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Culture: the Secret Sauce of Learner-Centered Success

I've spent the last decade helping teachers make the shift to learner-centered pedagogy. When the shift happens, it's incredible! Of course, this shift can take time and intentional effort. And, sometimes, the shift doesn't happen at all. (Sorry to be a Debbie Downer) Through my work with schools all over the world, I've seen learner-centered teaching take off, and I've seen it fall flat. Time and time again, the schools that have succeeded in making the shift have had a few factors in common. One of the most essential factors is classroom culture.

Why, Oh Why, is Classroom Culture a Big Deal?

Let's chat about why classroom culture is like the secret sauce of teaching. Picture this: a classroom humming with energy, where students are not just passive recipients of wisdom, but active participants in their learning. Yep, that's the magic of a learner-centered culture! It's like giving each student their own unique key to the kingdom of knowledge – they unlock doors, light up corridors, and explore to their heart's content.

But, What is Learner-Centered Classroom Culture?

People use "learner-centered" to describe many types of learning. In fact, it's used so often, in so many different contexts, and with so many different definitions that the phrase itself has lost some meaning. At Applied Coaching, we're anchoring our description of learner-centered pedagogy in constructivist practices. The idea of constructivism spans multiple works and authors, so it's not tied to a single source. We define constructivism as an approach to learning based on the belief that people actively construct or make their own knowledge through various experiences by the learner. Examples of constructivism include inquiry-based learning, design-thinking, and project-based learning. In order for any of these constructivist practices to come to life, we must consider the culture.

A couple of years ago, my colleague Alicia endeavored to define some conditions of learner-centered culture. In the blog post, "Conditions & Resources to Support an SEL Culture", she proposed these 6 areas to consider:

  • Learning environment

  • Role of teachers and students

  • Learning goals

  • Use of instruction

  • Protocols and routines

  • Resources and materials

Basically, creating a learner-centered culture requires us to consider every aspect of what we do and how we are in the classroom. Two years later, our team is still exploring factors that lead to a learner-centered culture. Since then, we've created a reflection tool to help teachers take stock of how they're using each of the 6 areas to build culture in their classroom. It can be hard work, but it's work that we can do, and this tool can help us to figure out where we might want to focus our efforts:

This is an image of the reflection tool. Click the link to download the PDF.

This is an image of the reflection tool. Click the link to download the PDF.

I'm in, but I need some resources to get started!

No worries at all! We've been collecting some blog posts, libraries, strategies, and resources to help you create a learner-centered classroom culture. Each of these sections has a description of that aspect of the classroom and resources to support it. Read on!

Learning Environment

A learning environment should thrive on celebrating effort, encouraging intellectual risks, nurturing creativity, providing individuals and teams the freedom to explore and innovate without fear, while also facilitating interactive discussions and showcasing ongoing student work.

​So A Learning Environment Has More Of:

And Less Of:

  • Students being celebrated for trying a new approach

  • Students being encouraged to take intellectual risks

  • Individuals and teams are provided the freedom to explore and grow without the fear of making mistakes

  • Creativity and innovation are focal points of learning so that students have opportunities to discover and hone their unique strengths

  • Desks arranged to allow for small group and whole class conversations

  • Classroom walls that have space for students to show their thinking and work-in-progress

  • ​Students doing what feels safe to get it "right"

  • Students being expected to complete tasks, processes, and assignments in a prescribed way

  • Individuals and teams are given exact steps to follow in order to get the same expected outcome

  • Compliance is the focal point of learning

  • Desks lined up in rows

  • Classroom walls perfectly decorated with posters and looks like a “pinterest” classroom

Resources To Get Started:

Role of Teachers and Students

Teachers and students collaboratively establish and revisit working agreements, engaging in meaningful discourse while the teacher fosters learning by posing probing questions and assigning challenging tasks with tailored support, allowing students to shoulder the cognitive load actively.

So The Role of Ts & Ss Has More Of:

And Less of:

  • The class creating and revisiting working agreements

  • Students engaging in discourse with one another

  • The teacher saying things like, "Can you say more about that?" "Why do you think this is the case?" "What criteria do you use…?"

  • The teacher setting the stage for learning with a developmentally appropriate challenging task but providing necessary support for student success

  • Students taking on the cognitive load

  • Class rules that the teacher creates without student input

  • Students directing their responses only to the teacher in discussions

  • The teacher saying things like, "That is correct"

  • Over or under scaffolding of tasks

  • The teacher being responsible for most of the thinking in class

Resources to Get Started:

Learning Goals

Learning goals empower students by providing clear expectations, supported by teacher guidance and continuous reference, fostering transferable skills for versatile application, while regular assessments steer progress and inform collaborative adjustments, leading to student self-reflection on their evolving mastery.

​So Learning Goals Have More Of:

And Less Of:

  • Students having access to the learning goals so they know what is expected of them

  • Teachers referencing the learning goals throughout their teaching to help students understand the “why”

  • Transferable learning goals that go beyond content so that students can apply them in multiple contexts and situations such as problem solving

  • Regular assessments that use multiple modalities of learning

  • Students and teachers using the results of formative assessments to determine next steps

  • Students reflecting on growth

  • Students being unaware of learning goals or expectations

  • Students not understanding how activities and learning in class contribute to learning goals

  • Learning goals that are focused on recall within the context of the content

  • Assessments that are limited to one or two types

  • Teachers using the results of formative assessments to determine the next steps

  • Teachers reflecting on student growth

Resources To Get Started

Use of instruction

Effective instruction is achieved through adaptable inquiry-based lessons, while nurturing trust and prioritizing student comprehension. It cultivates essential skills like collaboration, utilizing a balanced blend of individual, small group, and whole group learning approaches.

So the Use of Instruction Has More Of:

And Less Of:

  • ​Student questions guiding lessons and conversations

  • Providing students with regular opportunities to improve their work through feedback

  • Being open to adapting instruction based on the needs of the class, feedback from students, or in response to unforeseen challenges

  • Integrating diverse perspectives into instruction

  • Establishing and maintaining trust with students to ensure they understand that the primary goal of instruction is their understanding and success

  • Students practicing skills such as collaboration and project management under the guidance of the teacher

  • Learning that is connected to community or personal interests

  • A balanced mix of individual, small group, and whole group learning

  • Lessons and conversations being directed by the teacher with no student inquiry

  • Feedback only being provided when the product of learning is complete or nearly complete

  • Following a prescribed curriculum without adjusting to the needs and voice of the students

  • Being unaware of the perspectives being represented in instruction

  • Students not seeing how their understanding and success are central to learning

  • Students being asked to work together and manage projects without explicit development of these skills

  • Learning that is determined solely by state or district curriculum

  • Everyone in the class engaging in the same type of learning most of the time

Resources to Get Started:

Protocols and Routines

By employing thoughtfully selected protocols and routines, the learning environment fosters inclusivity, encourages diverse student participation, while also promoting regular self-reflection, thus nurturing a balance of structured autonomy and shared responsibility in classroom dynamics.

So Protocols & Routines Have More Of:

And Less Of:

  • Utilizing protocols and routines to ensure inclusivity in group work & class discussions

  • Many different students sharing their perspectives and learning

  • Students relying on familiar structures to guide conversation and feedback

  • Students reflecting regularly on their learning and experiences

  • Opportunities for autonomy by allowing students to have a say in some classroom protocols or routines

  • A lack of predictable structure in group work and class discussions

  • A few students answering questions from the teacher

  • Students unsure how to engage in meaningful discourse

  • Infrequent student reflection on learning and experiences

  • The teacher choosing all protocols and routines for the class all the time

Resources To Get Started:

Resources and Materials

Materials and resources are thoughtfully curated to resonate with diverse student experiences, fostering mutual understanding and appreciation, while being flexible enough to cater to varying learning styles and abilities, combined with high-quality tools and success benchmarks for feedback and reflection that yield valuable, actionable insights and suggestions.

So Resources & Materials Have More Of:

And Less Of:

  • ​Texts and resources that connect to student experiences and identities

  • Students learning about each other and their backgrounds

  • Adapting tools and resources to cater to different learning preferences and abilities, ensuring each student feels seen and accommodated

  • Prioritizing having organized and clearly labeled supplies, streamlining student interactions, and minimizing classroom disruptions

  • Using quality tools and success criteria for effective feedback and reflection that result in meaningful and actionable comments and suggestions

  • Students feeling like texts and resources have no connection to themselves

  • Students don't know much about each other

  • A lack of accommodation for learning preferences and abilities

  • Disorganized materials and supplies, leading to bottlenecks in student work

  • Feedback and reflection occurs without the use of quality tools or success criteria, resulting in surface-level comments or suggestions such as “good job” or “needs improvement” without any explanation as to why

Resources to Get Started

A Few Last Tips

As the kids these days say, "don't try to do all the things." Before you dig in, be sure to use the reflection tool to assess the culture in your own classroom. Then, pick one or two areas on which to focus. Try some of the tools and strategies, reflect, and then decide what you want to try next! If we want our students to be risk-takers, we'll have to take some ourselves. In the meantime, reach out to the ACP team to share your successes and your favorite strategies. Best wishes on a terrific school year!


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