What Is a Learning Center?
A learning center is typically a designated area within the classroom that provides students with exciting and interesting experiences to practice, enrich, reteach, and enhance their learning. These types of centers are filled with manipulatives, art materials, books, and other instructional tools. Students visit the centers to complete an assignment or learn through different activities. In well-designed learning centers, students participate in activities that help them see curriculum subjects in real-time, hands-on ways. Working both independently and in small groups, students are provided with time and space to complete a project or learn about a subject in a more in-depth fashion.
A learning center is governed by rules that students are well aware of and requires students to be responsible and accountable for their own learning. The power of learning centers lies in the fact that students who "didn't get it the first time" or need information presented in a different light receive a more individualized lesson than a whole-class lesson could ever provide. Centers provide time for you as the teacher to spend time with students individually or in small groups, helping students learn curriculum materials in their own way and style.
This seminar discusses a new approach to designing Internet-based learning centers that can be integrated with the centers you already have in your classroom.
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Creating Internet-Based Learning Centers
Several years ago, I was teaching 27 sixth graders and had five different learning centers set up in my room. Within three months, my class increased to 35 students, and most of the learning centers were dismantled to make room for student desks. As I glanced around my crowded room, my eyes came to rest on the computer recently hooked up to the Internet and I realized that the Internet could provide powerful learning centers for my students.
Even after I began creating "Internet-based" learning centers, I always like to have a mixture of these virtual centers and "real" centers in my classroom. Using the Internet to create learning centers can provide students with opportunities to learn the curriculum in different ways.
There is no right or wrong way to organize learning centers, and you may want to alternate your center use throughout the year. The number of centers you have at one time may depend on the size of your room, the number of parent helpers in your classroom, and the curriculum. There is a plethora of ways you can schedule learning centers in your classroom. They may be used on specific "learning center" days or as a time when students can follow up on a lesson recently taught in the class. You may wish to have learning centers up and running at all times so that when students are done with their work, they can spend time in a center.
There are several steps I use in developing Internet-based learning centers. These include:
- Decide how many centers to create. How many Internet and how many real? Where will the centers be located?
- Determine what you want students to learn or be able to do through center activities.
- Find Web sites that enhance what you want students to learn. Bookmark these sites.
- Write a description of the center, providing students with information on what they are expected to do, learn, and produce. Place this near the computer. Give the center a name.
- Decide how long center time will be and how many weeks the center will be open.
- Share center rules with students on a regular basis. Reward students who obey these rules.
- Clearly describe what each center entails and expectations for student learning and work.
Strategy 1: Curriculum-Based Centers
This strategy focuses on building centers that address curriculum information and skills and allow students to review and learn through using the Internet. These centers can be developed around specific curriculum areas — language arts, math, social studies, and science. You may want to have several centers focus on the same curriculum area to provide ample opportunities for students to learn the subject in different ways.
Strategy 2: Thematic Centers
Thematic centers are built around a theme being taught in the curriculum. The theme can relate to one curriculum subject (e.g., ancient history) or be a theme which crosses curriculum subjects (e.g., interdependence). Each center explores the theme and curriculum information and can be richly expanded using the Internet.
Helping Centers Run Smoothly
Before students work in centers, develop a list of rules to guide small-group learning. Students learn quickly that they need to follow the rules and be responsible in order to keep this privilege. Post the rules in the classroom or at each center and take time throughout the year to review them.
As each new center is developed, take time with the whole class to discuss the activity in the center, the materials students will be using, and the end product or goal of each center. Many behavior problems can be avoided by ensuring that students know exactly what they should be doing in each center and what they are going to be held accountable for completing.
Small-group learning centers offer powerful learning opportunities for students, both academically and socially. Even when your learning center is focused on one computer, it is good to have two to three students working as a group. After all, future classes and careers require small teams of individuals using information to solve problems, so this is a powerful skill to teach students.
I usually have students work in centers in groups of two to four. In deciding which students will work together there are several options, including mixed Internet-ability groups, mixed gender, or groups that stay together for a specific period of time. These groupings can and should be changed throughout the year. Pay special attention to which students work well together and which seem to disturb each other.
It is also helpful to continually remind students of the rules that govern learning center activities. These may include the following:
- Do your very best work.
- Use your quiet, inside voice.
- Share the mouse with your classmates, allowing everyone to have equal "mouse time."
- If you get up to retrieve materials, be courteous of others and don't disturb other groups.
- If you have a question, ask everyone in your group before you ask an adult.
- When you complete your work, find something quiet to do at the center or in your seat.
- If we rotate centers, quietly walk straight to your next center and start your work.
- The number one priority is to complete the assignment at each center before finding other activities to do (i.e., surfing the Web, graphics programs, etc.).