What Does It Take to Have a Student-Centered Classroom?

A look at the role of heutagogy in learning

November 7, 2016

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For Admins, In the Classroom

What’s “heutagogy” and what does it have to do with school? Eryn Barker, a Professional Learning Specialist at IXL, is here to answer those questions and more in this guest post!

Everyone remembers that one scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: the history teacher droning on and periodically posing questions to a disengaged class. Most of us can still hear that teacher’s voice in our heads: “Bueller? Bueller?”

And, most us have a similar memory of a similar class at some point in our educational career—a class where we sat in rows while the teacher talked at us and we were expected to memorize facts that seemed to have little relevance to our lives.

The teacher-centered practice of education, along with classroom management practices that focused on control rather than engagement, prevailed for decades with mixed results. Some students were successful. Many students were not.

Humans are intrinsically programmed to explore, to experience, and to discover. When those elements are taken out of the academic experience and the responsibility for learning rests primarily on the teacher’s shoulders, students depend on others to feed them knowledge and subsequently struggle to engage in lifelong learning beyond their school years.

On the flip side of the teacher-centered classroom, the practice of heutagogy expects the learner to take responsibility for their own learning. In a classroom with true heutagogical practice, students may work individually, in pairs, or in small groups, with each student working at the appropriate level for the individual.

Last year, I volunteered in a second grade classroom that embraced the principles of heutagogy. Every learner worked on something different. One student practiced her spelling words by placing letter magnets on a filing cabinet. In another corner, two students read their selected books to each other and asked high-level questions about what they had read. At her desk, another student opened her journal and planned out a paragraph to write. In yet another corner, the teacher sat with three students, reviewing reading comprehension skills before sending them off to practice on their own on iPads or computers.

This classroom was never quiet. True learning never is. It was busy and hectic but also full of the sounds of thinking and processing. Students, even at the age of 7, would eagerly (and loudly) tell a visitor which standard they were working toward and how they planned to get there. Students knew they had a choice in their method of learning, and they understood the responsibility of learning.

Most importantly, students were engaged in their own learning and knew how to pursue the knowledge they needed to progress academically. Instead of providing the information, the teacher was a facilitator to knowledge. She took her job of creating lifelong learners seriously and asked her students to do every day what they do best: explore, experience, and discover.

As 21st-century educators, we are also tasked with bridging the gap between self-discovery and utilizing technology in the learning process. Not only does the use of technology prepare students for careers and college, it enables educators to individualize learning, with recommendations and advice from the student. Programs like IXL allow teachers and students to work together, using heutagogical practices, to design individual learning paths and craft lofty but achievable goals. As a result, students are engaged and excited to learn. They possess the tools and drive necessary to pursue further knowledge.

If and when a re-make of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is made, it would no longer have the same title. Ferris would be thrilled to be in school, putting his crafty skills to work. A more fitting title might be Ferris Bueller’s Day of Discovery, or even, Ferris Bueller’s Use of Heutagogy.

Or we could just keep the original as a historical document to study how education used to look and be amazed we ever thought that was a good way to teach students.

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