I’ve been experimenting with learning stations, or centers, in my music classroom. I’m always intrigued when I walk into classrooms that are set up with exciting experiments, games, and other provocations for learning. But a long time passed between admiring and trying, because the specialist classroom is so limited in time, space, and flexibility. When I finally gave it a go, it was a true learning journey, with both successes and failures. But it’s mostly successes now, so maybe I can save you some trouble with these ten things I’ve learned.

  1. Know the learning outcome. Okay, this seems really obvious, but sometimes you get some good ideas of things to do, or manipulatives to use, that you can lose focus of the concept(s) you are practicing. Keep your focus on the learning outcome, and don’t get so caught up in the activity or technology that the focus becomes effectively lost.
  2. Timing, timing, timing: It’s great to have activities that can loop around until time is done, and/or can be stopped at any point. Activities with a hard finishing point set up students for “I’m done, what do I do now?” syndrome, and other disruptions.
  3. If you have something that has a clear finishing point, think about the early finishers. How can they use what is at that station to extend their learning?
  4. Plan for variety. One of the great things about centers is that there can be something for everyone: the movers, the techies, the introverts, the social learners… Think of a wide variety of modalities through which the students can engage with that lesson’s concept.
  5. Be sure you have one center that is really fun! Working independently takes a lot of self-management, so breaking that up will help energize the students. Find a way to gamify the learning (or the assessment).
  6. Think carefully about what role you can play. With centers, you could BE one of the centers, using this time to do differentiated, individual assessments. You could “run” one of the centers, using it as a small group teaching situation. Or you could roam, but if you do this, then have a specific purpose and strategy in mind. If the students are involved in something with potential for logistical or technical problems, anticipate those and be ready to solve them quickly. If there is a station that you anticipate will be particularly challenging, think about what the challenges will be and how you will guide the students to overcome the challenges with their own thinking. Or roam with the intention of watching and listening in order to document the thinking and learning. When you aren’t doing one of those things, you can float around the room guiding collaboration and encouraging students.
  7. Balance challenge and accessibility. Centers should be challenging, but students should still have a good chance of being successful in their learning outcome. Need to differentiate? Create centers that offer different levels of challenges. Older students in particular often have a pretty good idea of how well they understand something. Trust them to choose the appropriate level for their understanding.
  8. Teach the centers BEFORE using centers. Time is limited for explanations and directions, so make centers based on activities they’ve done before in class. If the students are already familiar with the activities, and have tried them before, then you save a lot of time (and sanity) because the students don’t have to study directions or figure out how things work. Familiarity is your friend.
  9. Get the kids’ buy-in. They need to manage themselves, take responsibility for their learning, and respect everyone else’s learning opportunities, so be sure they understand their responsibilities and what they get out of it. Create an environment where the students have ownership of their learning, where they are motivated and encouraged to take risks and challenge themselves. Help them to take pride in all of that!
  10. Have a growth mindset. Yes, for the children, but also for yourself! Some of your centers will be great, and some of them might not be. Just like the students, we are constantly learning, and the only way we can continue to improve our teaching is by trying new things, being willing to fail, and reflecting on what we can learn from our failures and successes. Model this attitude with your students, and be open to their feedback.


Download this planning worksheet to help you plan your lesson using learning centers.

Take the leap, and leave a comment here on how it went. Good luck!

10 Tips for Using Learning Centers in Specialist Classes
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