draw, etc… with sufficient light and appropriate materials.

Creative play center

  • Dress-up area
  • Puppet theatre
  • Blocks/LEGO/Construction with found materials

Classroom library
A comfortable well-lit area, stocked with a variety of high-interest reading material

Pet center
The class pet to observe, care for, and in some cases, play with

Plant center
Classroom garden to care for

Listening center
A setting where students can listen to recordings or watch a video with headphones

CAUTION

  • Learning centers should neither be chores or Stations of the Cross. Flexibility, student choice, and actions that do not disturb classmates are hallmarks of the centers approach.
  • Centers should not be managed with a stopwatch. “Fairness” is not a priority, except if there are scarce materials.
  • Learning center use should not be used as a reward or punishment.

TIPS FOR PREPARING A CENTER

  • Create clear and concise prompts, questions to ponder or project ideas. Place these prompts on index cards, a single sheet of paper, or in a binder.
  • Less is more! Do not clutter up a center or overwhelm a learner with too many options.
  • Keep prompts simple and not overly prescriptive. Allow for serendipity.
  • Rotate out “stale” materials – things that students no longer show interest in
  • Assign classroom roles for tidying-up centers
  • Place louder centers away from quieter areas in the classroom.
  • Provide safety materials and instruction when appropriate at centers

 

REFERENCES

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Reprint ed.). NY: Harper Perennial.

Reggio Children. (2010). Indications – Preschools and infant toddler centres of the municipality of Reggio Emilia (L. Morrow, Trans.). In Infant toddler centers and preschools of Instituzione of the municipality of Reggio Emilia (Ed.): Reggio Children.

Will Richardson wrote a nice blog post, “The Thin Value of Proposition,” in which he argues that the true value in education is the relationship between teachers and students. Good point.

One of his commenters, Tony Baldasaro, a good guy, argued that teachers can be freed-up to individualize instruction if the curriculum and assessment is standardized for them. He called this the “upside of standardizing curriculum.”
“By taking the burden of lesson planning and assessment creation for all students at once away from the teacher, administrators can empower teachers to individualize instruction for every student.”
I like Tony and he is well-intentioned, but I could not disagree more. The way in which he articulated his argument really provoked me to write about some ideas I’ve been playing with for a long time. I hope you will give them some consideration.
Tony,I would argue that the mess we’re in is largely the result of twenty years of thinking like you describe. Reducing teachers to technicians who may make decisions about individualizing instruction for each student is impossible since agency to make larger decisions has been steadily robbed from teachers, along with an ability to fight the forces deskilling them. Teachers incapable of deciding what to teach will be less capable of determining how to teach. There is no pedagogical change or dramatic shift in student outcomes possible without an ability to change the intellectual diet provided for children.

Papert used to say that School at best teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe, yet we quibble endlessly about which billionth of a percent is most important – the piece we have always taught. Take mathematics for example, the curriculum and pedagogical approach has remained constant since the Inquisition, despite dramatic societal shifts and the revolutionary impact of computers in real mathematics, not the BS served up in school. Teachers can either be experts in the true nature of mathematics, it’s beauty and power or devise little tricks to make a toxic curriculum a tad less poisonous. The result of that decision creates a scenario where we teach “Algebra in Utero,” pushing it down a grade level constantly while NAEP scores remain stagnant.

I want children to have teachers who can see a flower, read a short story or use a newspaper article as the basis for connecting lots of disciplines and powerful ideas at any moment to create rich rewarding learning contexts for children.

I’m in Krakow, Poland right now and am staying across the street from sort of school. I walked by today and heard children singing along to a song being played on the piano by their teacher. I don’t hear a lot of singing in American classrooms these days.

I became an elementary school teacher at the very end of the era when you needed to learn how to play the piano a tiny bit, teach PE, harvest meal worms and make puppets out of Pop-Tart boxes. We were explicitly talked about how if we saw educational value in playing Scrabble for three months, how to identify the educational objectives being met and write them in our plan book.

For generations, THAT was a teacher. Why do we ask so little of them today?

When I walk into classrooms, rich and poor – private and public, around the world today I see a remarkable return to whole class instruction. Gone are the projects, centers and other joyful spaces for becoming lost in one’s own learning. This sad reality may be the result of changing the definition of teaching to the delivery of curriculum and management of classrooms.

The elaborate ruse called differentiated instruction is only necessary because the curriculum is handed down to teachers on stone tablets. If the educators closest to children had the greatest voice in curricular decisions, individualization would be natural.

Gary Stager