So why even bother?
- Kids need a time and place to try out what they've been learning. A time after we've done the modeling and the shared practice and the guided practice to just do it on their own; to see for themselves what works and also to make a few mistakes, discover them and try again until they fix it up. Centers provide a time when kids can be mostly successful but still have a few problems to solve--on their own or with their peers. We want them to know they can do it without our help. Many experts would say this falls under the idea of gradual release of responsibility--helping kids move from a new idea or concept or strategy that they see someone else demonstrate to doing it alongside that person to doing it themselves with a little guided support to doing it on their own.
- Kids need time to learn with others. The social nature of learning is something we all talk about, but in many classrooms, kids don't get many chances to work with their peers--talking about what they are doing. The opportunities for oral language development abound during center time, when kids are talking to each other about what they are doing--using the language of the content and giving them a chance to explain to each other how to go about something. Teachers generally acknowledge that developing oral language is a huge need for many (or most!) of our kids, but often the structure of the school day does not allow for much oral language development. While recess and lunch times can offer chances for kids to talk to each other, they also need time to develop language skills related to the content and procedures of academic learning. Center time is a chance for kids to do most of the talking, and to do it without being prompted or guided by the teacher.
- Kids need to be actively engaged. Hands-on learning is not a new idea, and we've been hearing for years that we learn by doing. Centers require kids to be "doing". Engagement is a critical factor in learning and center time provides an opportunity for kids to engage in several types of activity. Center time is a chance for kids to experience several types of activity that engage several areas of the brain. We can also structure centers so that kids have choices in which activity they may do at each center, offering a couple of different ways to interact with the same content. Having choices gives kids a chance to have some control in their learning and usually results in higher levels of engagement.
- Kids need chances to engage in work at their own level. During center time, activities can be organized to provide varying levels of difficulty around the same content. Just as small group work allows teachers to provide differentiated instruction, centers can provide differentiated independent and peer-supported practice. We often use the term open-ended when referring to classroom activities, but most often this is in reference to kids having a choice of topic or accepted response. While this is certainly important, we could also consider it in terms of kids working at differing levels of difficulty or complexity. Center time can also allow kids who need more time practicing a skill or working with a concept to have that time, and provide a chance for kids ready to go beyond what was done in whole group instruction to do so.
- Teachers need to observe what kids can do without our help. We need to see what happens when we back off and let the kids do the things we've been teaching in large and small groups and what we've been doing together in shared settings. We need to know if kids are still successful when we take ourselves out of the interaction, whether or not they notice when they encounter difficulty (think self-monitoring!) and how they go about solving problems. Center time not only allows us to notice these things, but also to note when kids go beyond what we taught--helping us realize when more challenge is appropriate and for which students. Knowing what our kids can do on their own and recognizing where the edge of their learning is should guide our instructional decision-making. If we never have a chance to observe kids working independently, that becomes much more difficult.
- Teachers need an opportunity to work with small groups while the other kids are purposefully engaged. I saved this for last on purpose. Most teachers mention it first, and it is important; however, giving teachers time to call groups shouldn't be the most important reason for doing centers. The most important reasons need to be centered firmly on student learning--what the kids are getting out of it. And this one is too, if you think about it a little more. Kids need a chance to receive differentiated small group instruction from the teacher. There. That's what this bullet is really about--the kids. And since kids need this instruction and teachers need to give it, there has to be a way to engaged the others in purposeful, meaningful work that will help them grow as learners.