The Case for Student-Led Learning

By: Luke Trayser

Students working together on a tablet

Between the classroom and the real world, the case for student-led learning couldn’t be more striking. In an eSchool News study, 89% of educators said it was important for students to lead their own learning. A recent survey of employers revealed the two qualities they want in their employees above all else: leadership and the ability to work in a team—two skills that don’t come from what gets instilled in students, but instead what comes out. 


If student-led learning is so great, why isn’t it implemented in every classroom? Student-led is a shift from the deeply entrenched mental model of the classroom—teacher in front delivering knowledge to open minds seated in desks or “Sage on the Stage”. It also requires letting go of some degree of teacher control by handing off more responsibility for learning to the students and becoming a “Guide on the Side”. To truly make student-led learning work, students need the resources and skills that help them succeed.


Fortunately, those resources now exist, and those skills can be taught. Here are three questions you can help each of your students answer:


  1. “How do I learn best?” It could be anything from “I learn best by doing” to “I have to visualize it.” 
  2. “What accommodations do I need to do my best work?” The technology is officially here. Students have access to accommodations and tools that will help them thrive at school and in their careers. 
  3. “How do I self-advocate for what I need?” This is difficult for many students at first. But just like any new skill, it gets easier and easier with practice.


The student-led classroom model helps students take charge of their own lives, and it allows them to learn—and, one day, work—with purpose, autonomy, and mastery.


The traditional model did its job for quite some time. But now it’s time for a change.

The Sage on the Stage: Traditional Model Yields Traditional Students

In the traditional model of classroom learning, the teacher stood firmly between the students and knowledge. They were effectively the headmasters of the classroom, the students were their subjects, and the relationship prepared children well for their future post-Industrial Revolution careers in American factories.

Teacher in front of class

If you’ve wondered why the model of student-led learning is now enjoying a revolution of its own, just take a look at the current job market. A mere 10% of Americans work in factories today, and that number will drop even further as automation continues to transform many industries.


Employers are no longer looking for assembly line workers. They are looking for leaders, innovators, and team members. On top of leadership and collaboration skills, they now value communication skills, problem-solving, and initiative. Student-led learning aims to make sure students cultivate those skills.

Guide on the Side: What Is Student-Led Learning, and Why Does It Matter?

To get a clear picture of the student-led classroom, picture the teacher as a coach. Skills are still taught and knowledge is shared by the teacher, but students are given the freedom to execute on a game plan together.


A common misconception is that student-led is easier for teachers. This could not be further from the truth. The “Sage” is still an integral and important part of the equation. After all, you still need an expert in the room. The educator still plays an important and irreplaceable role. But, what is required to go student-led is a deeper knowledge of each individual student. Just as a coach knows what motivates, drives, and how to reach each of his or her athletes, a good teacher knows how to work with group dynamics so each student develops, learns, and leads.

Student-led involves the students. It lets them lead their own learning.


This shift builds new skills. Namely, purpose, autonomy, and mastery.

Logo that says Purpose Autonomy and Mastery

Learning with Purpose

You might now be picturing a student or two who don’t really care about school. They’ve checked out. This is an indication that they’ve given up hope and that they don’t feel like they have ownership of their future. How are they going to lead their own learning?

But when you allow them to share in the classroom’s decision making, you’re not just building collaboration skills, you’re helping students see the meaning behind it.  And that is a guaranteed way to help them take ownership of their education. It is their education, helping them understand that and take ownership of it is the key to successfully integrating student-led learning into a classroom.

Teacher working one on one with student

Check in with them consistently. Get to know them. What are they interested in these days? How might that interest motivate their creative writing, or science, or history assignments? Start a, “I Wish My Teacher Knew” movement in your own classroom.

There are few moments like the ones that happen when the light bulb turns on and students realize for the first time, Hang on. This stuff can actually have a purpose? Giving them agency as learners and as individuals in your class has a powerful and lasting effect.

The Role of Learning Accommodations

Young girl works happily on laptop in classroom

The advancement of learning accommodations and 1:1 computing through Google Chromebooks has blown the doors open to learning for many students who don’t learn best through traditional means. Sometimes a simple accommodation can make all the difference—helping a student go from stuck to feeling a real sense of autonomy. Technological advancements combined with legislation around disabilities (like dyslexia) are coming together to change the game for student-led initiatives—giving a new toolset to help students drive their own learning.


Often times, giving a student the right accomodations can mean the difference between them being able to stay in the classroom with their peers and work in a collaborative environment (and the least restrictive environment) or being put in a much more restrictive traditional pull-out or push-in model.

Learner Agency, Learner Autonomy

Over time, as students get more freedom to influence the way they take in information and complete assignments, they will develop skills that were previously unheard of in traditional classrooms.


Is moving to a student-led classroom is proving a difficult or overwhelming task for you to undertake? Don’t overthink it! These freedoms don’t have to be groundbreaking changes in your teaching methods. For example, allowing students the freedom to do things such as take notes the way that is easiest for them, or read the way that is best for them to understand are simple ways to give your students agency that doesn’t actually change the functional aspects of the way a teacher might teach a lesson but gives students agency over their own learning.

Students working on tablets

They’ll know how they learn best and be proactive about it. They’ll set clear goals for their futures and define how to get there. They’ll self-direct, reflect, identify lifelong passions, and, ultimately, be on their way toward a fulfilling and meaningful life.


And, in a wonderfully counter-intuitive twist, educators can be more powerful than ever when they give their power over to their students.

It All Starts with Us

Educators and related service practitioners both play roles in the student-centered model, and the benefits are astounding.

Image of teacher with students

Students who impact decision-making in the classroom learn ownership and students who are given freedom and trust learn leadership.


All we have to do is give up our (very real) need for control, and to remember that our students reflect who we are as learners. We have to ask more questions. We have to listen more fully. We have to really understand.


Nobody cares more about a student’s own life than that student themself. The student-led classroom model equips them to take charge of the learning they do, now and for the rest of their lives.


Here at Don Johnston, we make human learning tools that feel at home in student-centered classrooms across the country. Get to know our human learning tools that let every single student realize and reach their full learning potential.

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