Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

Common Factors in Effective Learner-Centered Schools

Important Note: It has become commonplace to equate the "effectiveness" of a school with the grades achieved by the school's students on standardized tests. Learner-centered schools focus on educating the whole learner--not just the mental domain (academic achievement), but all the domains that are part of a human beings--social, emotional, self-reflective, creative, etc. Holistic schools see themselves as "effective" when their children grow as human beings, learn and think deeply, and love what they are doing! This is the meaning of the word "effective" in the title of this article. 

"The development of the child is a natural unfolding, not a mechanical process that needs adult management and regulation at every turn. Children are born to learn, and, if given a nurturing, stimulating environment in which they are allowed to follow their own natural rhythms and mature at their own pace, they will largely educate themselves….The aim of education should be the free and uninhibited development of the learner." ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau


n the article, What is Authentic Learning?, we discussed a number of "constructivist" theories of education extending back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the early 18th century. Many of these theories were based on observing how children learn when left to their own devices. Today, research in neurophysiology, as well as in cognition and learning, has confirmed the idea that learning naturally occurs when children actively engage with their environment and with ideas. There is growing recognition that, when given the opportunity to direct their own learning, children far exceed what might be expected of them in adult-directed, knowledge-centered, public school enviroments.

In the fall of 2015, I had the opportunity to drive around the United States, visiting a variety of what I refer to as learner-centered schools. They ranged from a play-based preschool in Seattle, WA, to a public K-12 charter school in Altadena, CA, a homeschool resource center in Virginia, a public middle school in the Bronx, and a number of other private/independent schools that, at first glance, appeared similar to a traditional public school. In some of the schools I visited, learning was totally self-directed, while others had a "curriculum." Unlike a standardized curriculum in which every child must "know and be able to do" the same things, a learner-centered curriculum focuses on the holistic development of the individual child—the integration of the mental, physical, emotional, social, creative, spiritual, and natural domains of being human.

I began to think about what factors these schools had in common—what made them "learner-centered"? What set them apart from more traditional public school classrooms around the country? I'm not suggesting that some of these factors aren't found in public schools—due mainly to enlightened teachers and/or administration. But in learner-centered schools, these factors are intentional—they are part of the philosophy, the mission, and the belief system of the schools. They are the foundation on which the school culture is built. While the methods and actual organization of the schools differed widely, their beliefs about children did not.

Several common factors were apparent in the most impressive of these schools. They might be called the "non-negotiables" for schools that focus on authentic human development.



s one walks through the doors of some learner-centered schools, there is a palpable "felt sense" of caring and community. Looking back, I have come to believe that the most important factor in an educational environment in which individual learners thrive is the relationships between and among older and younger learners (adults in these schools see themselves as co-learners rather than transmitters of information.) These relationships flourish because adults perceive children as individuals with different needs, interests, and strengths. Each student is seen, heard, and respected as an individual. Here are just a few examples of how these relationships play out.

Let Love Lead the Way

In learning environments in which loving, nurturing, respectful relationships form the basis of all other decision making, there is no need to "teach" social and emotional learning because it is a fundamental part of the culture! Here are several other quotes about how such an educational culture plays out in the world.

"Children who are respected learn respect. Children who are cared for learn to care for those weaker than themselves. Children who are loved for what they are cannot learn intolerance. In an environment such as this, they will develop their own ideas, which can be nothing other than humane, since they grew out of the experience of love." ~Alice Miller
"However we treat the child, the child will treat the world." ~Pam Leo



he second factor, closely related to the first, is trust. The militaristic public education system in Prussia, which later spread to the rest of Europe and the United States, was based on "…the Calvinist belief that children are inherently lazy and untrustworthy and that it is society's role to mold their minds and characters into a socially acceptable form."(1) Many people still believe that, left to their own devices, children would do nothing, or at least nothing that wasn't "fun." And school, of course, is not supposed to be fun! It's supposed to be hard work that gets children ready for the "real world."

"Schools assume that children are not interested in learning and are not much good at it, that they will not learn unless made to, that they cannot learn unless shown how, and that the way to make them learn is to divide up the prescribed material into a sequence of tiny tasks to be mastered one at a time, each with its appropriate [reward or punishment]. And when this method doesn't work, the schools assume there is something wrong with the children…something they must try to diagnose and treat." ~ John Holt

On the contrary, learner-centered schools begin with the belief that children come into the world eager to learn, and that left unimpeded, they will continue to learn. This should obvious in observing young children from infants to age five—before they are forced to attend school. During that time, with little or no "direct instruction," children learn what are arguably the most important skills in life—how to walk and how to communicate. Why then, do adults assume that, when they reach the age of five or six, that behavior will cease? They are removed from active experience in stimulating interactions with the world and with people of all ages and placed in schools with children of their own age where they are told what, when, and how to learn—whether or not they are developmentally ready or see any personal meaning in the content.

Because learner-centered schools focus on natural human development, they recognize that the more satisfaction children get from exploring the world and making their own discoveries, the more engaged and eager they will be to continue learning. They also recognize that each individual will move from experience to experience in whatever way is consistent with what that individual needs/wants to learn at that moment. And they trust the children to learn what many believe "all" students must learn (literacy and numeracy) as part of their natural process and when they are ready to learn it.

Of equal importance is that, because of the caring relationships, children learn to trust the adults. Once they know that adults truly see, hear, understand, and respect them, they become more open to what the adult might suggest. They know that the adult wants what is in their best interest.

Mutual trust accounts for the success of alternative schools that range from totally unstructured to relatively structured. This range is totally appropriate given the learning preferences, multiple intelligences, strengths and weaknesses, interests, and needs of individuals.(Note: To understand why we need a broad variety of learning environments, and why the idea of "multiple intelligences" is just the tip of the iceberg, please read The End of Average by Dr. Todd Rose.)

Self-Directed Learning


third factor is the inclusion of as much self-directed learning as possible—as much choice in what, how, and when students learn as possible, as well as in how they express that learning. Adults in learner-centered schools see themselves as facilitators of learning—curators of enriched learning environments. They "hold the space" for children to answer their own questions, explore unfamiliar possibilities, identify their passions, and develop the awareness and agency that will enable them to change the world. They answer questions with questions that prompt learners to strenghten their own problem solving abilities. In short, they return the responsibility for learning to the children.

In a brief video, evolutionary psychologist Dr. Peter Gray describes what happens when children are given this responsibility (click here to view the video), as well as other factors necessary for self-directed learning. Dr. Gray provides extensive research supporting self-directed learning in his book Free to Learn.

Self-direction doesn't necessarily require a totally "free" school environment. In his book, Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer uses the metaphor of a sheep dog to describe his role as a teacher. When I first read that, I didn't like it because to me, a sheep dog implies that the students are sheep. But Palmer saw the role of the sheep dog as guiding learners to pastures that contained a lot of nourishment. And once the learners were there, the sheep dog simply patrolled the boundaries of the pasture, so that learners could browse at will. And yes, in some "free" schools, the entire facility becomes the pasture, so those who prefer to sample knowledge in a variety of fields are free to do so without pressure.

An Australian teacher suggested that "Before you can think out of the box, you have to have a box." Palmer's pasture might also be seen as a loosely defined content area within a wide-ranging curriculum. Within that content area, learners are presented with multiple ways to access information. A topic or theme may begin with a Socratic discussion in which students identify questions they wish to explore. Then students are set free to learn in their own way. The adults are present to facilitate that learning rather than direct it—and yes, to occasionally nudge the learners back on topic, helping them to focus their learning for the greatest gain.

Some learner-centered schools may have a "curriculum" of sorts, but it is NOT a list of things that "all students will know and be able to do." For example, the curriculum map for Renaissance School of Arts and Sciences (REN) in Portland, OR focuses on themes, such as identification, location, communication, organization, conservation, investigation, and exploration. All activities take the form of inquiries. Activities within each of these themes may be drawn from any "subject area" so that what students learn is integrated as it is found in the student's world. Skills (e.g. observation, KWL charts, journaling, diagramming, taking note-taking, experimentation, research, report writing, editing and revision, reflection, etc.), often taught in isolation in traditional education, become natural ways of organizing information and answering questions as part of the flow of inquiry.

Self-directed learners don't need reward and punish "incentives." They don't have to be bribed or threatened to engage with learning. The responsibility of directing their own learning creates motivation, which automatically increases when one sees a purpose for doing or learning something (Dan Pink TED talk on motivation.)

Despite this research, articles on teacher websites aimed at public schools continually discuss how to motivate students—to do what the teachers have decided they need to do! These same teachers rave about the remarkable things their students accomplish during "genius hours," during which students can work on whatever interests them. Yet the cause-and-effect relationship between self-direction and motivation seems to escape them. Why doesn't it occur to them that freeing students to learn could result in that same kind of behavior—not an hour a week, but all or most of the time!

Active, Rather than Passive, Learning


ctive learning refers, not do what students are "doing," but on how deeply they think about what they are doing. Although project-based learning is becoming more popular in public schools, it is too often a "patch"—a break from the traditional "teacher input" format. Teachers are still not willing to let go because many truly believe that learning requires teaching—or at the very least, adult guidance. Therefore, many so-called "projects" are so highly defined that they become little more than recipes or blueprints—yet another "assignment" rather than a true choice.

In learner-centered schools, such as Renaissance Schools of Arts and Sciences in Portland, OR, students learn to read by being given time to read what they want. They learn to write by writing. In the earliest years, they begin with small purchased notebooks, which they personalize by embellishing them in some way (art and design). As they learn new concepts in language (pronouns for example), they fill a notebook with the definition and examples followed by personal writing that uses the concept. By the time they reach middle school, they have amassed a large collection of writing on many different subjects. Older students make their own notebooks out of various materials, creating something that is personally meaningful to them. Rather than reading canned pieces of fiction or nonfiction, or writing the ever-popular 5-paragraph essay or forms prescribed by Common Core standards, they learn and enjoy reading and writing because it is what they have chosen. Reading and writing are a natural part of every inquiry process as they explore contexts and themes from the real world rather than from what textbook publishers choose to include.



dults in many, but not all, learner-centered schools engage in ongoing formative assessment. The goal is not to "grade" learners, but to identify where each learner may need a little more attention or help in achieving his or her goals. Often, adults answer questions with another question-turning the learner inward to build thoughtful problem-solving skills. One of the most important features of some learner-centered schools is a focus on self-reflection. In essence, the learner constantly evaluates his or her own learning as an integral step in their learning process. By learning about their own learning, they grow in their ability to self-assess rather than having an adult tell them where they have "gone wrong." They learn to self-regulate because they are given the opporunity and the encouragement to do so!

Other Important Factors


wo other factors that increase the effectiveness of learner-centered learning environments include multi-age learning and integrated learning.

Mixed-Age Learning

Rather than being forced into peer groups by age, which has been the organizational choice of traditional education since its inception, the founders of learner-centered schools incorporate extensive research showing that children mature— physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally—at different rates. They understand that expecting all children of a given age to "know and be able to do" the same things—to learn and comprehend at the same rate—not only flies in the face of reason, but is ultimately limiting and detrimental to learning.

In authentic learning (before children are forced to attend school), children are a part of a mixed-age community. In mixed-age learner-centered schools, learners are grouped, not by age, but by developmental readiness. That grouping may change from one area to another. For example, some children are naturally gifted when it comes to manipulating numbers, while others need a slower pace and a bit more support. Some children may learn to read at age 4—because they want to! Others may be 9 or 10 before they realize that they need to know how to read to engage in other activities that interest them. Contrary to the belief that "the earlier you learn to read, the smarter you are," research shows that those who learn to read later, not only quickly catch up with early readers, but often surpass them. Not to mention that they avoid the stress encountered by chldren who are forced to read before they are developmentally ready! Given the trust mentioned in item 2, those involved in learner-centered education provide the exposure and support that each individual requires to continue moving toward his or her goals, but without the pressure to achieve any mythical achievement level at a given age.

Integrated Learning

In some learner-centered schools, you may still find groups studying science, math, or history centered around a particular theme or issue. However, the curriculum in many learner-centered schools is much more integrated. The division of knowledge into "subjects" or disciplines has some logical basis because each field employs a different methodology. So we have science broken into physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science. We then break chemistry, for example, into smaller chunks such as organic, inorganic, biochemistry, environmental chemistry, electrochemistry, etc. But the belief that breaking things down into smaller and smaller chunks makes it easier to understand ignores the "big picture."

In the "disciplines" approach, students are "given" what adults have decided is "essential information" in each subject. It is assumed that they will then use this information to understand more about their subject. Using a "tools" metaphor, it's assumed that each fact is a tool and the more tools you own, the better prepared you are for a given task. Unfortunately, public education is now so focused on the acquisition of tools that there is little or no time to use them, or even explore what each tool can be used to do. Think about your own life. How likely is it that you would go out and buy all the tools typically used in a given line of work...and only then, begin to learn what that work entails?

Separate disciplines rarely, if ever, exist in the real world. When learners are encouraged to identify and explore questions and solutions related to real world problems, they may find that they need to understand math (statistics), science (environmental issues), history (social constructs), informational text (language arts) and other "academic" content. Instead of being "given" facts that they may or may not need ahead of time, they are intrinsically motivated to learn a multitude of concepts they do need to solve the problem. Will they all learn the same facts by the time they graduate? No! They will have learned something that is arguably much more essential—how to find whatever information they want or need as they move through life. They also develop the confidence to take on any challenge, even if it is outside a given "field." In short, they become accomplished and confident lifelong learners.

What About Technology?


ith the exception of Aveson Charter School, where computer use from the early grades on is apparent and is a key element in their Personal Mastery Learning methodology for middle school and high school, the schools that best exemplified the factors listed above were least dependent on technology during the school day. For example, at REN and Rainbow Community School, I never saw a student at a computer—or with a cell phone. That doesn't mean that learners don't use technology at home and in their own research. But when they are in school, collaboration and active (minds-on) learning and discussion take precedence over passive knowledge acquisition using computers and the Internet.

I find it interesting that "free" schools, where learners are completely self-directed, and can choose what, when and how to learn, DO have computers. At one small free school (a homeschool resource), the older children were all playing games on their computers—but I found it a bit disconcerting that they quickly closed the windows when an adult walked by. At the Agile Learning Center in NYC, computers are effectively used for many organizational tasks, but during the daily school meeting, a young girl played Minecraft throughout the meeting rather than participating. This is, of course, the structure of a "free" school, which is appropriate for some learners. A young adult who had attended a Sudbury School (one of the original "free democratic schools") told me that he had done NOTHING but play computer games for his first several years at the school. But, he added, in doing that, he had taught himself to read, write, and solve complex math problems necessary for the games. Once he decided he'd played games long enough, the first learning task he chose for himself was chemistry!

Whatever their choice, it's clear that the most effective learner-centered schools see technology as a useful tool—not as a replacement for a teacher, or a way to "differentiate" learning.

Structured vs Unstructured


earner-centered schools come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and philosophies. It's important to recognize that each of these models "works" for some students, so this variety is absolutely appropriate. Mandating the same type of "learner-centered" education for all would be as inappropriate as the one-size-fits-all knowledge-centered public schools we now have. Society needs this variety to suit the myriad ways in which children learn. The philosophy of a school often reflects the preferences (and certainly the beliefs and values) of the founders, which in itself demonstrates the diversity of thought and ability that our culture needs as we move into the future.

Regardless of the organization—the mission—the philosophy, I am convinced that the two non-negotiables that must be part of any effective learner-centered school are the relationships and trust mentioned in items 1 and 2. They form the core—the heart—of holistic learning. Can people learn information without them? Certainly…we do it every day in books and on the internet. But while the acquisition of knowledge and skills is important, it is a small piece of the puzzle that makes us effective and fulfilled human beings.

Is it possible for traditional public education to "transform" into a learner-centered system? There are those who insist that it can't happen because the public school system was designed for a specific purpose—to "produce" average (standard) workers to fill average (standard) jobs. (You can read more about the history of "standardized" education here, here , and here.)

The mission statement of the U.S. Department of Education continues to focus on jobs and the economy.

ED's mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.

Contrast that with the mission statements of three learner-centered schools:

Rainbow Community School—Asheville, NC

We develop accomplished, confident, and creative learners who are prepared to be leaders in building a compassionate and environmentally sustainable world. Our Method: We provide an engaging, nurturing learning environment to educate the whole child using the seven domains (mental, emotional, social, physical, creative, spiritual, natural). We inspire academic excellence with a program in harmony with the stages of child development. We model within our community the kind of world in which we aspire to live.

Kino School—Tucson, AZ

Kino's mission is to provide a school where students are given both the responsibility and the freedom that lie at the heart of being a citizen in a democratic society: a school where learning, creativity, respect for others, and community thrive and where students of all abilities succeed.

Acton Academy—Austin, TX

The Acton Academy mission is to inspire each child and parent who enters our doors to find a calling that will change the world.

Clearly, the mission of these schools bears little resemblance to the mission of U.S. public schools. To "transform" public education into learner-centered education, everything has to change, beginning with beliefs and values about learning, about children, about the role of the teacher, about knowledge, and about the purpose of education itself.

Learner-centered education isn't a fad. Those who can afford to send their children to learner-centered private/independent schools know that this is the most effective, not to mention humane, way to help children grow and learn. Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education, not only attended, but sends his own children to the University of Chicago Lab School founded by John Dewey. Yet during his tenure as Secretary of State, Duncan supported the growing obsession with standardization and standardized testing—neither of which he or his own children experienced.

Many believe that learner-centered education costs much more than what is now spent on each child in public schools. While some private/independent learner-centered schools have tuitions out of the reach of most families, there are many schools in which the cost of learner-centered education is less than or equal to the per pupil expenditure in public schools. So money clearly isn't the issue. It does raise some serious questions about why government policy makers have mandated that the factory schools of the past are just fine for "other people's children."

These, and many other questions about educational issues, can be found in other articles on this website.

  1. Mercogliano, Chris. (2006) How to Grow a School; Starting and Sustaining Schools That Work. The Oxford Village Press, Oxford, NY. p 21

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