Kids in Charge: Are Student-Led Schools a Recipe for Disaster or Success?

The search for a school for your child can feel like a daunting task. You look into public, private, parochial, and charters, and find that they may all have completely different pedagogical philosophies and ideologies.

Whether your child is just starting school or you’re looking to enroll her in a new one, how do you know which program, method, model, or curriculum will be the best fit?

As you begin researching schools, one phrase that you’re likely to hear repeatedly is “student-centered” or “student-led” learning. These terms refer to an educational approach that is growing in popularity, one often used in conjunction with related methods like project-based learning (PBL) and social-emotional learning (SEL). Student-led learning environments may sound ideal if you’re drawn to the idea of your child being in charge of her own learning, but perhaps you still wonder how the approach actually works. What do the teachers do? Won’t my child just end up playing all day? How will she learn?

Examples of Student-Led Learning Models

Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Sudbury are several of the more formal and well-known alternative school models that place students in the driver’s seat of their own learning. While these are just a few examples of student-led educational experiences, learning more about the principles they have in common can provide an overall understanding of what student-centered schools look like in practice.

What characterizes student-led schools?

  • A low student-to-teacher ratio, allowing the focus to remain on individual student experiences and needs.

  • Experiential learning that enables students to design their school days according to their interests. Children work when they want to work, play when they want to play, and learn new skills and information when they’re ready. Students in these schools may appear, to an untrained observer, to be “at recess” all day. However, the play and interactions among all members of the school community, including the adults, are seen as opportunities for learning and growth.

  • Multi-age groupings happen naturally at student-led schools because activities are chosen based on student interests rather than on a prescribed curriculum. A five-year-old and a twelve-year-old may both be interested in learning to draw animals and might, in turn, seek out the help of a sixteen-year-old to instruct them.

  • A focus on SEL as an integral component of both the curriculum and school community’s values is typical of student-led schools. Social-emotional learning is often missing from the formal instruction at many traditional schools, where bullying and intolerance can be major sources of anxiety for students. At student-led alternative schools, interactions through play, learning, school leadership, and discipline provide opportunities to develop skills that foster the social-emotional growth of students.

  • Common spaces are thoughtfully designed to support the principles of student-led environments. For example, you’ll rarely find a classroom with individual desks at a student-led school. Moreover, cooperation and collaboration are encouraged through the use of common areas that include couches and tables large enough for groups. There’s typically also ample outdoor space at alternative schools because interacting with nature is considered vital to the curriculum and community values.

  • Adults act as guides for students when they ask for help, rather than structure kids’ learning themselves. Adults are available for play and to suggest new ideas and information should the need arise. Additionally, adults and older students often manage the administration of the school.

  • Authentic evaluation does not rely on grades and tests to determine achievement and growth. Instead, students are assessed on real-world skills and encouraged to return to a task later if they haven’t yet mastered a concept or achieved competence in a specific area.

  • Discipline by committee is used to guide the process of hearing and resolving conflicts that may arise within the school, as different members of the school community — from students to teachers to administrators — serve on the committee. The people in disagreement are encouraged to discuss their differences before the group, whose members then decide on any consequences that ought to ensue.

While these approaches are more common among private schools, student-led learning isn’t reserved solely for alternative programs. Free public charters that base their curriculum on these philosophies are beginning to pop up as the demand for such pedagogical approaches continues to rise. You may also find some of the same principles in classrooms at traditional public schools as more and more teachers today see the benefit of integrating student choice into the curriculum. For example, students may design their own projects to demonstrate mastery of a subject rather than being required to take an exam or write a paper at the end of the unit of study. Some teachers will even permit students to choose areas of inquiry and design their own courses that meet the class's learning objectives.

My Child and Student-Led Learning

Every child is unique, and finding the right learning environment can be a challenge. You know your child best, so before deciding on a student-led environment, you’ll want to consider a few questions.

Is your child intrinsically motivated?

If your child does things simply because she loves to, she may well thrive in a student-led school. By contrast, a child who enjoys and is motivated by grades and praise may not feel successful in an environment that places less emphasis.

Does your child engage with other kids during play?

If your child easily joins in play or invites others to do so, it could be a sign that she can work cooperatively and learn from her peers. On the other hand, if your child is hesitant to join in, she may not yet be confident enough to seek out help in the self-paced environments of student-led schools.

Does your child make connections across learning areas?

If your child easily synthesizes information in one context and applies it to others, she’ll likely be successful in an environment that encourages experiential learning. If she is more of a black-and-white thinker, however, she may struggle to make deep connections between general and specific self-led learning experiences.

Does your child complain about things that are “unfair”?

If your child comes home from school and complains that something was unfair or was upset when the whole class got in trouble because of the actions of a single student, she may thrive in the participatory structure of a student-led environment. One particular model of such a program is a democratic school, in which every child has a voice in most school decisions. Moreover, these learning environments are especially effective for children who think about injustice.

How To Find Schools with Student-Led Learning Environments

If you’ve made the choice to pursue a student-led model for your child’s education, you’ll want to start visiting schools. Remember that each one is structured differently, and a particular school may be a better fit than others you research.

  • Use Noodle to find alternative schools near you and refine your search by location, grade level, and other criteria.

  • You can find democratic schools in your area by visiting Education Revolution.

  • Ask friends, family, and neighbors about the schools their children attend. You may learn that your local public school uses a student-led model.

A Caution: Are you planning on moving or switching schools soon?

The skills of students who lead themselves through learning processes often don’t match up academically with those of students who have attended traditional schools. That’s not to say that their achievement is lower than their peers, but rather that they learn things in a different order and on a different timeline than students whose teachers follow a mandated set of learning objectives. Be aware that if you’re planning on switching from a student-led to a traditional school, your child may be labeled “behind” if her skills and knowledge vary dramatically from those of other children in her new class.

Final Thoughts

Student-led schools are gaining in popularity as more parents seek learning environments in which their children will thrive socially, emotionally, and academically. As with all educational environments, there are, of course, pros and cons to the student-led model. But understanding the principles and cultural values of these programs, as well as your child’s learning needs, will enable you to determine whether such an approach will be a good fit for your family.

Read more educational advice from Amanda Ronan, and find additional articles about finding the right school.