Learner-centered leaders approach transformation as a design challenge

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 11, we had a conversation with Salem City School (VA) superintendent, Dr. Alan Seibert and learner, Alayna Johnson. We talked about the complexities of bringing a learner-centered mindset to a system at scale, how internships and externships break down the walls of learning, and how learner-centered environments put less focus on grades and fixed response assessments and more focus on learning.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders approach transformation as a design challenge. Leaders “honor the complexities of our profession.” Analyzing all of the pieces of the complex puzzle, they determine how they best fit together to meet the needs of all learners. To do this, leaders need to model a growth mindset so they can engage in conversations and experimentation, but also get out of the way.

“We don’t have a people problem. We do have a design problem. We have people with a heart for children….We need a system to unfold the unique human potential of every child.”  ~Alan Seibert

Key Takeaways

Transformation is a journey of scale, moving entire systems to transform. If the goal is to personalize the learning experience for every learner K-12 in each of the schools, we need to help our policymakers and industry leaders understand personalization and competency-based learning.

Internships and externships are a common thread in transformation, representing the “open-walled” element. For example, in the early childhood program, some students have the opportunity to support learners in their previously completed courses, and others can actually work in elementary school setting.

Curriculum can be organized around the 16 nationally-recognized career clusters to help the learning become authentic.  Students begin academic career planning in 6th grade, and they begin to build their program of study.  Because children are interested in more discrete learning opportunities, the school is developing smaller unit, online elective courses  (with eDynamics) like The Holocaust, Women’s Suffrage, etc.

Transformation is slow and messy.  The people in a transforming system have a growth mindset – leaders and learners. Leaders have to shift mindsets and engage resources. For example, Salem engaged leaders in the Chamber of Commerce.

Transformed systems give up age-old thinking around grading and standardized, fixed-response systems of assessment. There is more focus on learning and competency. To do this, we need to think critically about some of our practices.  Using formative assessment, providing feedback, and attacking power standards will assist in the movement of the system towards transformation. We need to rethink grading practices and adjust procedures and policies for varying content areas and grade levels. Instead of working on policies, we need to reshape grading philosophy. Salem even revisited its class rank policy. There is no longer class rank in Salem; instead they honor every distinguished scholar who earned a 4.0 GPA or higher.

Thinking about ideas as tiles in a mosaic, some will need to be popped in an out. Tiles might include technology, grading practices, professional learning communities, and project-based learning. Technology can help to systematize – improve efficiency and communication or personalize. For example, at the middle school, there is a math teacher who has redesigned instruction to include individualized computer lessons coupled with conferring and self-paced assessments.  Each learner sets the pace of the instruction.Project-based learning can help students gain voice and choice in their learning.

Connections to Practice

As a small school district, the size of many schools, we feel that we can transform the system, given the time and resources. Transforming an entire system is challenging since there are many more moving parts than in a classroom pocket of innovation.

We really connect with the idea of creating authentic learning opportunities within and beyond our school walls. We are thinking critically about how we can design these learning experiences. How can we create internship opportunities for our learners?  We know we will need to navigate some of the same barriers that Salem experienced – time and logistics.

Questions Based on Our Context

  • What are the common challenges of changing an entire system and changing pockets of the system?
  • What are reasonable expectations for the first year of an externship/internship program? How will we involve our learners in defining these opportunities?
  • What are the particular challenges to internships/externships within our context?
  • How do we better engage with our Chamber of Commerce?
  • In what ways do we model a growth mindset? Are their fixed mindset practices we need to eliminate?
  • In what areas do we continue to view education as the transmission of information? Where do we need to focus our efforts an enrollment?
  • Why is transformation slow and messy? Have we identified explicit reasons or factors particular to our context? How can we address them?

Next Steps for Us

  • Engage in conversations with leaders, learners, and teachers to explore the above questions.
  • Have we clearly articulated the components of the system we need to transform? Which components, once shifted, will unlock other parts of the system to move us more rapidly toward an authentic learner-centered environment?
  • Engage students in designing internship/externship programs. Also, tap into our Chamber of Commerce.

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