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The leadership of student-centred learning

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

This article is based on extracts from the report
Literature Review: Student-Centred Schools Make the Difference, prepared for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) by Dr Jessica Harris, Ms Nerida Spina, Associate Professor Lisa C Ehrich and Dr Judy Smeed from the Queensland University of Technology. © Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, used with permission.

Student-centred teaching and learning is now widely advocated by education systems in Australia and internationally (Black 2006; Danzig et al. 2005; Tennessee State Board of Education 2011; Yonezawa, McClure & Jones 2012). In support of this approach, a new AITSL report, Literature Review: Student-Centred Schools Make the Difference, examines what the research says on how school leaders can develop and sustain student-centred schools. The current article summarises some of the findings of the Review.

This Literature Review was commissioned to align with the Australian Professional Standard for Principals (APSP). The APSP was developed by AITSL and endorsed by Australian Education Ministers in July 2011. It is a public statement which sets out what principals are expected to know, understand and do, to achieve in their work. The purpose of the APSP is to define the role of the principal and unify the profession nationally, to describe the professional practice of principals in a common language, and to make explicit the role of quality school leadership in improving learning.

The APSP is represented as an inter-dependent and integrated model that recognises three leadership requirements:

  • vision and values
  • knowledge and understanding
  • personal qualities and social and interpersonal skills.

Principals draw upon these leadership requirements within five areas of professional practice:

  • leading teaching and learning
  • developing self and others
  • leading improvement, innovation and change
  • leading the management of the school
  • engaging and working with the community.

This Literature Review explores these leadership practices and illustrates how they drive and sustain student-centred schools.

The nature of student-centred schools

Student-centred schools encourage students to become active, engaged participants in their own learning–with the learning process guided by, rather than centred on, the teacher. These schools encourage cooperation between students, provide forums for students to express their views and ideas, and connect learning to the wider community outside the school (Black 2006, p4).

The idea of student-centred schools draws on constructivist theories of learning, advanced by experts such as Dewey and Piaget. This approach positions students not as passive recipients of knowledge, but as active participants in the learning process, who connect new information to their existing knowledge, experiences, and ideas. Constructivist theories are embedded in a number of studies of student-centred learning (e.g. Black 2007; Dix 2012; Vavrus, Thomas & Bartlett 2011).

The idea of student-centred schools also draws on socio-cultural theories of education, such as those advanced by Vygotsky, which emphasise the fact that all learning and teaching occurs within a wider social and political context. Proponents of this approach frequently apply critical theories of education, which see it as a way to empower students and help them become active democratic participants in society (Atweh 2013).

Student-centred leaders of schools

The student-centred leader creates conditions that encourage active learning, not only amongst students but also amongst teachers and the wider school community. Further to this, student-centred leaders encourage others to take on some of the leadership of learning. Danzig et al. (2005), for example, argues that learner-centred leaders should be actively involved in developing leadership capacity and sustainability throughout their community, promoting equity and diversity in leadership. The challenge for school leaders is to provide the conditions in which teachers can offer their best work (Dinham 2009; Leithwood et al. 2004; National Center for School Leadership, n.d.). To do so, school leaders need to work in tandem with teachers to enhance students’ academic, personal, and social learning.

The student-centred leader focuses on student performance, and on the teaching and learning processes within the school. School leaders’ impact on student performance is examined in Robinson et al.’s 2009 report School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why, a major meta-analysis of leadership research, commissioned by the New Zealand Ministry of Education. One of the main findings of the report was that ‘transformational leadership’ has very small effect sizes on student outcomes, whereas instructional leadership (in which the principal participates directly with teachers) has large effect sizes. The biggest effect size was seen when leaders were most closely associated with teaching and learning, and when teacher professional learning was focused on improving student outcomes.

Dimensions of student-centred leadership of schools

Robinson (2011) describes five dimensions of leadership that affect student outcomes: establishing goals and expectations, resourcing strategically, ensuring quality teaching, leading teacher learning and development, and ensuring a safe and orderly environment.

These dimensions of leadership map closely to the professional practices outlined in the APSP. The Review explores in detail the links between Robinson’s five dimensions of school leadership and the professional practices described in the APSP. Each of these professional practices is linked in some way with the concept of leading a student-centred school and sits within the broader notions of student-centred approaches to education.

This article now considers the five dimensions of student-centred schooling identified by Robinson, as well as three further dimensions identified during the literature review.

Establishing goals and expectations

The research literature suggests that setting goals and expectations for a school is central to the role of school leadership. According to the student-centred ethos, these goals and expectations need to be focused on improving student outcomes. Such goals should not be imposed by a single leader, but should be established collaboratively with all members of the school community (Leithwood & Riehl 2003). This may mean working with informal and formal leaders in the school (Dix 2012), and encouraging student input into decision making (Mitra 2008; Toshalis & Nakkula 2012).

Resourcing strategically

Strategic resourcing is imperative in all school contexts to ensure that the limited resources available to schools are used effectively. In a student-centred school, resources are allocated according to where they can best support student learning (Robinson et al. 2009). Teachers need both time and resources for continuous and collaborative professional learning to stay at the forefront of professional knowledge. As Black (2006, p6) points out, ‘student-centred learning comes at a cost’, but those who have embedded student-centred processes indicate that the commitment of resources is worthwhile in terms of student learning.

Ensuring quality teaching

In a student-centred school, quality teaching involves the ability to personalise learning to ensure that the content and pedagogical approaches engage and meet students’ learning needs. Teachers in a student-centred school also need to be able to reflect on their work, and consistently assess and improve their practices using a ‘continuous feedback loop’ (Dix 2012, p7). Furthermore, they need to work in collaboration with their colleagues to ensure that the quality of pedagogy throughout the school is consistently high.

Leading teacher learning and development

This dimension of student-centred leadership is reported to have the greatest impact on student outcomes (Robinson 2011). It is closely linked to the task of ensuring quality teaching, as effective leaders of student-centred schools view all members of the school community as learners. A focus on continuous learning and improvement is described as both a central element of student-centred teaching and learning, and also as a method used to embed and sustain student-centred approaches in a school (Dix 2012).

The literature demonstrates that student-centred leaders need to develop organisational structures and practices that support teachers to collaboratively learn, use and review different pedagogical practices through the development of professional learning communities (Black 2007; Seashore Louis et al. 2010). This concept differs somewhat from the idea of instructional leadership. Rather than functioning as the leader of teaching and learning in the school, the student-centred leader needs to act as a facilitator and ‘community builder’ (Danzig et al. 2005, p8) to establish collaborative communities that can support professional learning.

Ensuring a safe and orderly environment

The final dimension of student-centred leadership described by Robinson is a focus on a safe and orderly school environment. When students do not feel safe and supported in their school environment they are more likely to disengage from their learning (Mitchell, Forsyth & Robinson 2008). Positive, trustful teacher-student relationships are more likely to make students feel comfortable at school, and more engaged and motivated to learn (Dix 2012; Van Maele & Van Houtte 2011).

The Review also describes three additional dimensions of student-centred schooling, evident in the literature: engaging and working with the community, ethical leadership, and listening to student voice.

Engaging and working with the community

The research literature on student-centred approaches to education indicates that in order to understand students’ lived realities, schools must allow for community and family contexts. Student-centred learning is supported by establishing and maintaining close links between parents, communities and schools.

This is particularly important with regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and communities, who are frequently misrepresented and misunderstood by schools (Luke et al. 2013).

Ethical Leadership

The importance of ethics has been highlighted in a number of writings on leadership (Campbell 1997; Ciulla 2006; Duignan 2006; Starratt 2007). One of the benefits of a strong grasp of ethics is that it helps school leaders navigate competing demands and accountabilities, such as those between students and staff on the one hand, and the demands for compliance by the department and system on the other (Badaracco 1992; Cranston, Ehrich & Kimber 2006). The conscious application of ethical principles therefore helps school leaders to treat all parties (teachers, students, parents, community members) respectfully and justly.

Listening to student voice

The concept of listening to student voice is central to the idea of student-centred pedagogies (Toshalis & Nakkula 2012). A significant body of research indicates that when students are given opportunities for input into their learning experiences, their levels of engagement and motivation rise, and their academic performance may increase (Babcock 2011; Lerin 2006; Toshalis & Nakkula 2012). The effects of incorporating student voice into schooling may be particularly strong for marginalised students (Fielding 2010).

There is a growing trend to involve students as peer mentors or coaches, or as members of a student council. Authentic involvement in a student-centred school may also see them involved as planners, researchers, teachers, trainers and advocates. Students may act as evaluators of their teachers or even as active democratic participants in school governance processes (Fielding 2010).


The Literature Review: Student-Centred Schools Make the Difference offers a critical examination of literature to support the value of student-centred schools. It explores literature outlining research, policy and practice in Australia and internationally with the aim of uncovering ways in which school leaders can establish and maintain a student-centred school. In particular, it focuses on how building a student-centred school can make the difference for disadvantaged students, including those from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds. The literature examined in the Review shows the need for learning experiences that recognise and respond to the individual needs of every student, and it shows the value of encouraging all members of their school community to be active learners.


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Subject Headings

Student engagement
School leadership
Teaching and learning
School culture