Changing to student-centered learning in Utah schools

May 4, 2023, 8:00 AM | Updated: May 5, 2023, 9:28 am

The public education system operates in much the same way today as it did 100 years ago. Utah State...

FILE: Students listen as kindergarten teacher Stephanie Cobabe gives a math lesson during a full-day kindergarten class at East Sandy Elementary School in Sandy on Feb. 27, 2023. (Ryan Sun, Deseret News)

(Ryan Sun, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The public education system operates in much the same way today as it did 100 years ago.

Utah State Superintendent for Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson explained, “If you think about it, it was really that old Carnegie unit and how much time equates to a credit.”

Dickson said the 100-year-old model is still how things are done, “and yet we know that students learn at different paces and in different ways. So, we’re trying to unpack the whole system to say, ‘Can we be more student-centered in our approach to learning?'”

Student-centered learning

The goal is to give students “more choice within guardrails,” the superintendent said. “So, if we set a standard and say we want you to learn this standard, there are multiple ways that they can get there and show us how they know.”

Related: Utah lawmakers pass over 100 education-related bills, USBE member says it’s ‘too many’

This is the kind of system already in place at Washington Fields Intermediate in Washington, Utah. You can walk up to any student in that school and say, “Tell me what you’re studying this week.”

The student may tell you what they’re working on in a particular class. They may say, “I’m currently at a two, but I’m trying to get to a four.”

“Look Mom — I got all fours!”

Washington Fields uses a number system. Instead of an A, when you reach competency in a particular standard, you might get a four.

“It’s a very different way of thinking about learning,” Dickson said. “It’s very student-centered instead of time-centered or teacher-centered or even unit centered.”

Think about students who are docked for being late, but they’re late because they have to walk their younger siblings to school. There are students who master the subject but get poor grades on homework assignments because of responsibilities at home. In a student-centered way of learning, they have a better chance of success.

Related: Voters will now say whether Utah changes how the state funds education

“We learned a lot through the pandemic about seat time and what really matters,” Dickson explained. “We’re getting down to what are the things that students need to know and be able to do when they leave system.”

Student-centered learning helps students who struggle with the traditional model but can also help accelerated students.

“If they’re ahead of the rest of the class, why would we hold them back and give them busy work?” Dickson asked. “Maybe they want to go deeper into a project or move on to a different standard.”

Change in standardized tests

Some Utah students are taking assessment tests this week. A move to student-centered learning could have an effect on the way kids take those standardized tests in the future.

“Instead of taking one end of level assessment, some states are looking at chunking those so you can take a portion of the assessment when you’re ready,” Dickson said.

Will all Utah Districts make the change to student-centered learning?

Right now, schools in the Juab District and a handful of other schools have already moved over to student-centered learning. “We think it’s the way of the future,” Dickson said. “Even as a young  teacher many years ago, I was playing with these things, but the system bound us. Now, we’re saying let’s take off some of those system binders.”

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Changing to student-centered learning in Utah schools