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).
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