Engagement and Student-centric Learning | Zaprendo

Debopam Basu, 1 October 2020

Engagement and Student-centric Learning

The isolation, forced on us by the global pandemic, brings of necessity, learner-centric/ personalised learning sharply into focus. Kids are working at home as individuals. So, let’s talk about it.

First up, do we know what student-centred/personalised learning (SCL) is?

Larry Cuban in A Brief Introduction to Personalised Learning suggests SCL has three aspects. It can be about:

1. content – students engaging with content, topics, and areas that are of particular interest to them and/or that they need to further progress a study area.

2. pace and progress – students progressing through the content and curriculum levels at their own pace.

3. process – instructional approaches and learning environments are managed based on the students’ needs and interests.

In a regime operating SCL any, some, or all of the above, might be in evidence. This indicates there is no universal definition for a learning regime based on SCL.

Influential thought leaders, such as Zuckerberg and Gates have put enormous resources and energy into researching and promoting SCL and, over the past five years, initial findings into its efficacy have been encouraging. However, it is difficult for researchers to come out fighting for SCL because there is no widespread agreement about what it is. In other words, the findings are about aspects of SCL, such as maths programmes, rather than about an entire regime based on learner-centric approaches.

As Forrest Gump said, sort of, ‘Personalised learning is, as personalised learning does.’

Getting our PL bearings 

The first step in orienting in this field is to characterise the difference between curriculum-centric and student-centric approaches. The following table deliberately emphasises the dichotomy.

Clear hints, from the language in the table above, show that we, in Zaprendo, advocate student-centric approaches. If you’re reading this, probably you do too. However, before you launch the revolution, read the warning signs: there’s a bull in the paddock.

Warning signs

Student-centric schooling has two faces and, like the Roman god Janus, one face looks forwards and the other, backwards. These opposite poles can be identified as ‘developmental’ and ‘democratic’.  In democratic schooling students choose the learning content and contexts and, in some cases, decide if they will engage with learning or not. On the other hand, in developmental regimes, educators choose the learning content but, in the case of:

  1. discrete learning (such as maths skills), only teach what a student doesn’t know and needs to know next.
  2. general interest, learning contexts, give students choices based on their preferences but ensure the contexts are engaged via multiple modalities.

In both a. and b. above, students know exactly what they are learning and have some control over the time they invest in the learning. It is vital that education influencers know the difference between these two interpretations of SCL.

John Hattie, in Visible Learning has created an efficacy scale for just about everything that happens in schooling. In simple terms (please read the details for yourself), democratic schooling gets the lowest impact score possible: roughly speaking, one month of gain for 12 months of exposure. On the other hand, developmental schooling, with its various strategies, gets among the highest impact scores he measured: let’s say 36 months of gain for 12 months of exposure. It’s tempting to conflate democratic and developmental regimes. Let’s not.

Zaprendo’s Take on the Learner-centric Regime

Our vision for student-centric schooling is built around three discrete frames: integral, instructional and experiential. We call this structure The Three-Frame Day (3FD). We suggest it is a viable definition for a student-centric learning regime.

The integral frame utilizes thematic teaching and focuses on engaging, and satisfying, the ‘whole person’ by offering, in each learning experience, challenges to be active, cognitive, emotive, and introspective.

The instructional frame focuses on core, discrete intellectual competencies that require repetition to reach proficiency, namely literacy, numeracy, and languages other than English; attention to detail for individual learners maximizes success in this frame. Individual learning programmes are used that identify what a student knows and then teach them what they need to know next. The learner’s age, class, and the year-level strictures of curricula do not control these programmes.

The experiential frame links students to real life experiences via workplaces where adults operate commercially and via practical opportunities that arise in any location. This frame delivers opportunities to develop technological skill and works back into the instructional frame by providing ‘real life’ problems for the students to solve. As experience in different locations builds, students choose which contexts they will engage with in greater depth.

Detailed curriculum preparation allows significant amounts of time, on a daily basis, to be given to the three frames. In effect, we expect students in such a regime to come to school, every day, in order to:

·      develop as people and to practice approaching content with an integral perspective.

·      build competencies in fundamental literacy, numeracy, and languages other than English.

·      cultivate entrepreneurial and technological skill in order to be self-starters in the world of work.

The Taste of Success

Rather than measuring and comparing, for example, maths in a standard school against maths in a SCL regime, we should compare engagement factors, using one of the standardised instruments of ‘engagement’ – for example The HOPE Survey (https://www.hopesurvey.org/about/). School engagement is a much more powerful indicator of later life success than all other measures.

The reason that the efficacy of SCL can’t be assessed convincingly is that a total regime operating a known and justifiable form of it doesn’t yet exist. Although a handful of schools are operating the 3-Frame Day, in part, it is timely, during the pandemic, that we consider going holus-bolus into a school based on its principles. Then, let’s look at engagement across different regimes to determine success.

1. You can download Larry Cuban’s short article here:


2. Visible Learning for Teachers

John Hattie Routledge  2015 ISBN-10: 0415690145

By Alan Wagstaff, Co-Founder Zaprendo, and Director of Learning.

Zaprendo combines the power of technology with innovative teaching strategies to create educational tools that spark the joy of learning for life.

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