What Is a Learner-Centered Culture?

GPS Blog
To best cater to the needs of our students, we must understand how they learn.

Pop quiz: How do students learn best?
  1. Listening to lectures
  2. Watching a video
  3. Working on group projects
  4. Creating a presentation
Answer: E—no two students learn the same way. (OK, we tricked you!)
In an effort to embrace the joy of learning and discovery, GPS is creating a learner-centered culture that approaches teaching a bit differently than you may have experienced. To put it simply: Students learn best when their journeys are personalized, authentic, competency-based, and engaging.

Over the last two years, administration, faculty, and staff have worked to embrace a teaching format where students guide their own learning. That, of course, is not to say that girls decide what they do or don’t want to learn. Rather, teachers work to tailor learning in a way that fits each student’s unique needs. 
How it breaks down:

  • We customize the learning experience
  • We develop learners’ metacognition, self-regulation, and perseverance
  • We amplify student voices
  • We design real-world learning experiences
  • We promote anytime/anywhere learning
  • We spark collaboration
  • We use assessment and data as tools for learning
  • We plan with a competency-based approach
  • We create performance-based assessments
  • We nurture a meaningful learning community
  • We cultivate a sense of belonging
  • We partner with learners to reach their full potential
These strategies help teachers put students in the driver’s seat, so to speak, allowing them to gain confidence, learn to advocate for themselves, and develop methods for success.

To further hone these ideas and put them into practice, a curricular design team, composed of members of the GPS faculty and staff, meets regularly with learning experience designer and consultant Meghan Cureton to strategize opportunities and engage the entire school community.

“Learner-centered education is an innovative and disruptive way to provide access to populations of learners that have not been well-served by traditional modes of education or have perhaps tuned out entirely,” Cureton says. “A learner-centered system offers opportunities to better align outcomes to the needs of learners and increases personalization.”

Within a learner-centered approach, you might see on any given day while visiting GPS question and answer feedback in the classroom. Imagine: a teacher sets up one-on-one meetings with students at the beginning of the year to better understand their learning styles. In one meeting, a student may mention she has trouble speaking up in class because she can’t formulate a response fast enough. With this information, the teacher shifts to giving the students time to think and journal before asking them to share their thoughts with the class rather than calling on the first hand to go up when a question is posed. Thereby, the teacher builds relationships with her students, including all learners, encouraging growth, and amplifying all voices.

In another example, a teacher might ask students to identify a cause in the community they feel passionate about and write a proposal to appropriate community personnel. Last year, for instance, freshman members of Tucker River Fellows welcomed representatives from local organizations to campus for a presentation and feedback session as they worked to refine a new project about the importance of healthy watersheds. They created various prototypes of a 3D-printed topographic model of the Chattanooga area that could be sprayed with water to show how land use affects waterways during rain events, as well as location-specific 'lesson plans' that could be shared with teachers and housed at Outdoor Chattanooga. This project emphasized real-world learning experiences, collaboration, community relationships, and critique and revision processes to enhance the final product.

While the transition to a learner-centered culture requires significant time and effort and the reframing of long-held beliefs or strategies, implementation allows students to get the most out of their learning journeys. Head of School Megan Cover says, “Within a learner-centered community, the goal is to make learning personalized and authentic. Along the way, students develop life skills that will serve them well throughout their lives. A holistic approach to learning allows girls to find joy in the classroom that leads to their ability to expand their focus and reach beyond what they ever thought possible.”