Are you doing the important work?

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 5.28.32 PMThis article first appeared in the PASA September Newsletter.

Open houses… football games and fall sports….brightly waxed floors…picture day…the familiar sight of the gleaming yellow school buses. It is official! Our 2019-20 school year is underway.

What opportunities lie ahead for us this year? How will we release agency to our leaders and learners? How will we impact the work in our buildings? How will we create the conditions for innovation?

First, let’s think about the work we do on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis? What are the long-term goals you hope to achieve this year? Beyond the duties in your job description, what is your important work?

For our leaders in Salisbury Township School District, the superintendent (Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D.) and I have identified the important work of moving forward to realize our community’s vision. We utilized a collaborative visioning process to develop a clear district-wide vision which includes our Profile of a Graduate and Learning Beliefs. Our Profile of a Graduate clearly articulates the knowledge, skills, and dispositions Salisbury’s community desires for its learners when they leave Salisbury to pursue their future aspirations. In order for learners to develop this knowledge, skills, and dispositions, we need to shift our thinking about learning. We articulated clear Learning Beliefs which are organized around the 5-pillar “north star” developed by Education Reimagined in their white paper, A Transformational Vision for Education in the US. We need to ensure our classrooms are learner-centered, and the learning experiences are aligned to our beliefs about learning. This is heavy lifting and requires significant instructional leadership, which can be difficult for our building leaders.

Our building and department leaders manage significant operational and human resource responsibilities on a daily basis. How can they (and we) continue to make time for the important work while the urgent work is forever competing for our attention? What do I mean by urgent work? Each community, building, and department has its own contextualized urgent work – testing, parent concerns, discipline issues, facility issues, employee challenges, etc. There are so many issues which need our attention on a daily basis. It would be easy for any of us to get stuck in our office all day. We could be busy and productive with phone calls, emails, etc… But, we may not be getting to the important work.

Have you read the Poke the Box? In the book, Seth Godin asks, when was the last time you did something for the first time? He encourages us to commit to make something happen. What are you curious about in your role? How can pursuing your curiosity result in the production of something that is “scarce”? Godin encourages us to take initiative and innovate at every level in every department. This is important work. This is the work which will help us move forward to realize our vision. (Learn more about the book through an interview with Seth at

One example of producing something scarce at our middle school is Project Wonder. The building principal (Ken Parliman) and Director of Teaching and Learning (Kelly Pauling) have collaborated with two highly motivated and learner-centered teachers to build a school within a school for learners in grades 6 and 7. These teachers are re-thinking everything about school – teaching and learning, assessment/grading/feedback, how to personalize content while meeting PA state standards, student-led conferences, personal learning profiles, etc. This is heavy lifting, and these teachers are doing this important work with the support of the building and district leadership. The leaders have created the conditions for this innovation and released the agency to these teachers. Not only are they carving out time, but they sit at the table alongside these teachers as they experience productive struggle. They work to keep the flame burning while celebrating the risk-taking and successes as much as they celebrate the failures. This is certainly no easy task when these busy leaders have many competing priorities.

How will you create the conditions for your staff members – teachers, leaders, etc. to innovate? What is “allowed” and “not allowed” in your organization? Godin proffers most employees can give a long list of things they are not allowed to do, but may not be able to articulate what is allowed. Are you and your leaders allowed to spend all of your time on urgent work? Do you expect more from each other? If you expect more, what structures can you put in place to encourage this practice? This year, we are developing an action research cohort. We are allocating professional learning time to a group of teachers who want to take a look at a problem of practice and implement a solution. This cohort of teachers will come together multiple times this year for a pull-out professional learning, facilitated by our Director of Teaching and Learning – Kelly Pauling – Randy, and me. Using a mentor text, The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research, these teachers will complete an inquiry project in which they identify a problem of practice, brainstorm, implement, and iterate solutions and tell the story of what was learned. Throughout the process, we will encourage risk-taking and failure!

How will you promote risk-taking and celebrate failures with the same joy in which you celebrate successes? As a leader, how do you challenge people to step outside of their current structures? What structures or opportunities do you have in place?


Shift Your Paradigm: Putting Learner-Centered Lessons Into Practice (Part 4) [#ShiftYourParadigm]

This article first appeared at Education Reimagined as a part of Voyager, a publication sharing the stories and ideas shaping the future of education.

In the first three parts of our series exploring how learner-centered leaders lead differently from school-centered leaders, we shared the context of our leadership inquiry and why it caused us to create our Shift Your Paradigm podcast. Reviewing the insights we’ve gained through the over 50 interviews we’ve conducted with learners and leaders in learner-centered environments, we’ve discovered four key distinctions that we feel characterize learner-centered leadership. Learner-centered leaders:

  • Reframe transformation by distinguishing shifts in learner agency and the role of the teacher in learner-centered environments;
  • Support the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation. This is done by providing powerful learning opportunities to develop mindsets and skillsets, creating risk-friendly environments, and unlocking time to maximize opportunities;
  • Prioritize a culture of deep relationships. Relationships are central to learner-centered education. Without a deep connection to the learner—both young and adult—there can’t be “learner-centered” anything; and
  • Prioritize learner voice. To be learner-centered means to start with the learner, prioritizing their voice throughout the learning process. In the many stories we’ve heard over the past two years, leaders accomplish this by first believing in their learners.

To wrap up this series, we wanted to share examples of how we have applied these takeaways to our own practice. As Superintendent and Associate Superintendent in Salisbury Township School District in Allentown, PA, we are on our own unique path toward developing knowledge, skills, and dispositions as learner-centered leaders. While we have been intentional about these efforts, we are early in this journey, experiencing both successes and challenges.

How are we reframing transformation?

We began our work around transformation during the 2015-16 school year when we developed our Profile of a Graduate. While doing the Profile design work, we crossed paths with the key learner-centered document, A Transformational Vision for Education in the US. Reading this document, we saw that, if they were to be successful, the components articulated in our Profile of a Graduate needed to be embedded in a context different from the dominant school-centered paradigm of traditional public education.

After engaging our stakeholders (parents, learners, teachers, leaders, board members and community) in conversations around their hopes and dreams for graduates and the conditions that would cultivate deep, powerful learning—we had our vision. On a philosophical level, we had reframed transformation from school-centered to learner-centered. As an organization, we want to respond to innovations through the lens of asking “how?” rather than reverting to the classic: “No, because we’ve never done that.” Reframing transformation is important for us as we continue to provide new opportunities for our learners. Ultimately, our reframing transformation moves past tweaking our current system toward reimagining what is possible.

Of course, a philosophical shift is only as important as the heavy lifting you engage in after the fact. Those working to transform their organizations know a vision is important, but actually bringing that transformational vision to reality is no easy task—particularly in a world dominated by school-centered thinking and an immunity to change. We love the quote from Joe Erpelding, principal of Design39Campus, that frames this challenge: “I think I had to reroute my whole firmware in terms of what I believed about education.” (Episode 45)

Over the past few years, we have created the conditions for our stakeholders to rethink their beliefs about education and how they apply to learning in Salisbury Township schools. Most of our efforts have been focused on teachers through Leading #YourSalisbury, a three-year series of ongoing professional learning opportunities where teachers conceptualize what it means to be a teacher in a learner-centered environment and apply those understandings to learning task redesign. These professional learning experiences were designed and facilitated by district and school leaders.

To support the ongoing shift of our stakeholders’ mindsets, we pursued connections to learner-centered environments throughout the country—with the support of Education Reimagined—to learn from their transformative work. These conversations have been published and are available publicly at Shift Your Paradigm. Many of our teachers have listened to these conversations, learning what is possible in their own classrooms.

The podcast project reflects one key principle we have learned about leading transformation: leaders create the conditions for stakeholders to deepen understanding of the transformation at a personalized pace. The shift to a new paradigm and resulting transformation cannot be forced or commanded, as in a top-down, school-centered style of leadership.

By creating conditions, pockets of transformation now exist in classrooms throughout the district. Two of our most notable artifacts of transformation are our high school internship program and a school-within-a-school model (named Project Wonder) at our middle school. The internship program and Project Wonder are examples of teachers, learners, parents, and leaders working at the edges of the system to create learning environments that embody Education Reimagined’s five elements of learner-centered learning.

As we learn from these and other “edge examples” across the district we expect the school-centered core of the organization to slowly be transformed. This is a key mindset of leading transformational work: Start at the edges with those eager to transform their practice, provide resources to support continued success, and the core will slowly be transformed.

How are we supporting the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation?

With the Profile of a Graduate and beliefs about learning permeating the culture, the allocation of resources is driven by the question, “What will support forward-momentum toward our Profile of a Graduate and learning beliefs?” Whether it’s providing time for teacher learning, program offerings for students, or requests for additional staffing, resources are now allocated in a manner that focuses on achieving our vision for transformation.

This past year, a new position, Director of Teaching and Learning, was created to focus solely on building the capacity of our stakeholders, particularly principals and teachers, to implement our vision for transformation. During the 2018-19 school year, the Director co-led a process through which all teachers redesigned several learning tasks to better align to the beliefs about deep, powerful learning, based on the five “north star” elements from Education Reimagined. The decision to focus resources on this position led to a scaling effect we hadn’t previously seen. Every teacher redesigned multiple learning tasks for their learners.

In addition to impacting instruction in the classroom, the Director of Teaching and Learning is responsible for professional learning for adults across the district. The most significant program that has been developed is our Summer Academy. Every employee is offered learning opportunities that directly connect to our vision for transformation—including opportunities for adult learners to personalize their experience through book studies, face-to-face meetings, and even online modules pertaining to the district’s Learning Beliefs.

Expenditures of school resources are aligned to the vision. When a teacher, leader, or group requests to expend additional resources, the question is asked: How does this request support the Profile of a Graduate? As an example, we wanted to offer summer camp opportunities for our learners. When we planned the camps, we asked ourselves a couple of questions. If we were to offer camp opportunities, how could the camps support our Profile of a Graduate? How could they represent the learning environments we are striving for in our classrooms?

We developed a camp which we believe reflected what we are working towards in our classrooms. A small group of middle school learners participated in a Culinary Camp this summer. They had the opportunity to debone chicken, create healthy recipes, and design a recipe for their family from scratch. The learning experience was personalized and contextualized as students brought in their own recipes, each requiring different culinary skills and kitchen equipment. While one learner was learning how to operate the food processor, another was learning to pipe icing—all with the expert guidance of a chef. Through this open-walled learning experience, students developed knowledge, skills, and dispositions outlined in the Profile of a Graduate. They learned to communicate and collaborate in the kitchen, developed a deeper understanding of health literacy, and cultivated increased levels of persistence as they experienced productive struggle. We are looking for teachers to continue to transform their practice and seek to launch more learner-centered pilots throughout our district.

Asking teachers and leaders to transform their practice from school-centered to learner-centered can create a healthy relationship to risk taking. We have learned that it is important to create the conditions and provide the resources for these stakeholders to take risks and try new practices with the help of their learners.

This past school year, we formally recognized risk-taking through the Scaling the Mountain Recognition. Teachers and principals nominated colleagues for taking risks to design learning opportunities that reflected our beliefs about deep, powerful learning. We celebrated these risk-taking teachers by visiting their classrooms and providing them a certificate to purchase professional resources—in the spirit of continuing their own learning. We celebrated teachers for opening their classroom walls and extending the learning beyond our school buildings. We celebrated teachers for redesigning learning tasks in ways that better reflect our learning beliefs. And, we celebrated teachers for taking risks and pushing against their comfort zones, as they created new learning experiences.

Over the past several years, mini-grants have been provided for projects and task redesigns that support the transformation of learning. Funds were provided through the district and also through the Salisbury Education Foundation. One teacher submitted a proposal to grow an indoor garden to help learners see and engage with science. Another teacher submitted a proposal to provide materials for learners to work together to create a Gaga Pit to use at recess. Both of these examples were demonstrations of what can be made possible when we are intentional with planning and provide the space to invent new experiences.

How are we prioritizing a culture of deep relationships?

Relationships fuel transformation. We have learned that leaders need to understand their stakeholders and teachers need to understand their learners.

Some of the ways we gain an understanding of our stakeholders is by engaging them regularly in conversations about the work of transformation. Our principal meetings have transformed from conversations largely about school-centered management issues to conversations focused on our vision and the leadership needed to get us there.

We meet regularly with learners in each of our schools and focus on what they are learning, how they are learning, and what we might do differently alongside them to make their learning experience more meaningful. For example, to help our teachers build better relationships with learners around learning, we have introduced learner profiles. We expect there will be more of a focus on this in the coming year so that our teachers can go even deeper into creating the conditions for personalized, relevant, and contextualized learning. Learner profiles were piloted in Project Wonder this year, and as we learn from this experience, we expect more teachers will embrace learner profiles as an avenue to build deeper relationships with their learners.

We also share changes in practice regularly with our school board and state policymakers, and we provide opportunities for parents and the broader community to share their thoughts and provide input during “Coffee and Conversation” gatherings. Building relationships with our various stakeholders keeps us accountable and also provides valuable input into how, as an organization, we adjust our implementation over time.

The Director of Teaching and Learning has spent her first year building positive, supportive relationships with teachers and principals. She has developed multiple systems for collaborating with and supporting teachers and leaders. She designed a teacher leadership workshop for our middle school teacher leadership team. She attended regular meetings with teacher leaders, including monthly liaison meetings and department meetings. As a key presenter in district-wide professional learning opportunities, she quickly became a recognizable resource for staff members.

How are we prioritizing learner voice?

Opportunities to build relationships with stakeholders are opportunities to shift agency and control to learners. Learner-centered leaders need to create opportunities for learners to communicate and share their voice.

In Salisbury, learners from each school have the opportunity to share their voice and impact our district’s transformation through various avenues. We schedule quarterly Superintendent Advisory Council meetings with representative groups of learners in each school. Principals join us as we seek feedback about our schools and the learning experiences that are offered. Students also have the opportunity to share at monthly school board meetings. As leaders of our organization, we realize it is important to listen to our learners.

Other opportunities for learner voice are developed on an as-needed basis. Near the end of this school year, focus groups were self-organized and surveys created for a high school taste-testing provided by our Child Nutrition department. Learner input will be used to plan menu changes for next school year.

At the conclusion of our first year of Project Wonder, we met with learners to reflect on their year. We asked them to share their greatest successes and failures from the year and talk about how this learning experience was different from previous learning experiences in our district. Learner voice is impacting how we design the learning opportunities they will experience in the future.

This past year, learner voice at our high school impacted the areas of school safety and social media, with learners organizing and leading committees in these two areas. Both committees came to exist as a result of students identifying a need and creating a plan to address the need. The Social Media Advisory group facilitated a community workshop about social media, and the School Safety Committee provided feedback on school safety practices, assisted with the development of protocols. This Committee even had a representative speak at a district press conference. Learner voice has impacted our district in significant ways.

At the elementary level, teachers are building more agency in learners through student-led conferences and learning portfolio sharing. Learners develop leadership notebooks, tracking data to tell the story of their learning journey and goals.

This coming year, a district-wide open house is planned to showcase learning across the district. Learner voice will play a significant role in determining what this celebration of learning looks like for our community.

These are powerful words from Education Reimagined: “Learners are seen and known as wondrous, curious individuals with vast capabilities and limitless potential.” (A Transformational Vision for Education in the US)

They remind us of the potential within our learners—young and adult. They remind us that learner-centered leaders listen and learn with and from learners as they create opportunities for all learners to pursue their limitless potential.

Throughout our work, we have learned context matters. The size of the school, the available resources, the community values, the mindsets of teachers and leaders, an articulated vision, learners’ goals—these are all pieces of the context puzzle that shapes transformation. And, it’s these pieces that will make your strategy entirely unique. However, if you begin your journey by using the four learner-centered leadership distinctions we’ve uncovered through the Shift Your Paradigm podcast, you are bound to hit the ground running and have your own unique solutions to share with the broader learner-centered community. We have shared strategies and applications which work in our context—Salisbury Township School District in Allentown, PA. What might work in yours?

Connect with Randy on Twitter, the TLTalkRadio podcast, and the Shift Your Paradigm podcast!

Get new content delivered to your inbox and the ebook 3 Key Principles of Digital Transformation. The ebook contains valuable information from my experience leading a digital transformation and working with a variety of stakeholders over the past decade.

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What does learner-centered leadership look like? (Part III)

This article first appeared at Education Reimagined as a part of Voyager, a publication sharing the stories and ideas shaping the future of education.

In Part I and Part II of our series exploring how learner-centered leaders lead differently from school-centered ones, we shared the context of our leadership inquiry and why it led to the creation of our Shift Your Paradigm podcast. In the first two pieces, we highlighted three key insights that have emerged from the dozens of interviews we’ve conducted over the past two years through our podcast:

  1. Learner-centered leaders reframe transformation by distinguishing shifts in learner agency and the role of the educator in learner-centered contexts.
  2. Learner-centered leaders support the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation. This is done by providing powerful learning opportunities to develop mindsets and skillsets, creating risk-friendly environments, and unlocking time to maximize opportunities.
  3. Learner-centered leaders prioritize a culture of deep relationships. Without a deep connection to the learner—both young and adult—there can’t be “learner-centered” anything.

In the third and final part of our series, we will explore how learner-centered leaders prioritize learner voice.

Learner-centered leaders prioritize learner voice

To be learner-centered means to start with the learner, prioritizing their voice throughout the learning process. In the many stories we’ve heard, leaders do this by first believing in their learners. As Education Reimagined communicates, “Learners are seen and known as wondrous, curious individuals with vast capabilities and limitless potential.” This statement resonates with us and is critical in this mindset shift.

Trust the learner

Do we trust learners to approach learning with wonder and curiosity? Do we believe every young person comes to us with the capability to fulfill their dreams with the support of caring adults? Learner-centered leaders answer these questions with a “yes.” Every time.

For example, trust in the learner is highly visible at North Star, an alternative high school and middle school in Massachusetts where learners can quite literally do as they please—to the point where doing nothing is an acceptable choice. North Star’s Executive Director, Kenneth Danford, shared:

“The main thing about learning at North Star is that it’s schooling upside down. It’s where adults offer classes to teens who can choose whether or not to attend them. There are a lot of one-on-one tutorials that students request from adults, and there is a lot of time to socialize and just be present without doing what schools would consider academic learning.” (Episode 43)

In learning environments such as North Star and others such as Iowa BIG, Big Picture Learning (BPL), Taylor County School District (KY), and Springhouse Community School, we see adults trusting young people to personalize their learning experiences across projects in the school and the community. These learning environments engage learners in developing a high-level of self-awareness; they trust the learner will be able to co-create learning pathways to achieve a variety of personal learning goals. Roger Cook, former Superintendent in Kentucky’s Taylor County Schools had this to say:

“This is what I’ve found out—if you trust kids and you give them responsibility, most of them will perform to your expectations. Some don’t. Obviously, we don’t live in a utopia. But, we’ve done it here for so long, and as a community, they wouldn’t stand for anything else. They would not stand for going back to a six-period day, sit in the class being lectured at for 60 minutes with no freedom. No—our students wouldn’t stand for it now.” (Episode 16)

Self-awareness and trust permeate all aspects of learner-centered environments. Young learners aren’t the only learners in the school. Every adult in the system must be a learner—and learner-centered leaders must extend that pivotal level of trust to all the adult learners, as well. In Northern Cass School District in North Dakota, Superintendent Cory Steiner, shared the role trust plays in making Northern Cass a learner-centered organization:

“One thing that I’ve done to build agency in teachers is trust—that the people in our building are always going to do what’s right for our learners. I believed that before we started this journey. I believe we have this amazing group of people who truly care about kids when they walk in and want nothing more than for them to have their best day, every day, and to become the best version of themselves.” (Episode 44)

When trust exists for all learners—young and adult—something very powerful happens. Learning becomes an act of co-creation, where traditional power structures are blurred and power flows back and forth between young and adult learners.

Transfer power and control

Learner-centered education flattens the hierarchy. The adult’s expertise no longer dominates the learning experience; young and old bring unique expertise to the learning. The adult comes to the learning experience with skills in content and learning design, while the learner holds a personal knowledge around her passions, needs, challenges, and dreams. Both sets of knowledge allow power and control to be shared. This shift invites and values agency on both sides of the relationship.

Elizabeth Cardine, lead teacher and advisor at MC2 Charter School in New Hampshire, was eager to bring the role of power to light in our conversation:

“I think something that a lot stakeholders—students, parents, and the teachers themselves—have to constantly be on guard against, because it’s so ingrained in the status quo of “teacher,” is this of: Where does the authority come from in the teacher-student relationship; [what about]…the role of hierarchy and experience?” (Episode 19)

Kim Carter, CEO at MC2 extends what Elizabeth shared and refers to learners and how they learn to “manage up”:

“We are encouraging students to manage up. And, that’s so different from what traditionally happens in an adult-youth relationship. Some of the research suggests [having the young person managing up] can be very challenging, very threatening for an adult…Building the structures around the expectations for how that works is an important thing.” (Episode 19)

This transfer of power requires vulnerability. Jenny Finn, Head of School at Springhouse:

“I think that [valuing vulnerability] is something that is foundational here. We recognize that connection—authentic, true connection—cannot happen without vulnerability. And so we definitely move toward vulnerability and not away from it. [T]his takes time and energy. I would also say it takes skill.

Whatever we’re teaching and doing—we’re holding that at the forefront. What are the skills that these students need to be more resilient in the world, to be able to really face and move through difficulty and not avoid or kind of force themselves through it? [Rather, can they] find a way that is authentic to them to really navigate difficulty in relationships, in themselves, in each other, or in the earth? Having that value of vulnerability, we know that in order for connection to happen, vulnerability needs to be there. It’s important that we also teach the skills to be able to navigate that.” (Episode 26)

Helen Beattie, the founder and Executive Director of UP for Learning summarizes the flattening of hierarchy and distribution of agency:

“I think one critical piece of this shift of paradigm and the relationship of students and teachers goes right to the heart of power. And, who has power? Right now, in our traditional system, certainly, it’s largely held by adults. A learner-centered paradigm requires a sharing of power—that both [parties] are empowered within the relationship. I think for so many adults, that is a frightening concept and it feels antithetical to where they need to go. They’ve always believed that power is how they get to this destination.” (Episode 30)

While moving power and control to young learners is a goal embraced by the adults in a learner-centered learning environment, how young learners share and showcase their learning is one of the most prominent ways we see the prioritization of learner voice.

Showcase learning

Each learner-centered environment has various ways young learners demonstrate learning. The common thread, though, is that learners have a high level of control over how their learning is shared.

Kim Carter from MC2 Charter School described how students exercise agency through a portfolio and exhibition framework:

“We look at the learning cycle as: designing, constructing, applying, documenting, and defending learning. The defense piece happens in a couple of places so when Sabrina [a learner at MC2] is talking about her gateway process and phasing up, the first step is her creation of a gateway portfolio. This is followed by her gateway exhibition where she presents and elaborates on her learning and how she’s ready for the challenge of the next phase. A panel listens to the presentation and then has a section of time for questions.” (Episode 19)

Iowa BIG builds on relationships with the community to create a learning environment that is entirely project-based. Students showcase their learning in the local community through project deliverables. Jemar Lee, a recent graduate from Iowa BIG [He was still a student at the time of the interview]:

“Here at Iowa BIG, learning is passion-driven and that means projects. You’re picking a project you’re passionate about and tying that to your core academic needs. For me, those needs are literature and U.S. History. My passion is architecture and, more recently, education.

At the beginning of the school year, I picked Sleeping Giant, which was a project that involved building a 3D conceptual design of a Cedar Rapids bridge that had fallen in 2008. We designed a bridge that would best suit and drive attraction to Cedar Rapids. In education, I’ve created a student-led initiative to advance learner-centered education.

The learning adapts to you within projects. The teachers aren’t telling you what you have to learn within that project and how you should learn it. What you learn comes about when you want that project to succeed.” (Episode 5)

Now that you’ve read about the various insights about learner-centered leadership, let’s go back to our original inquiry: Do learner-centered leaders lead differently? After dozens of conversations with those in learner-centered environments, we think so and have shared four outcomes in this series.

Learner-centered leaders:

  1. Reframe transformation;
  2. Support the development of the resources, people, and conditions for transformation;
  3. Prioritize a culture of deep relationships; and
  4. Prioritize learner voice.

Through this three part series, we hope we have provoked your thinking and reflection on your own practice as a learner-centered leader. We invite you to think about your own leadership practice and how the four insights connect to your transformation work. Which insights resonate most? Which provide personal learning for your own practice? Are there insights you would add to the list? We would love to hear from you on social media @ziegeran and @lfuinihetten.

Connect with Randy on Twitter, the TLTalkRadio podcast, and the Shift Your Paradigm podcast!

Get new content delivered to your inbox and the ebook 3 Key Principles of Digital Transformation. The ebook contains valuable information from my experience leading a digital transformation and working with a variety of stakeholders over the past decade.

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What does learner-centered leadership look like? (Part II)

This article first appeared at Education Reimagined as a part of Voyager, a publication sharing the stories and ideas shaping the future of education.

In Part I of our series exploring how learner-centered leaders lead differently from school-centered ones, we shared the context of our leadership inquiry and why it led to the creation of our Shift Your Paradigm podcast. Reviewing the insights we’ve gained through the over 50 interviews we’ve conducted with learners and leaders in learner-centered environments over the last two years, we’ve learned a lot about learner-centered leaders. In our last piece, we highlighted two key insights:

  • Reframe transformation by distinguishing shifts in learner agency and the role of the teacher in learner-centered environments; and
  • Support the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation. This is done by providing powerful learning opportunities to develop mindsets and skillsets, creating risk-friendly environments, and unlocking time to maximize opportunities.

In Part II, we will explore yet another: Learner-centered leaders prioritize a culture of deep relationships.

Learner-centered leaders prioritize a culture of deep relationships

Relationships are one of the core ideals of learner-centered education. Without a deep connection to the learner—both young and adult—there can’t be “learner-centered” anything. The critical question is what makes relationships in learner-centered environments different from the dominant relationship conversation in the school-centered paradigm?

Learner-centered leaders begin by reframing “relationships.” Once this new framing is established, “relationships” in learner-centered models bring an emphasis on depth (as opposed to surface-level small talk), are always multi-directional, and are open-walled unto themselves (involving stakeholders beyond the conventional school walls).

Reframing “relationships”

In the current dominant paradigm of school-centered education, how often do conversations move beyond the transactional and into the realm of understanding each other as learners and as people? This is a significant question when attempting to distinguish relationship building through the school-centered and learner-centered lenses.

It’s moving beyond redundant questions like “How was your weekend?” or “Do you have your homework?” Conversations are intentional, focused on learning, and lead to deeper understanding of the teacher and learner. What are your goals, why are they important to you, and what skills do you want to grow this year? What support do you need in reaching your goals? How can we work together to develop those skills and meet your goals?

Andrew Frishman, Co-Executive Director of Big Picture Learning (BPL), shared how BPL has relabeled the “3 R’s” of education.

“…[The new 3 R’s] should be about our relationship, relevance, and rigor. You start with relationships and get to know people. That’s how you figure out what young people are interested in, and that’s how you get to really deep rigor. If you braid the three together, that’s how you get to really deep, powerful learner-centered opportunities that ultimately shift life outcomes and trajectories for learners.” (Episode 15)

When meaningful relationships are formed, the learner becomes an active participant in mapping out their learning journey. This participation leads to learning that is relevant and rigorous.

Valuing the depth of relationships

In Episode 25, we had an extended conversation about relationships with Andrew and his Co-Executive Director at BPL, Carlos Moreno. Andrew recalled a speaker who prompted him to think about the deeper aspects of conversations and relationship building in contrast to the “small talk” that often occurs in our country.

“I heard a speaker, his name is Gilberto Dimenstein, and he spoke about the importance of learning in community and situated learning in learning cities. He’s from Brazil, and he was talking about one of the cultural differences he sees in the United States. [In the US, people] have this small talk before they then get on to the important business talk. He said, “You know, where I come from, there is no small talk.” That’s the important talk. The important talk is connecting us to human beings.

I think we have a bit of that view [at BPL] that the relationship building, the connection, and the understanding where you’re coming from, who your family is, your communities, your experiences, what your goals and aspirations are…that’s not small talk. That’s the important talk. You go slow a little bit at the beginning to build those relationships so that you can go really fast together later.” (Episode 25)

Carlos added a “niece-nephew analogy” that sheds light on how deep and meaningful conversations and relationships can be around learning and the “important talk.”

“I wanted to share an analogy that one of our colleagues has used in describing what this relationship really means. He has labeled it his “niece-nephew analogy.” If you don’t have a niece or nephew, you can substitute any young person you care deeply about. How do you talk to this person individually, one-to-one? How do you inquire into their interests if approached by them with an exciting idea, something they’re eager to do or investigate? How do you respond? How might you help them learn about something they express interest in? Would you try to share your own learning with them, and is how your caring about the world manifest in your interactions with this young person?

Applying this analogy in teacher-practice really means thinking of your advisory as a collection of these young people you get to interact with at the same time. And, I think that’s the primary reason why a lot of our students really refer to their advisory as their second family.” (Episode 25)

Learner-centered relationships run deep. They are not transactional. Maybe more importantly, as Carlos and Andrew share later in the interview, the relationship building skills learners develop continue serving them long after they leave the BPL learning environment. Notice Carlos’ question, “Would you try to share your own learning with them…” This leads to the idea that learner-centered leaders value relationships that travel both ways—between young and adult learners.

Supporting the development of multi-directional relationships

Relationships in learner-centered environments go both ways. In fact, as we explore the idea of relationships in general, it begs the question how it can ever be called a relationship if everything is one-way.

You can see the significance of multi-directional relationships in fields outside of education where models such as reverse mentoring foster broader collaboration and greater agency and voice on the part of the co-learners. In a school-centered paradigm, relationships tend to be hierarchical. Teachers question and learners share; horizontal collaboration is rarely seen. And, any personal information young learners share about themselves is rarely used to design learning opportunities, while the teacher himself or herself rarely shares insights about his or her own experience as a learner.

Naseem Haamid, a BPL learner at the time of our conversation, described what the learner and teacher gain from a two-way relationship.

“In a Big Picture Learning school, you learn from the teacher and the teacher learns from you. You both grow together. And that’s the beauty of it.” (Episode 15)

At Springhouse Community School, adults model two-way relationships with each other in ways they hope will engage young learners in relationship building conversations. Jenny Finn, Head of School, shared:

“We don’t look at our learners as coming in as empty buckets that we need to fill. We try to acknowledge what they bring to the table. The community of adults in the school practice what we’re trying to teach. We actually take a lot of time to tend to our own relationships and to make sure that we’re doing everything that we’re asking our learners to do. There’s a lot of integrity in what we’re doing.” (Episode 26)

Finn’s attention to “tending to our own relationships” adds a fresh element to how we can distinguish “relationships” through the learner-centered paradigm, not only within the learning environment but also outside the walls of the learning environment and into the community.

Fostering open-walled relationships

We discovered a robust example of building relationships with community partners in the work of One Stone, an independent, student-led high school in Idaho. Chad Carlson, Director at One Stone, provides a glimpse into what these open-walled relationships look like.

“Our forte is our reliance on and our relationship with community partners. A big part of the Design Lab is community members who are willing to embrace and work with high school students, giving them voice, and having trust in what they can do. There’s a lot of research involved in a Design Lab partnership—writing, proposals, and rationales. Learners feel more accountable to the organization or individual. And so, there’s more buy-in from the learner.” (Episode 29)

As learner-centered environments become characterized by learners solving community challenges, building relationships with outside partners becomes crucial.

Iowa BIG and BPL are additional examples in how important community partnerships are when community learning is embedded in their learner-centered model. Iowa BIG has an instructional model that is almost entirely project-based with very few actual courses (Episode 5). Learners work on community-embedded challenges with teachers backmapping learning to content standards. BPL schools, with their “Learning Through Internships” emphasis, asks learners to make personal connections with the community based on their passion and interests. These initial connections eventually lead to job shadowing opportunities and internships (Episode 15).

You’ll notice this idea of building a culture of deep relationships relies on robust communication in all directions and with all stakeholders. Everyone’s voice is valued and acted upon. And, because learner voice is such a critical element to implementing a full expression of learner-centered education, it’s important for us to discuss it on its own.

In the third and final of our series, we will explore how learner-centered leaders prioritize learner voice.

Shift Your Paradigm: What Does Learner-Centered Leadership Look Like? (Part 1) [#ShiftYourParadigm]

This article first appeared at Education Reimagined as a part of Voyager, a publication sharing the stories and ideas shaping the future of education.

Written by Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D. and Lynn Fuini-Hetten

Both of us have been in education our entire lives. From young learners to career educators, we are the education system. We grew up and worked in educational systems that fit the mold of the school-centered paradigm—learning happens in school, learners travel through the system in age-related cohorts, and learners pass through a prescribed curriculum, often disconnected from their interests and passions.

We didn’t even realize we had beliefs rooted in the school-centered paradigm until we were given the opportunity to question and explore our assumptions. In 2015, as Superintendent and Associate Superintendent in the Salisbury Township School District, we had that opportunity with the publication of Education Reimagined’s A Transformational Vision for Education in the US.

We were unexpectedly exposed to the publication during a presentation by David Andrews at Lehigh University School Study Council. David is the former Dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and one of the vision’s signatories.

Since then, Education Reimagined has challenged us to explore our assumptions about learning and education and shift our paradigm from one that was school-centered to one that is shifting more closely to learner-centered every day.

One of the most significant outcomes supporting our district transformation was the collaborative development and adoption of the Salisbury Profile of a Graduate. The beliefs about learning that led to the creation of this profile were grounded in the learner-centered paradigm. Rather than distinguish a successful learner as one who solely meets the systemic requirements of 13 years in education, we distinguish a successful learner as one who knows his or her strengths, challenges, and interests and is ready to personalize his or her life journey to meet a personalized definition of success.

Over the past three years, we have deepened our understanding of the five elements by reviewing resources from Education Reimagined, attending Learning Lab Trainings, and talking with other learning organizations. Our exploration has given us the tools necessary to positively shift the mindsets of our leaders, teachers, parents, and community.

Beginning Our Leadership Inquiry

In the early days of our transformation work, a leadership inquiry emerged:

If the transformation of education requires a paradigm shift accompanied by new learner-centered mindsets, how might leadership intentionally support the shift?

Like just about all of our colleagues, our ideas about educational leadership had been framed by the dominant, school-centered paradigm. We wanted to know if these mindsets were enough to lead in the new learner-centered paradigm. Or, might leaders need to transform their leadership mindset to best support systemic transformation?

In collaboration with Education Reimagined, we launched Shift Your Paradigm, a podcast series that explores this leadership inquiry in depth. The podcast invites young learners and leaders making the shift to learner-centered education to share their stories of transformation.

Since launching the podcast in May 2017, we have learned a great deal about learner-centered leadership and the underlying mindsets. Reflecting on over 50 published podcast episodes and accompanying blog posts, we want to illuminate four overarching outcomes to the question: How do learner-centered leaders lead differently from school-centered leaders?

Learner-centered leaders:

  1. Reframe transformation
  2. Support the development of the resources, people, and conditions for transformation
  3. Prioritize a culture of deep relationships.
  4. Prioritize learner voice.

Part one of our exploration is going to reflect on the first two outcomes. In a subsequent article, we’ll explore the final two outcomes we’ve identified and how they connect to our own work.

Learner-centered leaders reframe transformation

What better place to begin our exploration than distinguishing “transformation” itself. How can we be confident we’re engaging in transformational work if we don’t have the proper framing for it? Early in the podcast series, Allan Cohen, Program Leader and strategic consultant for Education Reimagined, framed transformation as

“…a kind of change that actually let’s go of the past and creates something entirely new. As a practical matter, that means breaking from or disrupting or interrupting the way things have been going, not simply improving it. But, imagining something that’s not constrained by where it’s been.” (Episode 2)

The leaders we’ve spoken to consistently work from a vision for learning where systems conform to learners, rather than learners conforming to systems. What better way to “imagine something that’s not constrained by where it’s been”?

As these leaders revealed their community-specific framing for transformation on our episodes, we began to hear many parts to a disruptive whole. Several of the strongest actions included reframing learner agency, redefining the role of the teacher, and being intentional about releasing or giving up conventional ways of “doing” school.

Reframing learner agency

Learner-centered education begins with the learner. Without a shift in mindset around agency, systems simply cannot become learner-centered. In Episode 5, Dr. Trace Pickering, Executive Director of Iowa BIG,put it bluntly,

“Essentially, what we have learned is that learner agency is that secret ingredient, that secret sauce that unlocks the other four elements. If you’re not serious about giving the learners agency and ownership of their learning, all of the other elements—open-walled, socially embedded, personalized—take on a “less than” kind of meaning. And so, I think if you were to sit and watch, observe at Iowa BIG, you would see teachers relentless about finding ways to make sure the students own their learning.” (Episode 5)

Redefining the role of teacher

Rethinking the role of teaching was a theme that emerged from many of our conversations. Learning environments often begin the redefinition of “teacher” with new language: learning experience designer, coach, advisor, or mentor. At One Stone, teachers are known as coaches—embracing the development of learner agency as a core component to their professional role. Bennett Huhn, a young learner from One Stone shared this analogy to illustrate the shifting role of the coaches at One Stone,

“If you’re in a bowling alley, and we’re the bowling ball, then the coaches are the bumpers on the side that are really kind of just guiding you towards your goal.” (Episode 37)

Big Picture Learning (BPL) Co-Executive Director, Dr. Andrew Frishman, spoke about how he as a learner-centered leader explicitly reframe the role of the teacher in a transformed learning environment.

“Advisor is a term that we use to redefine the role of a teacher because a teacher sort of implies [someone who] has the information and will deliver that content to the student. Whereas an adviser is working with the student to say, “Who are you? What is it that you are passionate and excited and interested about? How do you want to go out into the world, and how can I help work with you to create learning experiences that will help you advance in that way?”” (Episode 25)

Being intentional about releasing or giving up conventional ways of “doing” school

At Design39Campus, founding principal Sonya Wrisley shared her experience conducting intentional conversations with stakeholders about what to give up from the school-centered model.

“We really thought deeply about what we would need to let go. And in some ways, we may have let go of a lot.” (Episode 14)

What were some examples of what was given up in the transformational design of Design39Campus?


“I wanted to break down the isolation. I wanted to make sure that everybody would learn to collaborate and really work together all the time, not have their own classrooms. They are not teacher classrooms; they are learning spaces for our learners. And then, part of that was if teachers weren’t going to have their own classrooms, then I shouldn’t have my own office. I should model this for them. So, we had open collaboration areas, design studios is what we called them. So, that was one of the first big things we let go of, territory.” (Episode 14)

Individual ownership of classroom resources:

“We wanted to make sure that they didn’t come with all the trappings that then caused the classroom to become their storage place (teachers, or Learning Experience Designers—LEDs). Things like construction paper and markers and all that—we put those into what we call our makeries, places where kids can make things. Books were then donated, in a sense, to the classroom libraries, given to what we call our loft. This is where we house all those books, so kids can go and borrow a book. They don’t even have to check it out. So we were letting go of that type of stuff.” (Episode 14)


“The very biggest thing in my mind was letting go of control, allowing the students to learn how they want to learn and find what they’re passionate about. That was just a whole shift in thinking. Teachers, or LEDs in our case, were not going to control. We frame things, but overall, the kids are given a lot of choice and voice and student agency to really learn their content.” (Episode 14)

At the inception of every transformation is a group of community leaders, formal or informal, open and willing to think differently. They are challenged to think about the learner first. This reframing of transformation leads to reframing other leadership challenges within the learning environment.

Learner-centered leaders support the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation

Related to the idea of reframing transformation, the development of learning opportunities that stretch the organization beyond the edges of the status quo and into an entirely new paradigm of learning are a focus of learner-centered leaders. In the process of designing new opportunities, leaders provide support for developing the mindsets and skill sets of the organization’s stakeholders, creating the conditions for risk taking and unlocking time to maximize opportunities.

Providing powerful learning opportunities to develop the mindsets and skill sets of their people

In Episode 24, we were introduced to an innovative career development resource in the Cajon Valley Union School District, World of Work (WoW). WoW is an initiative designed and developed through a partnership between Cajon Valley, the University of San Diego, and Qualcomm. It aims to help every child discover their unique strengths, interests, and values through learning experiences directly tied to the world of work—ensuring every child knows there’s a place for them in the world. Ed Hidalgo, Cajon Valley’s Chief Innovation and Engagement Officer, shared how the resource was developed from a learner-centered lens,

“We’re integrating this (World of Work) into the classroom setting because we believe that career development is a human process. It’s something that the teacher really needs to unpack with the students…it is integrated into the curriculum. It’s part of bringing relevance into what the teachers are already doing.” (Episode 24)

Jenny Finn, Co-Founder and current Head of School at Springhouse Community School, recently supported her learning community in the development of a community internship program to support open-walled learning.

“At the end of the year, I did a listening session with almost every student in the school. In one of those sessions, I was interviewing one of our seniors. I knew that she needed more freedom, being a senior. And, I didn’t feel like what we were doing was offering her what she needed. Being in the four walls of a school, all day, every day, is frankly, unnatural. I feel it now more than ever. All of us were learning and gaining these skills, but we’re not making use of them in ways that helped us to grow. We don’t know how we’re doing with those skills unless we are out in the community and using them. It became very clear to me that we need our students to be going out into the community, learning from the community, offering their gifts to the community, and then coming back to the safe place that Springhouse is to reflect.” (Bonus Episode 6)

Create risk-friendly environments

In the Harrisburg School District in South Dakota, Travis Lape, Innovative Programs Director, shared an example of how risk-taking is built on trust. Moving to a competency-based model, Harrisburg leadership ceded full control of the transformation to their teachers. Travis described,

“It has not been a top-down initiative. We took four facilitators to schools and said, “Just see what they’re doing. Do you believe in what they’re doing? And, if you do, how do we come back in and replicate this, or how do we make it ours?” It’s really been a different approach from the administration to say, “We’re going to support staff in this development, as well as come alongside them and learn with them.”” (Episode 41)

In Henry County, GA, Bethlehem Elementary School principal Dr. Jessalyn Askew described how she helps teachers feel safe to take calculated risks in the classroom.

“I would definitely say, as a leader, you have to create a risk-free environment. Teachers are always concerned about their evaluation, and they want to do their very best. When you’re asking them to think “out of the box,” and you’re asking them to try something different, something that is foreign to them in a lot of ways, that’s just not the norm. They have to feel comfortable that if it isn’t perfect, you’re not going to hold it against them. That’s a huge game changer, for teachers to know that they can try the new work, and it’s okay if it’s not perfect. We’ll give you the support and continue to help you grow. But surely, the teachers have to feel safe in trying new initiatives.” (Episode 17)

Dr. Askew’s risk-taking disposition has not only transferred to teachers in the classroom, but she has seen it embraced by learners as well.

“The feeling that I truly can take a risk, and I’m not going to be penalized by it, I’ve seen the teachers share that idea with the students, and let the students know that they, too, can be risk takers.” (Episode 17)

Unlock time to maximize opportunities

Transformational work is messy. That message comes through in all our conversations. Compounding the messiness is the fact that there is a finite amount of time teachers, leaders, and learners have to do the work. How do learner-centered leaders unlock time to maximize opportunities?

Wendy Little, Director of Intersession and Community Learning at d.Tech High School spoke to us about how they unlock time for learners through their intersession program.

“So at the end of each quarter, we have a two-week intersession. This allows students to go deep in terms of studying…different industries or professions or electives for two weeks at a time. It allows the students to choose highly personalized and high-interest classes, without the year-long commitment of being in a class, every day, for a whole school year.

I found in guiding and connecting with students that it’s a lot easier for me to sit down and say, “Have you thought about this? Would you give it a shot for ten days?” I have found students are much more comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone where there’s this shorter commitment to time. They often find that they really do love what they’re learning.” (Episode 40)

At North Star, described as an “alternative to school,” learners have a high level of agency over how they utilize time. Ken Danford, Executive Director of North Star shared how the use of time is transformed in the learning environment.

“The main thing about learning in North Star is that it’s schooling upside down. It’s where adults offer classes to teens who can choose whether or not to attend them. There’s a lot of one-on-one tutorials which students request from adults. There’s a lot of time to socialize or just be present without doing what schools would consider academic learning.

The model allows teens full control over how they spend their time in the building. Many of the teens have homeschooling curriculum or requirements or things from their parents. Some of this they work on at North Star, and some they do at home outside of North Star.” (Episode 43)

Do learner-centered leaders lead differently? Absolutely. And, the Shift Your Paradigm episodes have led us to reflect on all the possible ways. From reframing transformation and redefining the role of teachers to supporting the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation, every community has the opportunity to adapt these insights for the specific needs of their young learners. As you await part two of this series, why not consider the inquiry that launched us down this path: If the transformation of education requires a paradigm shift accompanied by new learner-centered mindsets, how might leadership in your learning environment intentionally support the shift?

Learner-centered leaders help learners understand everyone’s journey is different

This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. My colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.

In Episode 41, we spoke with Travis Lape, Innovative Programs Director in Harrisburg School District (SD), Shana Wagers, Instructional Coach at Freedom Elementary School, and Landri, a young learner in the Freedom Elementary program.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders help all learners understand that everyone’s journey will be different.


A typical day in this public school starts with a morning meeting and includes reading, math, and content areas. Learners are grouped according to needs and not age. Groupings are labeled as Littles, Middles, Molders, Olders rather than second or fourth graders.

Learners may attend studios with students across multiple groupings. Learners flex based on where they are at in the learning continuum and what they need. Their learning journey starts where they are instead of with same-age level peers. This has allowed the flexibilty to move learners where they need to be during their school day.

This work started in the high school over 10 years ago. The educators looked at different schedules – blocks, modified, etc. But, they were looking for more of a college schedule with varying blocks of time to meet different learning needs. They developed a customized look for their learners.  For example, some learners might not need a whole year of Algebra 1. Through the early years, they determined they needed to rethink some ideas to make sure they were meeting all of the needs for all of their learners.

The high school now offers two paths – traditional and customized. In the customized path, learning is flexible. Learners control the pace – moving as quickly as works for them. Additionally, they can take more time.  Check points allow for the school to monitor progress.

Travis is thoughtful in sharing their learners express voice and choice. Learners use their creation devices – iPads – to determine how to communicate their learning. In the traditional path, learners may have more paper/pencil tests and move at the pace of the class. Teachers differentiate for learners.

In the elementary school, learners have set blocks of time. In the middle school, learners have greater opportunity to schedule their own courses. In a four block time, facilitators advertise their offerings. Middle school learners then schedule their day based on what they need. For example, students will advocate for themselves. If they have a conflict between a science lab and extra help for math, they work with the facilitators to solve the issues. The middle school use Personalized Learning Tools to facilitate this process. It takes six minutes for the process to occur.

The organization is making bold changes – such as implementing the tools to offer students opportunity to schedule their own day. The school also focuses on Habits of Mind and growth mindset. Learners recognize everyone’s journey will be different, and everyone is there to support each other. Learners work in mixed groups to learn the Habits of Mind.  Sometimes the best learning happens when one learner can explain it to another learner.

Landri shared how her voice contributes to learning. She reflects she and her classmate are working on different math tasks. While she is creating a Write About project after her Mastery Check, her classmate completes another task.  Learners choose how they want to show their understanding.  Learners are taught multiple productivity apps on their iPads.

What kind of leadership competencies do leaders need to have to do this work?  Leaders need to think differently about how they support staff and teachers. It is tough to tear down a system that has been built by others. This has not been a top-down initiative. A team observed other schools, identified strengths, and possible opportunities for change in their own system. Leaders and teachers are on the ground everyday. They have had to empower teachers to make decisions, even if those decisions don’t work. The leadership has to be flexible and feel the heartbeat of the facilitators to better support them.

As a result of that support, the teachers are encouraged to share their voices. Constant communication between leaders, facilitators, and learners is essential. Together, they figure out what can be put in place to improve. The leadership recognizes it is all a process to make sure it is done well.  Everyone in the organization has agency, and that is a big shift in terms of leadership. It can be uncomfortable for leadership as well as new staff members.

This learning environment puts differentiation on steroids. Facilitators learn quickly that in any one room, there could be learners across many standards. Faciltators need to better understand the standards across grade levels.

If teachers are not accepting the agency or invitation, how do you support and enroll them in the conversation? Engage in conversations, develop team norms and standard operating procedures. Facilitators may also need to support in content, math and reading, etc. The facilitators might have pacing and grouping questions or concerns. The leader needs to function as a go-to resource!

Is this shift systemic?  Starting to move forward. For example, Kindergarten has WIN – What I Need groups – 15 minutes, four times per day. Learners are grouped based on need in letter groups and math groups.

What advice would you give to other leaders? We did not get here alone. We encourage others to look at a lot of different models, and ask questions. Travis tells schools not to replicate Harrisburg’s program. Instead, schools need to look at their context critically.  Leaders also need to raise expectations because learners will meet them.  Travis also tells leaders to, “See it to believe it!”  Secondly, he tells leaders to engage in conversations with their your core team. Discuss what the team wants for learners when they leave. Systems are different. communities are different. And needs are different.

Leaders also need to know it is ok to make mistakes and fail. Struggles made this team better, even through the range of emotions – frustration and struggles. Reflect to make it better and the positive changes will keep growing.

Landri encourages learners to think flexibly if something doesn’t go your way. She also tells others to trust their facilitators because they know what they are doing.

The art of teaching and leading is being able to be fluid. This transformation is a long-term process which requires analysis of contextual factors. Learner-centered leadership shifts the agency and voice from the leader to those they are working within the organization. This process isn’t a straight line from point A to point B. Instead it is a messy curvy line with detours and failures along the way. Learners will understand every journey will be different. The norm is not that everyone gets the same and travels together. The norm is that everyone’s journey is different. As leaders, we need to be intentional about supporting our teachers, be on the ground with them, celebrate the positive/less productive risk-taking.

Connections to our Practice

  • Our elementary students learn success skills through the Leader in Me program.
  • We have a traditional path in our high school, even though students have options.
  • We have been working to support our teachers in our Project Wonder program at the middle school.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • Would two paths work in our system?
  • How would our learners feel about creating their own schedules?
  • How are we teaching Habits of Mind or growth mindset in our secondary schools?
  • Do our learners trust their teachers – that there learning experience is better because of them?
  • How could we scale Project Wonder?

Next Steps for Us

  • Take a look at the software scheduling tool. How could a tool like that support our work?
  • Consider running two paths simultaneously in middle school.

Learner-centered leaders are open and responsive to feedback

This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. My colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.

In this episode, we learned about Nautilus School with leader Milissa McClaire Gary and a young learner Andrew (AJ) from the Nautilus school located in Chicago.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders are open and responsive to feedback.


When asked what teaching and learning looks like in Nautilus School, Milissa shared there was significant collaboration to get their learning space ready for the learners. The curriculum, activities, and experiences are designed to meet what learners need academically and socially.

AJ described his day which begins with morning meeting and Daily 5. He participates in yoga twice a week, STEM challenges, geometry, enjoys recess and lunch in the dining room. and ends the day with wrap-up. AJ shared he has been learning about electric cars and will share what he has learned through an Animoto video at the school’s portfolio night.

Milissa was working with teacher teams in Chicago Public Schools, and worked to bring Nautilus to life. Through the work, observing classrooms and reviewing neuroscience research (including executive functions and mindfulness), Melissa determined the need to create a new school since current systems are not set up to support the most effective kind of learning and success. After planning with other community members, the school opened its doors in September 2018.

What is portfolio night?  Students developed two individual goals and learner-centered projects in the first couple of weeks of the trimester. The learners access their  neighborhood library and online classroom resources for their research. Portfolio Night is similar to parent conferences or report card pickup.

There are no letter grades at Nautilus, but there is a language that has been developed to indicate how the students are progressing towards their goals. Students then review their self-selected work in their portfolio. They present their videos also.

By the end of the year, the school hopes the students will be running their own conferences. To do this, Nautilus staff are working with learners on speaking and articulating their learning for parents.

The school is working to release agency in its learners. Students set goals for learning during morning meeting every day. Students use set processes to review their progress. Even on the parts of the day which are more free choice or play-based, learners determine what options work well in their space.  Learners complete self-checks and monitor how they are doing. Learners also use a free choice calendar, which was designed by the learners.

Nautilus is digging into open-walled experiences and shifting to a more learner-centered environment. They are currently thinking about assessment and how it will evolve. They are determining how they and the learners can articulate what they are learning.

Helping parents see school differently is important as Nautilus seeks to increase the number of students attending the school. Community members and parents are generating a buzz on social media. Word of mouth is spreading.

You cannot do this work by yourself; it has to be a collaborative effort. As a leader, Milissa does not hold all the responsibility of developing the school and generating all of the ideas. She uses her coaching background to engage the whole team in reflection while she learns alongside others. Leaders need to constantly have the eyes open for what lessons they are learning on a daily basis.

AJ reflects that Nautilus is a friendly time and place for kids to learn. He appreciates they have a class pet, a lemonade stand, yoga, and working with the teacher on Daily 5.  Some of the work is also different from his previous school. He notices there are fewer worksheets and more choice in his learning. AJ reflects on his learner-centered goal. He wants to learn more about electric cars, and has created an Animoto. AJ brainstormed about next goals, and pondered about learning more about his friends.

What advice do you have for learner-centered leaders? It is really important to partner with parents and  know kids deeply.

Connections to our Practice

  • We have done several surveys to seek input from learners, teachers, leaders, and parents.
  • We have elementary learners creating student-led conferences as an outcome of our Leader in Me process.
  • We struggle with deep parent engagement.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • Do we know our learners deeply?
  • Are we open and responsive to feedback?
  • What is our attitude towards feedback? Do we seek it out, or do we only accept it when we receive it?

Next Steps for Us

  • Talk with leadership team about venues for feedback. How can we truly partner with parents?

Learner-centered leaders place the agency in the hands of the learner and transform their learning environments

This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. My colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.

In Episode 43, we learned about an innovative learning environment – North Star Teens in Hadley, MA. with Kenneth Danford and a 15 year old learner – Nolan Saito.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders place the agency in the hands of the learner and transform their learning environments.


Norh Star is not a school – instead it is a learning environment. Most teens do choose to go onto college after attending North Star.

Adults offer classes and students decide whether or not to attend. There is significant 1:1 time, and opportunities are provided for teens to control how they spend their time, while some classes may look like a typical school in which an adult is teaching in the front of the room. In addition to participating in North Star, many of the teens are homeschooled.  

Nolan reflected that a major difference between North Star and school is that students set their own pace. He can study what really interests him at the pace he needs to go in order to absorb what he needs to absorb. Nolan participates in tutorials to cover math, learn Spanish and cover science. He does school work online with Khan Academy and reads books to learn.  

For many of the North Star teens, their learning is fluid, and there is not a clear line between what counts for North Star and what counts for homeschool. Students under 16 are homeschooled.  The structure allows for pursuit of motivation and passion and complying with state requirements.

North Star has about 60 learners and serves local teens in western Massachusetts. There are other sites – Princeton, upstate NewYork, Leesberg VA, etc. – serving local teens through the Liberated Learners Network.

How does North Star represent a learner-centered environment? North Star was born out of shifting tables from requiring students to complete specific learning experiences to inviting students to participate in learning activities. Ken and his colleague wanted to get rid of the assignments which were created by the teachers and required of learners. Instead, they wanted to put the control in the hands of the learner.

North Star supports learners with all of their passions. For example, Nolan is a dancer who practices 3 hours a day. He has always gotten up early to practice violin before school. Attending a traditional school makes it difficult to pursue these passions.

Community and people who volunteer to teach at North Star are diverse. Nolan participates in a class on Tuesdays called Essential Shelter. It focuses on architectural history. He participates in a Monday class – Guitar, Spanish, making boats. Other classes include math, making bread, making lunch, and how to listen to classical music. North Star also has a band, a theater group, and even debate class. Nolan reflects that students can think about a class, and it will appear. Students participate in the classes only if they are interested.

What are some leadership competencies which are needed to lead in this type of a learning environment? Ken first identifies the leader needs to treat the small program like a business. Funding, keeping the doors open, is a challenge.  This is true for other small non-profits. Leaders need to have a team ready to tackle the challenges of starting this small business. Don’t underestimate the seriousness and need of a team to start a small business.

Ken shares you have to be willing to take “no” for answer. You might create a class and students have no interest in participating. You have to be able to accept the “no, thank you!” If that is going to frustrate you, then this isn’t for you.

When Ken can suspend his judgement and agenda, the good stuff – respecting kids, watching them blossom and challenge themselves, make friends, etc happens! Ken’s job is to make sure North Star is a safe place for the learners. He is not in charge of making sure Nolan learns fractions or the periodic table.

No one gets turned away for financial reasons. Many families get a fee reduction if needed.  Ken then works with the team to raise that money through special events and fundraisers.

The biggest piece of advice Nolan offers to other learners or educators is to not be afraid of what you don’t know. Nolan has a cousin who was considering homeschooling, but he had reasons why this wouldn’t work for him. For example, he thought he wouldn’t be able to go to college. Nolan argues homeschooled learners can go to college. Fear of the unknown can hold people back from leaving school and broadening their mindset in a different learning environment. Short answer – Don’t be afraid!

Ken shared you need to trust yourself, and everything counts. Ken doesn’t propose everyone leave traditional school. Instead, he hopes that everyone knows they could leave traditional school, and North Star would be there to support them. He offers he attended traditional school, his kids attended traditional school, and many North Star siblings attend traditional school. If school is working, great. If it isn’t working for you, there is another way.

What is next for Nolan? He anticipates taking the GED test, and eventually attending college, although he is not sure when he will go to college. He has goals and knows he wants to stay connected to the arts in the future.

Learner-centered leaders release agency, transform their schools, and create new options!

Connections to our Practice


  • We have an online academy – which does allow students flexibility in terms of time for completing course work. Students could participate in athletics in the morning, and complete their online work in the afternoon. In this case, we are still controlling the content.

Questions Based on Our Practice


  • How do we listen to our learners and create opportunities based on their interests?

  • How often do we take no for an answer?

  • How can students earn credit for outside learning?

Next Steps for Us


  • Engage in conversation with the learners to talk about their learning experiences.

Learner-centered leaders know change permeates the whole system

This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. My colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.
In Episode 44 we spoke with Dr. Cory Steiner, superintendent in the Northern Cass School District in North Dakota. We learned about the audacious goals and vision, driven by their Profile of a Graduate, that are focused on creating a learner-centered school district. Northern Cass School District is a public school district located in Hunter, ND. It has 635 learners in grades PK-12 with a student-teacher ratio of 15 to 1.


Northern Cass has adopted audacious goals – including moving to a competency-based model by 2020. They offer big school opportunties in their small school system of 635 learners. They took  6-8 months to work with educators and learners on a 3-year transition which will eliminate grade levels, offer credit for learning beyond the day,  rethinking grading, and making sure kids move at a pace which works best for them.

Significant planning is in process to make this happen. They started several years ago with the Teacher Leadership Academy. Professional learning is a key compenent in this work. The District partnered with a local university to provide a masters degree aligned to the District’s vision. Administrators partnered with professors to teach courses related to District content. The school considered a school within a school model, but decided they wanted to do more for all learners.

Community engagement has been critical – using a personalized learning team (including learners) and a parent group. Engaging parents and community members in conversations around potential concerns (transcripts, credits, etc.) has helped build the vision and understanding while addressing various pieces.

Northern Cass recently developed a Portrait of a Graduate to guide this work- identifying eight areas (collaboration, communication, critical thinking, leadership, growth mindset, organization, accountability, and self-reflection.)  Every conversation focuses on how the work will support students being choice-ready to leave their school with the discreet skills and dispositions. Next year, the school will use the first 10 days at elementary and 6 days at the secondary level to directly teach the skills through activities designed to help students better understand the skills and ideas in the Portrait of a Graduate.  The POG is the guided pathway to getting to personalized learning.

Along the way, there have been high points and challenges. Cory shared about his Jaguar Academy – a school within a school – and how it really focused on pace.  Students quickly completed required courses and then moved to passion courses and internships. He reflected his kids are ready to own their own learning, and sometimes the adults need to get out of the way.  

The majority of the staff has embraced the idea of learner-centered, and believes they are doing the right things for their learners. Learner-centered is what is right, even though it is a heavy, heavy lift. Some educators have struggled with this change because the school district has to build its own system.  At times, there is stress because you have to build the system as you go and you don’t know what it will look like until you start doing it.  Also, there is always more work to do… revamp the curriculum, build in a learning management system, etc.  

Cory reflected on site visits to gain new ideas. While visiting and viewing these other learning environments, the educators could see what is possible. He knows Northern Cass’ learners are as capable as all other learners. He realized that the district has not given ownership to the learners. He realizes they have to do a better job of teaching the skills to the learners. While they have learned significantly from other districts such as Lindsay Unified and Harrisburg, Northern Cass has had to design its own original system.  Everyone’s context is different.  

Agency is at the core of this work. What does it look like in Northern Cass? How have the adults embraced the agency? Cory shared the teachers need to give up their control and know that it is going “to be ok.”  Controls such as tests, retests, etc. can be given up, and it will still be ok. Teachers are starting to let go some of those controls.

How have you as a superintendent reshaped the control? Cory has full trust that the people in the district will do what is right for their learners. He knows his staff truly care about the learners. The educators want their learners to have their best day every day. He trusts that teachers will work at a pace that works best for them. When teachers are not doing what it is needed, they may need more resources or time. Additionally, he has had to rethink his role in professional learning, reflecting on the best way to involve his own voice. Using teacher leaders for direct instruction on programs/initiatives and allowing time for professional conversation is often more important than leading the professional development.

Leaders need to be empathetic. We need to honor the work that our teachers do, and celebrate our successes. Leaders also need to focus on their why. What is your why and how does it drive your work every day and in every conversation? The why needs to become more than the a mission or vision.

Leaders need to find a medium area to let their runners run, and ensure every one makes an effort.

Leaders also need to be willing to fail. If you are going to try to do this work, you have to be willing to take the risks to do what is right for kids.  Don’t make excuses for doing what is right for kids.  People who are struggling in this system are people who don’t live in this system.

What advice would you give?  Stop waiting for things to be perfect before you start. Be willing to take small steps instead of waiting. Leaders also need to find a way to give up the excuse of not being able to afford it. Provide opportunities for teachers to see other people doing the work. When teachers believe it, they will do it. Let your runners go, and figure out what you need to do to support everybody else. The change permeates the whole system – teachers, leaders, clerical support, and parents.

To flip the system, we need to create agency throughout the entire system. Sometimes we may feel personal frustration, and we have to slow down and be empathetic. Trust and empathy are critical throughout the change process.  When we feel stress, it is important to have the conversation, be vulnerable and empathetic, and seek solutions.

Connections to our Practice

  • We have worked to build our Profile of a Graduate and learning beliefs.
  • We have provided two years to build a shared understanding – with runners and teachers who need more time.
  • We have developed a school-within-a-school model in our middle school.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • Does everyone understand our why statement?
  • How do we surface parent concerns?
  • How do we create action groups which include diverse stakeholders including learners?
  • Do our adults have agency?
  • Are our adults able and willing to give up control?
  • How can we better understand how others feel?

Next Steps for Us

  • Talk with leadership team about venues for feedback. How can we truly partner with parents?
  • How can we organize some more site visits?

What are your traditions?

This post first appeared in the PASA Newsletter.

A family-run tree farm is nestled on a small hill less than a mile from my house. As I sit and work at my dining room table, I watch the cars travel our country road on their way to the tree farm. Kids bundled in bright coats run and play in the rows of evergreens searching for the perfect tree to adorn their homes. Once I step outside, I can hear the laughter and joy as families make their selections. Once making their choice, they leave the farm, with their tree tied, wrapped, or even bungee-corded to their car’s roof.

I smile as I think about the traditions of the holiday season. Visiting families and friends, volunteering to support those less fortunate, a family football game after a holiday lunch, a snowtubing outing, baking grandma’s secret chocolate chip cookies, reading a diary on Christmas Eve to reflect on the year, shopping for those perfect gifts, etc. Each of us has our own personal and family traditions.  What are your traditions? What do you look forward to in the holiday season?

Now think about your school or district. What kind of traditions exist in your organization? Do you take some time during the school year to celebrate those around you and build your own organizational traditions or rituals?  Do you have opportunities for staff members to connect and build shared experiences and memories with one another?  For example, my colleague and I treat our administrative team members to a catered lunch as we take a few minutes to connect with each other during this festive time of year.  Our second grade students walk up the hill behind their school to visit our administration building, sing carols to all of us, and take a quick tour of our offices. One of Salisbury’s elementary principals always makes and serves breakfast for her staff on the day which staff returns from holiday break.  This gives her staff a soft start to their return to work as they catch up with colleagues and share their stories of the season. We have many traditions at this time of year.

Hopefully, traditions transcend the holidays in our schools and across our districts. At opening convocation, we start the morning with a district-wide breakfast where all staff have the opportunity to connect with each other, share their summer adventures, and celebrate the upcoming year.  Recently, we started a tradition where our schools host Thanksgiving lunch for our parents and community members. In our office, we serve a treat and sing to celebrate staff members’ birthdays.

What are some of your traditions? Do you have a regular gathering for  team-building? Do you have an annual all staff event or celebration? Do you have a potluck meal? Do you celebrate with recognitions? For example, we have a local district who has an annual gala to recognize award recipients. Do you have any traditions for new employees?

Why are traditions important? Traditions affect culture. In an August 2018 article – Workplace Culture: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Define it – the author shares, “Culture is the character and personality of your organization. It’s what makes your business unique and is the sum of its values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes.”

Does your organization have rituals and traditions? What are your school’s values and beliefs? Does everyone know and share the core beliefs? What do the interactions look like in your school or district? How do individuals behave in your organization?  How does everyone treat each other? What is the attitude of the faculty and staff in your organization? What would others say about your organization if they visited you and informally observed?

How do all of these factors – values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes – combine to create your workplace  culture? What data do you have which helps you and your team better understand your culture? What other data could you collect?

After we define our culture, we can reflect on our organization. Are you (and your faculty/staff)  satisfied with your culture? If not, what can you do in the new year to help build traditions and community and articulate values and beliefs?

Our families and professional staff really do look forward to these traditions with anticipation and excitement! I wish you an enjoyable holiday season rich with traditions and rituals, both personally and professionally.