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The Promise of Student-Centered Education

December 18, 2020

Jose Leonor

José Leonor
Board of Directors
Former Director of Middle School

“Just give me what I need to get an A,” a student said to me almost a decade ago about her expectations of her education. In some respects, she was right. Performance measures matter. However, learning approached (by teacher or student) as a mechanistic process risks shortchanging student growth. In this mode, the teacher imparts knowledge, the student receives it as information, and the teacher generates a multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank test of the student’s retention. The student simply does poorly, fairly well, or exceptionally well, without much of a chance to explore the nuances of true understanding.

This approach to education is the inevitable product of early 20th-century thinking aligned with the culture of the Industrial Revolution. Industry needed people who could internalize and follow directions in order to execute tasks. Sit. Listen. Take notes. Test. Rinse. Repeat. This was not far from the model of many of our own formative education years. What we were taught in that modality was to be good at recall, but this is just one aspect of learning and falls short of the holistic development to which a comprehensive education aspires.

Deeper learning revealed itself to me when I reached a setting, much like ours at Thaden, where students considered, discussed, dissected, and synthesized together under the guidance of their teachers, themselves avid learners. This was possible not because my teachers suddenly cared where previous ones had not, but because these caring and crafty teachers had the latitude and bandwidth - teaching no more than 60 to 75 students each in a given year - to connect us in learning and to activate our voices and empower our agency. Furthermore, they invited each of their students to develop and nurture lifelong critical thinking, writing, and problem-solving skills.

It has been a pleasure to work throughout my career with educators who take full advantage of the favorable student-teacher ratio found in independent schools. While some schools with this luxury remain rooted in traditional input-output learning, Thaden students can count on their teachers to continually design multiple methods of instruction and assessment, providing the depth of learning upon which true scholarship is nurtured. In a more expeditious model, teachers generate assessments that they can easily mark as wrong or right, offering students a sense of the degree to which they are successfully “doing school” rather than learning deeply and demonstrating their learning in authentic ways.

Many of us educated in this model turn out to be perfectly fine adults if not outright successful ones, but what and whom do we think of when we remember our most meaningful learning experiences? When were we pushed through our zones of proximal development (that level of sense-making and conceptual understanding that is slightly above and beyond the current level)? How well did we come to understand the relationship between enduring understanding and the craft of teaching?

Deeper learning is difficult for both student and teacher, but it is worth it. I am proud of the work, learning, and growth that Thaden students have achieved through perseverance while facing the inordinate challenges of this year. I am also honored to work with their families, who continue to support their growth in a time where it is especially hard to be an adolescent or the parent of an adolescent. I am equally proud of Thaden’s teachers, who are easily the finest group of educational thinkers I have worked with across four schools. It has been the pride of a lifetime to build, teach, and learn with colleagues able and eager to deliver on the promise of a richer education than seemed possible or necessary a few short decades ago. Cheers to this remarkable community of learners.