September 2019: Classroom centers to support learning

Kathy's Katch

I did my student teaching in a second grade classroom at the Knollwood Elementary School in Piscataway, NJ in the spring of 1979. I was big into learning centers and spent a lot of time with Imogene Forte’s bulletin board books. I traced and cut out images for many activities for centers in all the subject areas. I even created a center with cut-out sandpaper letters to help students practice tracing their letters. (Probably not the smartest creative activity— besides wrecking my future husband’s scissors, the students wound up with scraped fingers pads after tracing on the sandpaper a few times!)

My centers included only single-student remediation or extension activities. I had yet to learn about student collaboration or cooperative learning. My pedagogical base consisted of teacher talk/student listen, practice, testing and IALAC. In addition, there was only a single, small student desk in the back of the room on which to set-up up a center.

Fast forward forty years and different formats of learning centers have been developed, collaboration is an important part of every school day, and configurable classroom furniture now allows a collaborative center anytime, anywhere in the classroom.

There are many well-done online resources to support the effective use of learning centers in the classroom. Here are a few of my favorites.

Teacher Vision: The basics of learning centers

This article breaks down learning centers, which are defined as

a space set aside in the classroom that allows easy access to a variety of learning materials in an interesting and productive manner.. (and).. are designed to enhance the learning of concepts, skills, themes, or topics

into three main types- enrichment, skill, and interest/exploratory centers.

Enrichment Centers

Enrichment centers are centers that provide students with activities and resources to enhance their understanding of a concept after it has been taught. Most times, the activities are scaffolded to provide each student or group of students with a choice of meaningful activities based on their preferred method of learning.

Skill Centers

In a skill center, also used after the topic has been studied, students do not get to pick their topics, but are assigned one to complete. The skill center is intended to reinforce what the student has learned.

Interest and Exploratory Centers

Interest and exploratory centers allow students free choice of topics to study and may include hands-on experiences. These centers allow students to explore their interests and can be used as a springboard to enhance creativity in the classroom.

All of these learning center types have components in common. Be prepared to re-arrange furniture in the classroom to allow for quiet and group spaces. Make sure to include specific steps or directions at the center for its use and review your expectations and directions with the entire class. For a technology-based center, consider including a video overview of the instructions which includes a transcript to support both accessibility options and the visual learner. (YouTube is a great place to host videos because of the transcripts that are automatically created as illustrated below.)


EdWeek: Four keys to effective learning centers

Alison Stumacher’s article provides a different view of the use of learning centers in the classroom. She is a third grade teachers and outlines her journey for effective use of centers in her classroom. Her list includes-

After creating and communicating the procedures for the center with the class, provide practice sessions with various students to illustrate what use of the center should “look like”.

As with any cooperative learning experience, consider pre-grouping the students who are working at the center on  based on interest or ability.

Include processes in the center instruction that provide practice in real-life skills, whether it be evaluation of Internet resources or other digital citizenship skills practice.

Be sure to monitor student progress, as with any formative or summative assessment, and re-work the center to provide additional directions, enhanced activities, or practice as needed.

Today’s learning centers

Over the years, many learning centers have been “analog” centers with laminated instructions, consumables, and paper. There are online sites that include ideas such as putting the materials for the learning center in folders at the learning center to make the teacher and student clean-up easier and having students leave their completed work in a basket.

With the infusion of technology into the classroom, the pendulum then moved  to “computer learning centers” which were totally digital experiences. Students were given a URL to an online site or teacher-created experience, and submitted their work directly to an online folder.

I believe the best learning centers, in today’s classrooms, include both real and virtual components. Online instructions and procedures are great since students can refer back to them whenever they need to. Submitting work to Google Classroom or another CMS can streamline the process of review, peer editing, and grading. Having hands-on materials available to create prototypes and projects supports small group work in a way that online collaboration cannot easily replicate.

For those of you with subscriptions to Discovery Education, the Discovery Education Studio tool is a great place to develop the online components of any learning center. With its easy set-up, tons of teacher-friendly templates to pick from, and online assets galore to support the enrichment, skills, or interest/exploratory centers, it is the perfect place to start when developing a learning center activity. And, with its student collaboration functions, it works well as an adjunct to the real-life small groups.

Below you can view some of the features of using the many templates found in Studio.

Some of the many templates to edit.

One example of an empty template to use.


Sample of an edited template in Discovery Education Studio.

What makes the Discovery Education Studio powerful is the ability to use all of the assets found in Discovery Education (the videos, clip art, and images) as well as uploading items on your local device into the template.

If you have a particular format or special design you want to use, Discovery Education Studio allows you to start from scratch and upload specific numbers of blocks, question and answer areas, and much more.

So, consider using Discovery Education Studio, with all the assets included, as the digital, collaborative component for your enrichment, skills, or interest/exploratory centers as a way to provide students with the background information, extension activities, and process instructions. And I encourage you to develop centers that incorporate the digital/analog model with students completing real-life, hands-on assessments guided by the information in Discovery Education Studio!

Are you already using Discovery Education Studio to support learning centers in your classroom or in some other innovative way? Please share your ideas and thoughts in the comments!