Month: September 2017

Learner-centered leaders have an audacious, future-focused vision

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.

Lynn Fuini-Hetten and Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D


In Episode 9, we had a conversation about developing a positive student-centered learning environment with Dr. Cederick Ellis, Superintendent in the McComb School District in McComb, MS.

Key Competency

McComb School District “empowers students to change the world.”  Most of all , leaders in a learner-centered environment need to set an audacious vision. To work towards that vision, the leader needs to be invested, have a future-focused mindset for building something that cannot be seen at the moment, and plenty of patience.  Relationships with other leaders, teachers, students, and parents are critical in this journey. Learner-centered leaders need to rely on others and build passionate people around them to ensure everyone is on board for the journey to a learner-centered environment together.

Key Takeaways

McComb school district has an audacious vision and mission. The mission of the McComb School District is to become a premier, world-class school system where student success is inevitable and each student is cultivated to become a fierce competitor in a global society.

Learning spaces matter. Classrooms have been transformed into learning laboratories, and traditional grade levels have been eliminated. Each student has a personal learning plan. The teaching and learning environment also looks different. McComb has dynamic furniture so learners can feel comfortable and ready to learn where it is most appropriate. All students have a mobile device which is utilized to enhance instructional delivery.

What does a learner-centered environment look like at McCombs?  Student-centered teaching and learning is centered on 6 pillars. Students are grouped by readiness, assume ownership for their own learning, work at their own pace, show evidence of mastery, receive continuous feedback. In this model, teachers serve as teacher practitioners.

McComb knew the model they had was not working for students. The collective community wanted to personalize learning for every learner so that learning was more meaningful and authentic.

Learner-centered education affords McComb learners possibilities. Learners, or scholars as McComb calls them, can have more authentic opportunities to show what they know in various formats. Educators can provide importance to the students’ cognitive and non-cognitive for human behaviors. The scholars can develop an interest and motivation to learn.  This is more than differentiated instruction or blended learning. Learner-centered education also provides equity across the system – they system truly meeting the specific needs of all learners.

When transitioning to this learner-centered environment, the leadership has had to reflect and rethink some of its practices. Principals, or lead learners as McComb calls them, need to rethink how they allocate resources. The team has had to rethink how to administer professional development. Central office has needed to rethink how it serves the lead learners. That means the superintendent needs to meet with lead learners more and listen. All leaders need to reflect on what has been done and modify as needed.

Connections to Practice

Learners need to feel comfortable and safe in their learning environments. Some of our teachers have requested additional furniture to provide learners with some options. For example, some teachers requested standing desks. Our middle school staff spent a year researching and piloting a flexible learning space in order to better meet instructional needs.

We need to provide learners with opportunities for choice and voice, not only in what they learn, but how they learn it, and how they demonstrate their learning.

We have been thinking about developing our own lexicon.  McComb was very intentional about its vocabulary. The community is a community of learners. Teachers are teacher practitioners, and classrooms are learning labs. Using this vocabulary is important because it more accurately reflects the work and encourages people to shift their mindsets. The teacher practitioner needs to diagnose the needs of every scholar, and provide the proper prescription.

Many schools are using software which is designed to personalize learning. When selecting software, we need to be critical about what it does to enhance the teaching and learning. Does it provide for individualization? Does it differentiate for students? Does it personalize?  McComb uses Compass Learning to personalize learning for its scholars.

This process will take time and many iterations. We need to understand we will make mistakes, and we will improve as we move along this journey.  We need to be patient and engage our community in this meaningful process.

Questions Based on Our Context

  • How often do our students have choice in content and/or path for their learning? Choice in showing mastery of learning?
  • How could we group by readiness? Where do we already use that practice?
  • How often do our students receive feedback? What does that feedback look like, sound like, and feel like?
  • Is our system meeting the needs of all of our learners?
  • How do we do a better job supporting our lead learners (principals)?
  • How are we future-focused in describing/communicating our vision?

Next Steps for Us

  • Look at aspects of the organization through the lens of learner agency. And ask the questions outlined above.
  • Intentionally schedule time with learners to talk about the above questions.
  • Talk to principals about the supports they need. Add an agenda item to our monthly principal meetings.
  • Develop our own lexicon.

New Year… New Goals…New Expectations!

This post first appeared in the PASA Flyer – September 2017.

The temperatures are dropping and leaves are changing.  Summer is over, and fall is upon us.  This is a great time to finalize our personal and professional goals for 2017-18.  This year in Salisbury Township School District, my colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D. and I are expecting all Act 93 and contracted leaders to develop two significant stretch goals and one action research/passion project.  At our August retreat, we shared our goals as a model for our leaders.  Throughout the year, each of us will link evidence and artifacts that support the attainment of our goals.  At the end of the year, we will reshare the document with our Board for evaluation purposes.  
      Once everyone’s goals have been created, there are several questions to consider: How can Randy and I best support our leaders in the attainment of their goals?  How do we engage in thoughtful conversations about the action steps needed to complete the goals?  How might we encourage our leaders to take risks, reflect on their work, and embrace the iterative process? How do we carve out time for this significant work when the urgent, operational work looms overhead?   Recently, Google shared tools their managers use to support department members in goal attainment in the article – Google Is Giving Away Its Best Tools for Managers Absolutely Free.  I especially liked the “One Simple Thing” worksheet in which managers openly discuss non-work goals with their team members, and the 1:1 meeting agenda template in which managers create regular opportunities to provide feedback and guidance.  Both of these templates are easily customizable for your system in Google Docs.
      In addition to two stretch goals, our leaders are developing an action research/passion project.  Modeling the way, as our passion project, Randy and I are investigating competencies leaders need in order to lead a learner-centered environment.  To complete this research, we began a podcast – Shift Your Paradigm. Through this podcast, we are interviewing practitioners across the country who have implemented facets of Education Reimagined’s transformational vision.  Education Reimagined has published several resources to help us better understand a learner-centered environment. (Learn more in A Transformational Vision for Education in the US  or  It’s a Paradigm Shift. So What?)
     The first two episodes of our podcast are already available: Episode 1: What is learner-centered?, with Education Reimagined Executive Director, Kelly Young, and Episode 2: What is learner-centered leadership?, with Allan Cohen and Anya Smith. I hope you will join us on this learning journey.  There are some amazing leaders across the country who are truly implementing elements of the learner-centered vision. So much to learn!

Learner-centered leaders create culture grounded in the community’s vision, mission and beliefs about learning

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.

Lynn Fuini-Hetten and Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D

In Episode 8, we had a conversation with Dr. Suzanne Freeman, Superintendent of Pike Road Schools, and Ryan Kendall, a K-6 principal. We discussed developing a culture of learning grounded in the community’s vision.

Key Competency

Leaders create the conditions for those in the system to learn. They do this though a strong understanding of a vision, mission and beliefs about learning as articulated by the community.

In order to develop this vision as well as a shared understanding, leaders need to be open-minded and anchored in the school’s beliefs. What is right for the community? What is best for our students? Who are our students? Leaders need to ask, “Who is my ‘who’?  How do I design experiences that are both intellectual and for the heart?”

Leaders need to realize each other’s talents and leverage those talents for the greater good. Through openness and humility, the leader needs to engage in candid conversation to figure out what is best for students.

Key Takeaways

Leaders must engage the community when developing a vision and mission. Pike Road conducted eleven meetings with community members. During the meetings, leadership worked to help community members understand the possibilities. They asked, “What if…” questions. “What if your child experienced….?”  Teachers and leaders were also brought into the conversation, and they all worked together to breathe life into the vision.

Language matters. Pike Road Schools has changed its language to reflect a more learner-centered environment. Teachers are now lead learners, and classrooms are learning communities.

The school is developing lifelong learners where children own their learning. Students are encouraged to pursue their interests and passions and learn beyond their school community. A group of 6th grade students used donated sewing machines and learned how to sew. They used the sewing machines to make Bags of Love. Kindergarteners made homemade lip balm while they studied bees, and the lip balm was added to the Bags of Love.  The students then took the bags of love to a homeless shelter and helped serve a meal. Facebook posts and phone calls from parents to the school convey enthusiasm and excitement for these passion projects.

Learner-centered leaders acknowledge when things aren’t going so well. Dr. Freeman and Mr. Kendall shared that last year many classrooms were more teacher-driven, and this year there is more student voice. They have conversations about failure – everyone in the system is a learner. Leaders acknowledge that everyone has something to contribute and value. They celebrate both “mountaintop moments” – Wow! This is great! – and “valley moments” – This is messy, and not going right! Leaders have to keep each other going when things get tough through those valley moments. It’s not about being right – it’s about getting it right.

Conversations are characterized by candor with empathy.  While these conversations are often difficult, they are needed to determine what to do for the learners.

Connections to Practice

  • We are progressing along this journey. We need to affirm our successes and embrace our failures.
  • Visioning needs to occur with the full community (leaders, teachers, learners, parents, community members). We all need to be clear about direction and ensure everyone understands and embraces the beliefs.
  • Sometimes we have to go slow to go fast. We spent a year developing a vision, and a year building a shared understanding.  We now know we need another year to continue to build a shared understanding.
  •  While we know our learners, we need to better understand them so we can design experiences which will engage students’ hearts and minds. Learning more about personalized learning and understanding our learners will help us design more powerful experiences for our learners.

Questions Based on Our Context

  • How often do our parents get excited enough to call the school or post about their child’s learning on Facebook/social media?
  • Do our teachers and learners discuss failure?
  • What is our language? How do we want to re-shape our language about teaching and learning?
  • Do we have learners who are “obsessed” with their learning?
  • How do we work together to find opportunities for our students?
  • Are we planning or designing?

Next Steps for Us

  • Engage in conversations about agency, student choice, and student voice with the leadership team.
  • During monthly principal meetings, participate in walk-throughs where the conversation centers on the learning beliefs and the concept of agency.
  • Engage in conversations about failure and progress with teachers, leaders and learners.
  • Encourage principals to talk to students during observations. “What are you learning?”


Learner-centered leaders build mindsets and skillsets!

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.

Lynn Fuini-Hetten and Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D

In Episode 6, we had a conversation about competency-based learning with two leaders and a learner from Regional School Unit 2 (RSU 2) in Maine –  Bill Zima, Superintendent; Mark Tinkham, principal; Bryce Bragdon, learner.

Key Competency

In Episode 2, Allan Cohen describes transformation as a letting go of the past and creation of something entirely new -breaking from what has been done, not just improving it. In RSU 2, the leadership team has provided the space for teachers and learners to thrive in a competency-based system where diplomas are awarded based on proficiency. They’ve done this through a focus on building the mindsets and skillets of all stakeholders.

Bill suggests the role of leadership in this transformation: “My job is to set the right conditions in the right context. As superintendent, I’m trying to set conditions so the principals can work with the teachers to create what needs to happen inside the building.” Learner-centered leaders build mindsets and skillsets in ways that model the expectation for learning in the classroom. Bill later shared the “right conditions” include resources (budget, professional development time and structure) and mindset (supporting innovation and dialog, embracing a rigid philosophy but flexible thought).

Key Takeaways

Teachers and leaders in RSU 2 believe it is important to teach learners how to take advantage of a proficiency-based system. Learners are in contol of the pace of their learning – they can move faster or slower than their classmates. Learners have a tremendous amount of choice and voice. The capstone project was shared as an example of high quality learning in this competency-based system.

In RSU 2, all teachers and leaders are focused on cultivating hope in learners. Agency is defined as “the perceived ability of the individual based upon their capacity to shape their own future.” “Perceived ability” is the mindset. “Based upon their capacity,” is the skillset. RSU 2 believes in building both the mindset and skillset of every learner so they ultimately have the capacity (agency) to do whatever they hope to do. Students feel confident as learners because they have cultivated agency supported by strong mindsets and skillsets.

The biggest challenge for teachers is letting go of control. Teachers are no longer the sages on the stage, but rather facilitators, supporting students to build hope, deep thinking and agency connected to their passions.

RSU 2 supports teachers in shifting to the “letting go” mindset by providing proficiency-based professional development. Strong mentoring for teachers new to RSU 2 is also provided. Professional learning models learning throughout the system.

Another challenge shared by the leaders of RSU2 was shifting the mindset of parents. It’s important to meet parents where they are. Parent groups provide the opportunity to re-induct parents into the mindset. Parents begin to see proficiency-based learning as more constructive than the traditional model.

Connections to Practice

  • Agency is such a keystone in transformation. Who owns the control? Once again, we hear from our friends at RSU 2 that giving up that control to the learner is one of the greatest challenges. We wonder how much agency we are giving to our learners and our principals.
  • Many aspects of our professional development are proficiency-based. Certainly, they reflect the learning beliefs in many ways. Teachers and leaders provide feedback that supports this kind of design for professional learning.
  • From a leadership perspective, we feel we model the kind of learning we want to see in the classroom – active, engaged.

Questions Based on Our Context

  • How do we intentionally focus on agency as a key lever of transformation? What happens when learners and leaders resist agency? How do we overcome that?
  • What are our mindsets?  How do we need to help build the mindset for powerful, deep learning experiences in teachers?
  • How often do our teachers confer with individuals or small groups? Or is most of the instruction whole group?
  • While our professional learning models good learning practices, does it provide the opportunity for learners to embrace agency? To what level are they ready to do so?  How does our professional learning build and re-shape mindsets?
  • How do we create the conditions for more agency among our leaders?

Next Steps for Us

  • Engage in conversations about agency with the leadership team.
  • During monthly principal meetings, participate in walk-throughs where the conversation centers on the learning beliefs and the idea of agency. How does the conversation during the walk-throughs model and highlight the kinds of learning we would like to see in the classroom?
  • Engage in conversations about agency and mindsets with teachers, leaders and learners.

Learner-centered leaders create conditions for learner agency in all stakeholders

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.

Lynn Fuini-Hetten and Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D

In Episode 7, we had a conversation with Carrie Bakken, Program Coordinator and teacher at Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Riley Molitor an 11th grader at Avalon. Avalon School is a project-based learning environment.

Key Competency

Avalon School develops learner agency in both learners and teachers. Carrie said, “All students have these really incredible gifts in some areas, and things they are working on in others. Everybody is on their own plan.”  Learners are encouraged to learn about themselves as learners, and then design the work they want to complete throughout their education. While learners complete this work, teachers are learning alongside them.

Key Takeaways

Avalon engages learners in the teaching and learning process from start to finish. At Avalon, all of the work is tailored to the students’ interests by the students, demonstrating a commitment to learner agency. Students examine standards and determine how they will meet them. For example, students might design a project, take a class, or read a book. In our conversation, Riley shared some of the projects she developed. “Everybody’s experience is unique at Avalon,.” she shared.  Learners identify the standards, set goals for the standards, and evaluate their work. In addition, learners write a reflective narrative about their work and the process they engaged in to complete it. Through the completion of these projects, Riley learned about herself as a learner. She learned she is more of a “doing” learner.

Sometimes the learners are actually harder when assessing themselves than when the teachers lead the assessment process. Riley identified that self-assessment can be “kind of difficult”.  While some of the components of the assessment are what we might typically expect (on time, readable, proper grammar, etc), others require more thought and consideration about what the student has completed and how he/she has completed it. Learners also reflect on the question, “How will this impact your next project?”

Different from many other learning environments, Avalon is run collaboratively. There is no principal, and teachers’ roles evolve over time. The teachers are operating with agency and autonomy as they are both leaders and learners. Learners also have the autonomy to create programs, clubs, and internships. Through Avalon Congress, the learners develop rules for the school and operate as the legislative branch; the teachers are the executive branch; and the peer mediators are the judicial branch. The community shares the leadership across the organization.

Other competencies learner-centered learners need: (1) ability to collaborate with learners and teachers;, (2) curiosity, (3) being able to ask for and accept help, (4) manage time and distraction; (5) talk to community members and network outside the Avalon School.

It is expected teachers will  learn from the school’s learners. For example, Carrie indicated as a history teacher, she learned how to put together a computer! It is important that teachers be comfortable with not knowing everything, and be willing to ask questions. Teacher retention at Avalon is 95%. Carrie attributes this to the fact that teachers always have the opportunity to learn something new!  

Avalon is aware that it needs to fit into the framework for meeting the expectations of higher education, and students do receive a transcript. Additionally, learners are graded and complete state-mandated standardized tests.  

Connections to Practice

  • Every person in the organization is a learner in the learner-centered environment.  Teachers model this through their daily interactions with learners.
  • This conversation shows that learners need to be involved in planning, implementing, and assessing their learning. Reflecting on the process of completing the work is as important as doing the work!
  • A learner-centered environment creates relationships within and across the organization. In addition, learners need to develop the knowledge and skills to connect with community members. Through an advisory model, the Avalon teachers loop and advise learners for the years in which they attend the school. Working with the same learners each year helps teachers develop strong relationships with the learners and their families?  
  • Teachers need to be empowered to create experiences for learners and differentiate.  Providing autonomy to teachers keeps teachers fresh and motivated to learn.
  • Leadership needs to be shared between leaders, teachers, and learners. Creating structures for these opportunities develops a stronger learning community.

Questions Based on Our Context

  • Do our teachers and leaders model the way as learners?
  • What opportunities do our students have to network outside of school? Are they developing the skills to communicate and collaborate with community members?
  • How do our students tailor projects to their passions?
  • How do we engage student voice to the level of the Avalon Congress?
  • How do we develop more agency in our teachers?  What knowledge, skills, and dispositions do our teachers need to develop?

Next Steps for Us

  • Look at aspects of the organization through the lens of learner agency. And ask the questions outlined above.
  • Identify strategies for engaging learner voice.
  • Develop action plans to increase opportunities for real-world projects connected to learner passions.

Learner-centered Leaders have a Clear Understanding of Learner Agency

Episode 5

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.

Lynn Fuini-Hetten and Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D


In episode 5, we had a conversation on learner agency, real-world projects, community, impact, leadership and much more with leaders and learners from Iowa BIG. We spoke with Trace Pickering, Executive Director and co-creator of Iowa BIG, Shawn Cornally, lead teacher and co-creator at Iowa BIG, and Jemar Lee, a junior at the time of the podcast recording.

Key Competency

The thread that travelled through the entire conversation was that of learner agency. In fact, Trace describes its importance this way: “Learner agency is that secret ingredient, that secret sauce that unlocks the other four elements – competency, personalization, open-walled and socially-embedded.” Learner-centered leaders have a clear understanding of learner agency and the role it plays in shifting the paradigm from school-centered to learner-centered. Notice the “learner-centeredness” in these words used to describe learning at Iowa BIG: passion-driven projects, learning adapts to the learner, not driven by time, relentless about giving ownership to learners.

Key Takeaways

At the center of learning at Iowa BIG are projects tied to learner passions. Iowa BIG has strong connections to the community, and students have a pool of projects to pull from – more project opportunities than can actually be adopted by learners. (The school is located in an entrepreneurial/co-working space in Cedar Rapids, IA.) Jemar spoke of several projects connected to his passions of literature, US history, architecture and education.

Failures are not uncommon and expected as learners are learning. When encountering failure, learners pick themselves up, pivot and learn how to be better next time. If a project isn’t working for a learner (if it’s not a “Saturday project” – Would you get up and care about this project on a Saturday morning?), the learner will work with the advisor to find one that is more closely connected to a passion.

Why is learner agency so important? We paraphrase Shawn: Currently, students in school believe in their ability to act on their ideas 0% of the time and our ideas 100% of the time. Learners are being robbed of their agency in order to receive our content knowledge, much of which is useless to them. This needs to be reversed. The first step? Identify learner passions and interests.

Learners come to Iowa BIG with different ideas of agency. Some learners know they have it, and school hasn’t previously honored it. There are also learners who actively dislike or are afraid of agency. “It’s a really awkward feeling to have agency,” Shawn shared. Mentors at Iowa BIG struggle with students who are afraid of owning their own agency. There are several ways, systemically, that the school creates a culture of learner agency: (1) get rid of classical structures that “control” (i.e. grades, schedules, testing, traditional curriculum and standards); (2) alter language to minimize control structures – teacher becomes mentor; class becomes meeting time; lecture becomes seminar; (3) develop strong staff/student relationships and engage in 1:1 conversations with students about interests, passions, and projects; (4) create conditions for staff to experience agency so they know how to create conditions for learners to experience it.

The above are examples of how leaders at Iowa BIG are challenging assumptions about schools, rejecting those they can, and giving the freedom to those in the system to reimagine new assumptions. Some powerful questions learner-centered leaders ask: (1) What parts of the old system have merit? (2) What can they look like in a new learner-centered paradigm? (3) How do we rebuild meaningful structures around learner agency? These questions have a “design thinking” flavor to them. How would leaders, mentors and learners respond to these questions?

The toughest thing to let go of in a learner-centered environment is the belief the written curriculum is the only way learners achieve competency. “It’s arbitrary,” said Shawn. There is no one way that learners come to an understanding. Shawn shared, “Competency-based is not about focusing more on the standards. By not talking about standards, you unleash agency. All we care about is that they become passionate about a project.”

How does this work? Mentors have the standards in mind. When they see a connection to a learner’s project, proficiency is documented. Once learners understand how agency works, they are introduced to the appropriate standards. At the conclusion of every project, the mentor and learner hold a “wake” where standards are back-mapped. After standards are backmapped, students are allocated credit towards their transcript.

Regarding college transcripts: These leaders believe this is largely a made-up barrier. They have spoken with some regional colleges who want self-actualized learners. The question focused on at Iowa BIG: How can we help learners develop a resume that represents their deeper learning?

Other competencies learner-centered leaders need: (1) Embrace a complex/adaptive perspective driven by a vision for learning. Practice. Refine. Adjust. (2) The default answer is “yes.” Leaders create the conditions for mentors and learners to exercise the power they already have. (3) Recognize that each learner has a purpose.

Connections to Practice

  • This conversation shows that the process of change is not perfect. There are challenges along the way, nothing is perfect, and agency requires a lot of work.
  • Learner agency applies to everyone across the entire organization, not just learners in the classroom but leaders and mentors as well.
  • Focus on learner agency can be a high-leverage point for changing to a learner-centered school environment.
  • Leadership needs to be collaborative. When challenges arise, we need to support each other and view ideas from multiple perspectives.

Questions Based on Our Context

  • How are we creating the conditions to embrace ownership of learning – for older and younger learners alike? How do we identify passions and interests in our learners, mentors and leaders?
  • What command/control structures are squashing agency (in learners, leaders and mentors)? (i.e. grades, schedules, testing, curriculum and standards)
  • How are we as leaders creating space for learner agency for principals and mentors?
  • How does the notion of language changes fit into the context of our organization?
  • How would leaders, mentors and learners respond to these questions? (1) What parts of the old system have merit? (2) What can they look like in a new learner-centered paradigm? (3) How do we rebuild meaningful structures around learner agency?
  • What is the relationship of agency and trust? Without accountability systems will people feel the system has no expectation and fall into a routine of producing low effort? If so, what does this say about culture? Is agency more work? How do leaders demand a high level of agency?
  • How are we moving our mentors to let go of the notion that the written curriculum (or even the textbook) is the one and only way to achieve competency?
  • Are our students doing “Saturday” projects? If not, are they able to “join another team?”
  • How are we helping students develop “more than a transcript?”
  • If we want learning to be more social and more open-walled, what mechanisms do we need to put in place to generate a pool of real-world, community-based projects?

Next Steps for Us

  • Look at aspects of the organization through the lens of learner agency. And ask the above questions.
  • Develop a dialog around changing vocabulary in the organization.
  • Focus on creating the conditions for agency in school leaders for 2017-18.
  • Develop action plans to increase opportunities for real-world projects connected to learner passions


How do you frame transformation?

This post is the first in 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 the first two episodes of Shift Your Paradigm, our guests (Kelly Young, Allan Cohen and Anya Smith) helped lay the foundation for future conversations by helping answer the questions: What is learner-centered? and What is learner-centered leadership?

One of my takeaways from the conversation was the importance of language and the words we use to describe our practice. In Episode 2, Allen helped clarify the idea of “transformation.” Allan piqued my curiosity and challenged my own thinking when he described transformation as a kind of change where the form of something is altered. Transformation occurs when we let go of the past and create something entirely new. It’s about breaking from what has been done, not just improving it. (Go ahead, read those last two sentences a few times and think deeply about how they resonate with your current thinking about change in education.)

You may be thinking about some of these questions: How are we transforming education? How is the paradigm shift from school-centered to learner-centered leveraged to bring about transformation in education? What is the evidence of a transformation? What are the learners (young and old) saying about the learning? The “how” of the paradigm shift and the transformation of education is what we will be focusing on starting in Episode 3.

Once we’ve shifted our mindset, there is the actual work of transformation. And it is challenging! Leadership up and down the organization is critical, and we explored this topic in Episode 2 with Anya and Allan. Formal leaders working to transform learning first have to manage the dominance of the existing school-centered paradigm. Leaders can begin to cause something new to happen by introducing the new learner-centered lens into the culture of the school or district. Initially, they may sound crazy to those speaking the language of the dominant school-centered paradigm, and may not initially be heard because it’s disruptive to the dominant paradigm. Allan offered some valuable advice: listen more than you speak. Find the best opportunities to share the new paradigm. Then ask the question, “What are your concerns? What are you curious about?” The shift – and subsequent transformation – requires time, careful conversation and listening, not speeches.

In Episode 1 Kelly offers this advice to leaders embarking on the transformation journey and the paradigm shift : (1) be a learner; (2) approach it as a mindset shift; (3) listen and find your own answers relevant to your own community; do not try to replicate what others are doing. “There is no one way to be!” What will you need to rethink in your context? What will you need to let go of? And in Episode 2, Anya reminds us that our greatest untapped resource in this work is our learners. How do we see everyone in the organization as a learner and a leader?

Ready for the work of transformation – breaking from what has been done and creating something entirely new? If you haven’t listened to Episode 1 and Episode 2, head on over to or iTunes and join us on the journey! Come back soon for Episodes 3 and 4 where we begin uncovering the “how” of transformation in specific contexts, speaking to leaders and a learner from Alamo Heights Independent School District in Alamo Heights, TX.

What is your vision for learning? What does it let go of from the past? What does it create that is entirely new?

Connect with Lynn on Twitterand on the TLTalkRadio podcast!

Learner-centered Leaders Engage the Voice of the Learner

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.

Lynn Fuini-Hetten and Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D

In episodes 3 and 4, we had the opportunity to learn about learner-centered environments and leadership at Alamo Heights Independent School District in Alamo Heights, TX. We spoke with superintendent, Dr. Kevin Brown, and assistant superintendent, Dr. Frank Alfaro in Episode 3. In Episode 4, we spoke with Erick Castillon, a graduate of Alamo.

Key Competency

It was clear from our conversation with Kevin and Frank that learner-centered leaders engage the voice of the learner. We learned how Alamo Heights has created their Profile of a Learner and how students were involved extensively in this process. Learner-centered leaders treat learners as individuals, then design coursework that lays out a path to success aligned with the Profile. We heard this in Erick’s story.

Key Takeaways

Kevin and Frank spoke extensively on how they have focused on engagement. For quite a few years they have worked with the Schlecty Center to deepen their values around engagement. In order to design compelling learning environments where learners want to do the work, it’s important to understand the learners as individuals. This is done through learner panels and focus groups. Practicing close listening, qualitative data is gathered and used to design and redesign learning environments based on the individual needs and interests of learners.

This leadership stance goes beyond the classroom. Kevin and Frank shared that while initially the learner profile was focused on the classroom and listening to learners, they soon realized it applied to everyone in the organization. All stakeholders are valued as learners, engaged as learners and listened to as learners. This reminds us of an important component of design thinking – empathizing with the user. Design thinking is an important framework through which to deepen our understanding of learner-centered environments and leadership.

Along with gaining a deep understanding of stakeholders (learners) comes a flat organizational hierarchy. While there are formal titles, everyone is an individual with talents and strengths that can be tapped into when designing solutions to complex challenges. Everyone is a learner in the organization. Differences are valued as strengths.

Leaders in a learner-centered environment shape the conversations of the organization. At Alamo Heights, the conversation is focused on learning and the things they care about as communicated in the Profile of a Learner. Conversations around compliance occur (i.e. state accountability mechanisms), but they are overshadowed by conversations about learning and experiences for children.

Learner-centered leaders, through engaging stakeholders, have to learn to give up control to others. Building relationships requires vulnerability and an openness to letting ideas come from within the organization – this reinforces a culture of agency. Learner-centered leaders do not have all the answers.

At the classroom level, Erick’s story provides an example of engaged learning. Erick was successful in the rocketry program because it connected to his interests. He also shared that working on real-world projects was motivating, especially when he was expected to do most of the work of learning with support from his teacher as needed. The teacher provided the “what” for learning, but Erick was in control of the “how.” The classroom was a motivating and compelling environment for Erick because he needed to learn how to learn. That has served him well in two internships at NASA and in engineering coursework at the college level.

Time is used differently by learner-centered leaders. Kevin shared that leaders need to “get out where the game is being played.” This is a shift from traditional leadership paradigms where leaders spend much of the day in the office, behind a desk. Learner-centered leaders also make time to think and have enriching dialog around a vision for learning and how to translate that vision to reality. This often involves creating prototypes, gathering data and creating the next prototype rooted in the vision.

Connections to Our Practice

  • Listening to stakeholders – We seek out formative and summative feedback from a variety of stakeholders in the form of focus groups, surveys, conversations in professional learning sessions, coffee and conversation meeting, etc.
  • Our Profile of a Graduate has helped anchor our conversations around learning more frequently than before. Evidence of this is in the work with Leading #YourSalisbury.
  • Our organizational hierarchy in Salisbury is flat. As Kevin and Frank were describing what this looks like in Alamo Heights, we were making connections to what ours looks like.
  • We have also minimized the conversation outside of learning. While we complete tasks of compliance, we and our board do not hold them as the highest need. Those things that are valued most are indicated in our Profile of a Graduate.
  • We use our time differently than school-centered leaders. We are frequently out of the office and in our schools. We also engage each other in enriching dialog around vision and how to best translate that into reality. We are also learners – connecting with like-minded colleagues through state/national organizations, reading and producting two podcasts.

Questions Based on Our Context

  • How do we define enagagement? How do we use the engagement of learners to fuel change? How are our teachers, learners and students engaged?
  • How do we use feedback from stakeholders to redesign the map for change or redesign the next iteration?
  • Would a better understanding of the design thinking process deepen our understanding of the learner-centered paradigm?
  • What would it be like if we had more classrooms focused on real-world, authentic projects such as those described in these podcasts?
  • What if our leaders were more engaged in enriching dialog around learning? How can we better foster that?

Next Steps for Us

  • Engage in personal learning around engagement and design thinking.
  • Develop further opportunities to more deeply engage stakeholders in this work.
  • Determine how PBL can fuel our transformation and bring vision to reality.
  • Find formal and informal opportunities to engage our leaders (and all stakeholders) in conversations around learning (i.e. collaborative classroom walkthroughs, classroom spotlight segment on SFN-TV, community programs around the Profile of a Graduate on SFN-TV).