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



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