Need help navigating the shift to student-centered learning? This compass can help.

Teachers everywhere agree education isn't one-size fits all, but switching to student-centered learning is often harder than it looks. Here's one strategy for you to start with.

By Tiffany Wycoff

When it comes to rethinking high school, something we can all agree that approaching education should never be one-size-fits-all. Students, after all, are people. Just like you. And just like you, they have different dreams, different interests, and, most importantly, the different ways they learn best. Acknowledging that students process information uniquely, from person to person, allows us to gear their education in a way that ensures learning is engaging and meaningful. Making sure that happens means shifting from a top-down perspective to one that gives students a voice in the classroom as collaborators who are able to shape how they are taught.

When I was an 8th grade student in the late 80s…

I spent a fair amount of time in Principal Jones’s office on “a break” from Mr. Hernandez’s Spanish class. After a couple of visits in which I tried to pass off my appearance as planning sessions for upcoming school events, Mr. Jones looked at me and said, “Ok that’s great about the carwash, Ms. Wycoff, but what is really happening in Spanish class?” 

What transpired was a conversation in which Mr. Jones asked me things like, How do you feel in class? (Bored, we live in Miami and I already know how to say Hola, como estas?) What are you interested in? (Animal rights, dancing, rock music.) What inspires you to learn? (Being outside, being creative, making things.) Would you like to get along better with Mr. Hernandez? (I mean, I guess so.) Would you like to enjoy Spanish class more? (Um, yes.) Great, so then can I have an agreement that if we work together to make this happen, you will do your part and be a positive member of the class? (Ok, sure…?)

Mr. Jones, Mr. Hernandez, and I had a meeting in which we set expectations and built a learning plan together which respected my foundational knowledge of Spanish. During units of study, we would work on what we didn’t know and apply it to group projects. The rest of the year I made films in Spanish about animal rights and “saying no” to drugs, planning school events (in Spanish of course), and generally being a good citizen of Spanish class and school. We even had a pizza party at the end to celebrate getting through the year in such a positive way after a rocky start.

The PAACC Framework

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the compass for my teaching and leading practice was born from that short interaction in Mr. Jones’s office with Mr. Hernandez co-planning the year together. What I experienced many years ago is reflected in today’s best practices of student-centered, personalized learning

In Blended Learning in Action, we share a framework for these practices to ensure that as educators use digital tools and blended models to innovate in their classes, they do so in a way that truly hits the mark in creating opportunities for increased student agency and student leadership

Tools alone do not empower students with a more active voice and decision making role. Rather than focusing on a specific tool, technology level, or blended learning model, we encourage teachers to focus on the PAACC framework. By using the PAACC as a compass, teachers can better ensure that they are increasing personalization, agency, authenticity, connectivity, and creativity.


The phrase “personalized learning” is too often conflated with the use of adaptive software to have students drive their learning independently. While there is value in using digital tools to provide opportunities for students to have increased control over their learning pathways, personalized learning is much more than the use of a tool. 

In the PAACC framework, we focus on two key distinctions in defining personalization: 1) the student as a “co-creator” and 2) the uniqueness of learning pathways. When students are the co-creators of learning, they move from passive consumers of learning to active stakeholders. They have a meaningful voice in the learning environment, engaging in shared visioning, planning, and reflection on both an individual and group level. 


Today’s students will face an unpredictable workforce prone to automation. They will need to continue learning indefinitely and change careers numerous times to stay relevant. The changing world and skills required to be successful is making learner agency, or the ability to reflect on what skills and knowledge are needed to solve a problem and how to gain that skill set, essential. 

In its 2014 study The Impact of Student Choice and Personalized Learning, Hanover Research shared that students demonstrate increased positive emotion and engagement when making decisions in their learning. However, the study also emphasizes that not all decision making is equal. While students experience a higher sense of well-being and engagement when asked to make decisions about class organization and learning procedures, they may experience more enduring “psychological investment in deep-level thinking” when given more cognitive autonomy. 

In the PAACC framework, we distinguish “cognitive autonomy” as “making key decisions” in the learning experience. When we give students opportunities to make important decisions, we help them establish a continuous learning and growth mindset which will empower them to thrive within a hyperdynamic world. 


Authenticity in learning involves alignment of academic experiences to the real world on three levels: targeted outcome, task, and audience. 

To start, we have to continuously assess the targeted outcomes and help students draw relevance from them – what skills are we learning and why? A teacher I worked with used to unpack learning standards with students and do a “relevance hunt” together. He had a deal with his students if they could not find the real-world application of the skill, he would “chuck it”. Given his accountability for covering core standards, I asked him how this was working out for him. He responded by saying he had never had to chuck any standards because when given the opportunity, students were incredible “relevance finders.” This practice was inspiring to hear because it put students in the drivers’ seat at the start, asking them Should we even be learning this? 

Second, we create opportunities for the application of academic knowledge in real-world situations by designing authentic tasks. This level of authenticity heightens both engagement and understanding. In the Understanding by Design Framework (2012), Grant and Wiggins point to this impact by stating, “Understanding is revealed when students autonomously make sense of and transfer their learning through authentic performance.” 

Finally, we can increase authenticity by creating audiences of stakeholders aligned to the learning task. By building authentic audiences for students, we both increase relevance in learning and foster a broader perspective of the real-world problem students are engaged in solving.


Connectivity—defined in the PAACC framework as the opportunity to experience learning in collaboration with peers and experts both locally and globally—is key to empowering students and preparing them for today’s workforce in which they may not ever be in the same room as their colleagues. 

Remote workforce is no longer “the future of work” but a present day reality. A 2017 survey by Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs reports a 91% increase in remote work over the last 10 years, and 159% over the last 12 years. While building capacity to collaborate remotely with others, students also experience increased social motivation from connected learning experiences. When academic experiences are disconnected and restricted to an audience of the teacher, students are demotivated by the stark contrast between that environment and the open, connected and social charged interactions beyond school (Price, 2015). To create a connected classroom, teachers can leverage Professional Learning Networks in Twitter or LinkedIn or technology tools built to facilitate global learning such as PenPal Schools or ePals.


When targeting creativity as a means of student empowerment, it is critical to help students define creativity in the context of learning. The marginalization of creative arts has unfortunately relegated creativity to a supplemental realm in many academic settings, and even where creativity is core to a curricular program, we still must persist against a similarly supplemental societal mindset towards creativity. Therefore, we distinguish creativity in the PAACC framework as not just “making things” but “making things that matter while building skills for the future”. In this manner, teachers and students can design creative processes which build skills as a means of learning, not just a product of it. Further, they can design authentic and creative demonstrations of learning at the highest level within the Depth of Knowledge framework, extended thinking, in which students engage as stakeholders who build creative solutions from an understanding of perspective and impact. This means moving beyond class presentations and posters to authentic creative tasks such as creating a business plan or designing a sustainable solution to a local or global issue.

Critical to PAACC practice is student-centered and student-driven learning. In fact, remaining in a teacher-driven classroom works counter to student empowerment as the very essence of empowerment is transfer of power. While it may be feasible for teachers to imagine getting PAACC practices in action within their own classes, creating sustainable change requires a mindset shift for both student and teacher. To accomplish this, it’s important to build a culture of student ownership by engaging students in shared visioning of learning to redefine how learning works and the roles of teacher and student in an empowered class. Just this step alone followed by opportunities for student input on planning can start to greatly shift ownership towards an empowered student body.

For high school transformation to continue to grow, it’s critical that we work to understand the needs of students in real-time. From encouraging a growth mindset, to fostering student voice, to ensuring students have the skills required to be successful in college and career, and beyond, it’s up to us to make it happen for them. To do so, we must commit not only in our homes, but in our communities, our towns, our cities, and in our country. 

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