Powerful things happen when learning is student-centered. At Joseph Lovett Elementary School in Chicago, administrators have been working hard to create an engaging learning environment for students.

As part of LEAP Innovation’s Pilot Network, Lovett Elementary has adopted a student-centered framework that empowers students to take ownership over their learning, and provides teachers with the resources to meet students’ individual needs. LEAP’s approach focuses on building capacity, piloting new practices and models, and researching what works and what doesn’t.

We asked Lovett Elementary Principal Dr. LeViis Haney about how this framework has helped his school tackle challenges and grow a learner-centered culture.

What issues or challenges were you experiencing at Lovett prior to implementing a student-centered framework?

One of the main challenges we had was meeting the needs of our students from classroom to classroom, because each classroom had groups of students who were at different levels and needed different supports. Our goal was to find a way to support teachers at differentiating instruction for all of their students. The main question we were trying to answer was how can we find a system to support the teacher in that process?

How has a student-centered framework helped your school address these challenges?

There has been a huge increase in student agency. In the past, the responsibility of learning was solely on the teachers’ shoulders. Teachers taught to the middle, and some of our kids got it and some of our kids didn’t. But the increase in student agency really helped us to turn around the way we provided instruction for kids. Instead of teachers being solely responsible for increasing student outcomes, we really started to shape that teacher-student relationship into one that was more of a partnership, with teachers sharing applicable data with students, coaching them to develop their own learning goals, and then giving students the tools to understand and analyze that data.

What kinds of shifts has this required your teachers to make?

When most people hear the word “teacher,” they think of a person standing in the front of the classroom, lecturing their students. The image is of a teacher-centered classroom, with desks in rows so teachers can monitor the class. I think the biggest transformation was that we changed the narrative from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom, and that required some structural shifts as well as some shifts in practice.

One of the first changes was a reduction in teacher talk. Whole-group instruction is a little more limited, and most teacher conversation now takes place in small groups. We found that the small group instructional model helps our kids get the attention that they need and puts teachers in a better position to assess individual student needs.

We’ve also implemented a model where all teachers receive additional adult support in the classroom to assist in the small group instructional model. So there may be 4-5 adults in the classroom, some of whom aren’t teachers but are under teacher supervision, who work with small groups of students on the specific areas they need help on.

One of the other shifts that we’ve implemented is learning profiles as well as conferencing with students on a weekly basis. The purpose of the learning profiles is for teachers to learn more about their students: Who do they live with? What are their responsibilities at home? What do they like to do? What is their favorite subject?

What kinds of impacts have you seen on students as a result of this?

Starting with the learner profile has really sent a message to our students that things are going to be different now in regards to the way they learn. And I think kids started to get excited just from the teacher asking them those simple questions about who they are. We see the strengthening of relationships between teachers and students now.

Another shift that we’re seeing with students is in their investment in their academic work and increased ownership over their own learning. And it’s because teachers have structured the learning environment to really put students in the driver seat. We’re also seeing a decrease in misbehavior, which is really encouraging.

What advice would you give to other schools that are interested in implementing a student-centered framework?                                                                                                                                                                             

Create your own model that is right for your school. There is not one prescriptive way to do it. Every school has their own context, and that context should drive what a school’s entry point is and also what that school will emphasize in their model. Ask yourself what problem you’re trying to solve.

I would also encourage schools to start small, and get a team of teachers who really believe that instruction should be highly personalized. If you try to implement something like this with people that may be resistant to this sort of teaching, then it’ll fail before it even gets off the ground.

We’re really trying to do a lot of great things for our kids. And we don’t have it all the way figured out yet. But when I think the impact it’s having on so many students, I feel encouraged about the road ahead.