The Atlantic featured a really good piece of reflection on the lost art of teaching by the great magician Teller, half of Penn and Teller.
“The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject. That doesn’t have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom; there’s all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds.”
This fits nicely with my oft-repeated statement, “Schools have an obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love.”
Americans have a nutty notion that experts are bad teachers. My experience is quite to the contrary. You become an expert by obsessively focusing on often tiny, yet continuous growth. That precision and focus is easy converted into an ability to explain a learning process.
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.
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)
- 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
- 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
- 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
A place for experimentation
An area where a long-term project may be undertaken and securely stored
A place where students play games that helps develop specific concepts, logic, or problem-solving skills
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
A comfortable well-lit area, stocked with a variety of high-interest reading material
The class pet to observe, care for, and in some cases, play with
Classroom garden to care for
A setting where students can listen to recordings or watch a video with headphones
- 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
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.