How to create a student-centred classroom? One small step at a time.

Teachers who are interested in shifting their classrooms often don’t know where to start. It can be overwhelming, frightening, and even discouraging, especially when no one else around you seems to think the system is broken.

A question I’m asked often is “Where should a teacher begin?”  Should teachers just let students go or is there a process to good student-centred inquiry?  I’ve reflected on  this a fair amount, and I think small strategic steps are the key.  I think letting students “go” without any structure will likely create failure, especially if students haven’t spent much time collaborating.  Skills need to be modelled.

Many teachers have likely engaged in some type of inquiry or project-based learning, but with frustrating or dismal results. I hear things like, “students weren’t on task”, “one student bossed most of the kids around”, “the end product wasn’t very good”, and many more. I’ve had these same experiences.  What I’ve come to realize when I see these “behaviours” for lack of a better term, it’s likely telling me students are missing skills, or a structure to help them through the learning process. It’s my job to ask kids questions to find out what’s really going on.

When I start with a new group of students, the design is tight.  Choice is given, but I often pick the topic and options for student voice. I model skills like collaboration, thinking out loud about my learning, and explicating integrating tech and why it’s being used. I also add particular group activities that help kids develop these skills, and use rubrics, like those found on the BIE website, to help them assess their own ability to collaborate, etc.

I’ve also discovered I need to teach the difference between collaboration and cooperation. Most students have been taught to cooperate. “Play nice in the sandbox”.  Collaboration is an entirely different thing. Many adults don’t know how to collaborate well.


Start with creating one inquiry unit in one subject. You can jump in and change everything at once like I did, but that’s slightly crazy. Instead, if you design one unit in one subject, at the end of each day, or week, you can analyze what worked and what didn’t. While teaching doesn’t always leave a lot of time for luxuries like reflection, it really is the key to figuring out inquiry learning, and as the teacher, it’s one of your most important roles.

Sometimes you may not understand why certain things aren’t working. Ask your students. I’m often surprised by how much they know and how adept they are at articulating what they need.

Two of the best resources I’ve found for creating an inquiry classroom are Carol Kuhlthau’s work and Alberta Learning’s Guide to Inquiry Learning.

If you don’t know how to create an inquiry classroom, ask me. I’m happy to help. You can begin by posting comments here. If you need resources, I can probably point you to some. Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to email, Skype and, if distance allows, have teachers, administrators and superintendents visit my classroom to see what we do.


Talk to your students about their learning — a lot.  Especially in the beginning, I talk to my students about why my classroom is structured differently than every other class in our school. I show them Ken Robinson’s talk about how the 20th century school system doesn’t really prepare students anymore.  I also show them Chris Lehmann’s TED-X talk emphasizing howeducation is broken and Karl Fisch’s Did You Know?.

I tell my students that essentially I’m preparing them for jobs that don’t currently exist, that will use technology which hasn’t been invented yet, to fix problems we’re not currently aware of. They get the point. It’s about developing skills and habits of learning, and we use content to do that.

But I also talk to my student’s about stuff like how their brain works, and how neural connections need to be made. That often, in order for students to learn something new, it needs to be attached to things they already know. Just before the recent break, during the last week of school, we talked about cognitive dissonance and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. They like to know there’s a reason for the way they feel when they don’t “get it.” And they like to know that everyone’s zone of development is different. In fact, they were amazed to find out everyone’s brain is different.

And, yes, I use the big words. I simply explain what they mean. I don’t use them to sound smart. I use them because it makes my students feel smart; most of our society doesn’t treat our students like they’re capable of understanding or doing much. I do.


Embed technology in ways that are authentic to the learning process. The first tools that I teach my students are Google Docs, Diigo or Delicious to bookmark their research, and Symbaloo to house their tools.

Experience has taught me that the first day I introduce a class to Google Docs, we will get nothing done. To them, it’s the most amazing thing ever. They usually spend most of the class typing back and forth to each other in the doc. No big deal. However, eventually, my students open Google Docs without me telling them to. I have students who literally use them for every lab, essay, and assignment. And the ability for a group to work on and edit the same document at the same time, more than makes up for the initial class we lose.

The social media tools we used to show our learning in our slavery unit seemed like the most natural and logical tools to use. As a learning community, we want our learning to extend beyond the four walls of our classroom. So we have a discussion, or likely multiple discussions, about what that should look like. We also want our projects to have “real world” implications. What’s more real world than advocacy against modern-day slavery using social media?

Essentially these are the two criteria we use to assess the product we’re going to create. How do we extend our learning beyond our classroom — and how can what we do here make a difference to the real world?  Our tool selection is guided by the answers to these questions.


Remember that inquiry learning is an emotional process. Each stage of learning has specific emotions attached to it, and at some point, you and your students will likely hit the wall. That’s normal.

I’ve found that we need to talk more as an inquiry class. My role is to be well aware of how my students are doing emotionally, especially when we’re dealing with a weighty, overwhelming topic like slavery. While this may not matter much in a traditional classroom, it can completely blow apart a community learning through inquiry.

I won’t promise you that any of this will be easy. It’s not. You’ll likely have days when you wonder why you ever started it. But trust me, it’s worth it.

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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13 Responses to How to create a student-centred classroom? One small step at a time.

  1. Matthew says:

    OH my goodness. This is such a breath of cool air. I’ve been trying to use inquiry and discussion more this year. I hate lecturing. I’ve gamified my skills-based classes, but haven’t had time to do that to my content-based classes yet. So I’ve been trying to cover the material via a more inclusive strategy, but feeling like it was a near failure and my students are getting the worst end of the stick because I haven’t been able to figure out a good strategy for guiding discussions and inquiry.

    Everything I’ve seen about it has been aimed at elementary students, which is only somewhat helpful. Thank you for posting this! I’m now following your blog and will be eager to read more.

  2. Becca says:

    Funny how your experiences are echoing what we’re working through in a junior primary classroom in New Zealand! Thanks for the great post that helps reinforce that what we’re doing is the right thing, even if it’s not easy.

    • There are so many terrific things we do in primary classrooms that we get rid of when kids get older. We need to continue doing them. I’ve talked to so many teachers who agree & are trying to implement them again at an older level.

  3. cdworrell says:

    I can’t tell you how much this article inspires me & how perfectly it articulates what I am trying to do with a new HS Social Justice course I’m teaching. I would love to take you up on your offer to help others create an inquiry classroom. I realize it’s the crazy start-of-new-school-year time, but hope we might find a time to do a Google Hangout, FaceTime, Skype, or just plain old talk on the phone.

    Thanks so much for sharing your work!

  4. Bookwyrm says:

    Have you been able to bring math into the inquiry based classroom ?

    Anyone out there tried this?

    Great article – thanks !

  5. Abi says:

    I would love to ask you questions about this. I teach biology and feel I need to create a more interactive classroom, especially because I have large classes that need heavy differentiation.

  6. Abi says:

    I would love to talk about this. I think I need a more interactive class for biology. I have very large classes and need heavy differentiation, and I don’t think traditional classes are going to cover it. I would love to talk!

  7. Nosipho says:

    Mmmmm reading your post has had me wanting to hear more and more of you experiences and I love the point of view that you have on education. That point about speaking to your learners about ways in which learning could happen, I loved it! I have been on that thinking myself, that we should take time and make the learners understand why we are trying different ways of learning, including them in the discussions and thought processes and why the learning system is the way it is. I mean we carry different experiences as far as our histories are, depending on which part of the world one is from, at the end of the day we connect again with the way our life experiences are. I am a student at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, doing my Postgrad Certificate in Education. I have a passion for young people, I am an activist for change, that radical teacher and reading posts like these motivate me greatly. Not all hope is lost for sure. I am working on an assignment that focuses on Barriers for Learning and that is how i came in contact with your article. Thank u soooo much :).. Ohhh also, this Inquiry based learning strategy it is similar to the ways of teaching we learnt about in Drama, covering the section on Drama in Education and Theatre in Education (Dorothy Heathcote)..coooool.

  8. Great post! Kudos for your dedication and commitment to change the system toward improved learning outcomes. We can help! Bring knowledge building into the classroom and partner them world-wide. Join our Community of Practice –

  9. Cori L says:

    Hi Shelley,

    I really enjoy reading your blog and have already started to think a lot deeper about how I can change the way my classes are structured.

    How do you think inquiry driven and project based learning would look in higher education? I have started shifting from traditional lecturing but would like to do more. I teach a microbiology course at a community college in which the majority of my students are hoping to enter nursing or dental hygiene programs. Myself and other micro instructors use the case method in order to expose students to real life scenarios. They need to be able to apply the content to real life. This I know is key for my class.

    The problem is I only get 1 semester (4 months) with my students and then the next batch comes in. We couldn’t spend 2 months on one unit on major projects and I only see them for about 2.5 hours a week in lecture. I do incorporate technology for assessment, some role playing of the immune system and group work on mini white boards but most days I talk. I have students present in 3-5 minutes at the beginning of class on a organism they’ve read about in the media and how it relates to human health, but all the other students are so disengaged during the presentations that it’s just another assignment for them. It’s fun for me but I am not sure there’s a greater benefit.

    Do you think the structure of your classes would look different if these were sophomores studying science in college? If so, how?

  10. Shannon Larson says:

    I would love to pick your brain more about all of this. I work at a school that is fairly new and we aim to do project based learning as well as competency based. I teach high school Physical Science and I am trying to prepare for my 2nd year and I want to make things better. One problem I ran across last year was keeping the kids going…I was new to the school and hit the ground running not realizing that I had to push against the procrastination that is typical in teenagers but in a school where the philosophy is “take as long as you need” it seems to fight against keeping them on task. I’d love to make it that there are benchmarks the students need to reach before moving onto the next task but I’m confused on how to do that in a science classroom. How do I have students in different projects/themes/etc? I’d appreciate any insight you could give me. I also noticed the link titled Alberta Learning’s Guide to Inquiry Learning said there was an error in finding the page when I clicked on it.

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