Clarity on What it Means to Put Students at the Center — Inspired by an Opinion Piece by Richard Ullman

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.


The piece “No, Teachers Should Not Put Students in the Driver’s Seat,” immediately captured our attention because of its either/or polarizing title and because the article proceeds to limit thinking to whether you mean to put students at the center or not. Most importantly, it does not offer a definition for what “students at the center” means. We suggest that Ullman, as well as most educators, consider that our main purpose for education is to put student learning at the center of our work.

The title of our book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning With Habits of Mind, is raising the question of how to personalize learning for students by bringing them progressively more active in setting their own goals, raising questions that engage their curiosities, learning how to give and receive feedback to improve their work, and become more self-assessing. We propose that both students and teachers need to pay attention to Habits of Mind, a set of dispositions that promote more efficacious thinking and problem solving. Therefore, we need to parse some of the arguments in this article and provide another perspective.

  1. This is NOT an epic battle between teacher-led or student-led pedagogies but rather the aspirations we should have on behalf our students. We propose that this “either or” mentality is unhelpful and unnecessary. We propose an approach that honors both timeless pedagogy as well as a gradual release of responsibility from teacher modeling to students taking more responsibility for their learning. We use a metaphor of the sound board to show how to move progressively and appropriately toward that goal. The sound board, as is true when used with streaming music, allows us the gradually amplify the curriculum design experience recognizing that it starts with the teacher’s design initiatives and, through a range of opportunities grows student independence, connection to the content, and willingness to persist as they practice, create, or apply.
  2. The goal has shifted away from mastery of foundational knowledge as being the point of school. The shift is not away from foundational knowledge. Rather, personalizing aims to use content as a way to engage students in rich dialogue, approach a complex problem, and sketch an idea. A distinguishing purpose is that personalizing requires application of knowledge and skills that were borne out of persistent and focused practice. Fluency of declarative and procedural knowledge becomes more significant because students see the value of the practice as they struggle with conceptual models and application. Yet some students do not have regular opportunities to engage in application of learning and this is the heart of most school mission statements and career and college expectations.
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    When teachers design learning as a “one size fits all approach,” it makes it difficult to motivate the rich diversity that is represented in our classrooms. The work of schools is to leverage foundational knowledge to applications that broaden the student’s understanding of the world.

  3. As the goal of schools begins to shift, there is genuine confusion about the role of the teacher. If the teacher is not the passionate orator, lead director, and task manager then what are they exactly? Ullman laments how when students are in the driver’s seat, the role of a teacher is one of “learning facilitator.” Ullman contends,

    “Predictably, many classrooms have become social, bustling, sometimes chaotic environments, where teachers—even masters of their craft—are relegated to facilitator status, lest they be scolded for failing to limit teacher talk time, allowing any student to be even momentarily bored, or being too didactic in their approach.”

    When the teacher is committed to growing student generated experiences, instead of abdicating control, they are structuring a great deal of control in the environment through self-directed learning management strategies. The teacher is seizing the opportunity to coach for higher level thinking and work with their students to plan, monitor, and evaluate learning experiences. “Teacher talk time” is not relegated to direct instruction but also broadened to listen and asking probing questions as students share ideas, provide feedback based on student-identified concerns, and think interdependently with students to identify appropriate next steps. Finally, teachers are able to consider the issue of distinguishing equality from equity. Everything is not equal. When equity driven pedagogy is happening, time, resources, and attention is paid to personalizing through strengths and needed attention to skill building.

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