Six Barriers to Student Centered Learning
As we noted in an earlier blog post, creating a student-centered learning environment involves transforming an entire school or district to support personalized learning. But several potential barriers stand in the way.

Here are six key areas you’ll need to address as you work to create a student-centered learning environment in your schools.


Student-centered learning involves giving students a choice in their education. For this to occur, the dynamics of the student-teacher relationship must change. Teachers have to learn to cede some control to students and allow them to have a larger voice in their own learning.

“That’s a big shift for a lot of teachers to make,” says Rachael Turner, Transformation Manager for School Improvement Network.

Students also have to be comfortable with these changes. And both students and teachers have to recognize that everyone learns in different ways—and that’s OK.

“Students need to be able to recognize that difference in themselves and in their peers,” Turner said. “That’s part of changing the culture of the school—knowing that each child learns at a different rate, and being able to see and appreciate that in their classmates.”

Teacher readiness

A student-centered learning environment requires teachers to understand their students’ unique needs and develop individual learning paths for each child. This, too, is a monumental shift for many teachers, who must be capable of leading personalized learning in their classrooms.

That means teachers must be able to use and interpret data showing their students’ learning needs. It means they must be skilled at guiding small-group instruction, and they must be comfortable using new technologies. And it means they must get the training and support they need to make this happen.

Policies and systems

Student-centered learning calls for students to learn at their own pace. But that will require fundamental changes in school and district policies.

For example, school leaders will have to reconsider how they group their students and how they advance students from one level to the next. This might involve moving from a seat-time model, in which every child progresses to the next grade level based on how many days they’ve attended school, to a mastery-based model in which they progress only when they’ve demonstrated mastery of a topic—whether that occurs before the end of the school year or beyond it.


Another potential barrier that is always in play with any major initiative is funding: How can school and district leaders pay for the planning, training, and technologies that will accompany these changes?

Many districts struggle with the funding question because “they’re trying to layer new ways of doing things on top of existing systems,” Turner said, instead of looking closely at their existing systems and asking: How might these change in a student-centered learning environment?

If you layer new processes on top of what you’re already doing, then you’re simply adding new budget items to your existing expenditures. But when you reexamine your existing systems and think in terms of transformational change, there might be some systems or processes you can eliminate, freeing up the money you used to spend on these processes for use in personalized learning.

The question school leaders should ask, Turner said, is: “How can we use existing funds most effectively to educate our students?”


Student-centered learning involves creating learner profiles for each child—and that requires a robust data system that can help educators collect and analyze relevant, actionable information about each student’s individual strengths, weaknesses, interests, and goals.

School and district leaders also might want to design more flexible learning spaces that give students the freedom to work individually or in small groups. That might involve setting up stations with computers, laptops, tablets, or other devices, allowing students to work through the curriculum at their own pace while the teacher circulates around the room and offers individual attention to students as needed. Older students might be given their own device to take with them from class to class.

Community readiness

Teachers and students aren’t the only stakeholders who will need to understand what a student-centered learning environment entails; parents must be educated as well. “It’s not just a student sitting on a computer for eight hours a day, without any interaction or teacher direction,” Turner said.

School and district leaders must enlist the support of parents and their community, and they must manage stakeholders’ expectations, when moving to student-centered learning. Making the transition to a new type of learning is always a challenge—and so district leaders “need to make sure that everyone is involved and supportive as they go through that change,” Turner said.