Learning centers are designed as specific areas in a classroom that offer activities meant to engage, extend, enhance and/or differentiate students’ learning. Learning center activities are intended to serve as a reinforcement of skills or concepts, and provide problem-solving tasks while developing critical thinking, independence, and cooperative work skills. The best part is that learning centers can be used for all subjects.
Why Use Learning Centers?
When students’ learning activities are aligned to individual ability levels and allow for options and choices, they are highly motivated to participate. Giving students choices about their learning activities not only contributes to motivation, but also increases positive behaviors and attention span. Learning centers also provide students with the opportunity to use their multiple intelligences. Students sense that teachers who use learning centers care about them as individuals and want to make learning fun.
What Do Learning Centers Look Like?
Teachers can be creative in designing learning centers, but often the simplest are just as effective. A table with game-based activities for math or reading review can be a learning center. Or a bookshelf designated as a rock study learning center can offer a collection of rocks for viewing with a microscope, leveled reference books on rocks, a rock cycle cut-and-paste activity, a graphic organizer for sorting rocks, and a tape recorder to listen to songs about rock concepts. Learning centers can be focused on specific skills or strategies, review activities or inquiry. Centers with enrichment activities can also provide for curriculum extension.
The design of learning centers should consider the following:
- What are my instructional purposes?
- What concepts, skills and/or themes do I want to support?
- How will centers fit into my classroom space, routines, and schedule?
- What student interactions will I expect?
- What activities will provide for the use of multiple intelligences?
- How will I organize accountability for the activities?
When Are Learning Centers Used?
Learning centers are often used during small group instruction to provide a meaningful and engaging way for students to work independently. They can also serve as anchor activities instead of bell work or end-of-the-day activities.
Learning centers can also be embedded into almost any instructional framework to include scripted syllabus, workshop approach, inquiry-based, blocked instruction, constructivist approaches, or the 5E model.
How Are Learning Centers Managed for Effectiveness?
Managing successful learning centers requires planning as many decisions need to be made, including:
- How will the schedule accommodate centers?
- How long will students be in centers?
- How many students will be in each center at one time?
- How will students know which center to go to and when?
- How will students understand the expectations for each center?
- How will students needing assistance be accommodated?
- What methods will students use to record their answers or results?
- What will students do with their completed materials?
A scaffolded approach to introducing learning centers is central to its success. Each time a new center is introduced, expectations should be clearly presented. Teachers should model these expectations and review them over the first few days. A key component is to provide feedback to students after the first few days of a new center. Video recordings of students in the center, role playing by the teacher and a few students, or photographs are effective ways to demonstrate what is going well and what needs improvement.
For over thirty years, Lynn A. Gatto has effectively used learning centers in her elementary classroom. As a teacher her effective instructional strategies were honored with the New York State Teacher of the Year Award, the Presidential of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Award, and as an American Disney Teacher Honoree. Now retired from teaching, Lynn is an assistant professor at the Warner School of Education and Human Development, University of Rochester as Director of Elementary Education, where she contributes to preparing the next generation of elementary teachers.