Month: November 2017

Learner-centered leaders align every decision, purchase and hire to the needs of learners

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 18, we had a conversation with leaders and learners from Lindsay Unified School District in CA. Barry Sommer, Director of Advancement; Amalia Lopez, Curriculum and Instruction Specialist; and Lewis Cha, learner, shared a snapshot of learning in Lindsay through the lenses of both the learner and leader. The highlighted the importance of leaders providing time for transformation to occur, the value of stakeholder buy-in to the vision, the centrality of agency and competency, the importance of a common lexicon as the foundation for cultural shifts, among other learner-centered topics.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders begin and stay with the learner at the center of the work. They align every decision, every purchase, every hire to the needs of the learners.


We started the conversation by talking with a learner, Lewis. He shared, in Lindsay, learners are provided the space to learn at their own pace. For example, Lewis was able to move to the next level of math when he finished one target. He also talked about the valuable learning experience of his year-long engineering project in which his group engineered a sustainable shelter for the homeless. In addition to designing the structure, the team constructed a mock up building. Finally, he highlighted Lindsay encourages learners to develop their own passions. Students are encouraged to aim for the best and complete targets.

The transformation journey requires extensive time and conversations. Back in 2006, Lindsay reflected critically on the district’s work. Graduates were struggling, and assessment scores were decreasing. As a result, Lindsay organized councils of diverse stakeholders to develop a Strategic Design for Lindsay. As a result of asking many questions and listening to many stakeholders, the district created a blueprint of core values with an emphasis on life-long learning. The Strategic Design will not change – instead it is a foundational document which the district constantly checks its practices against and applies to current context.

Lindsay works diligently to provide all of its learners with a personalized path. The planning and implementation team initially focused on competency-based learning and learner agency as they rebuilt the culture of learning.

What does open-walled learning look like in Lindsay? The district is now making strategic moves to emphasize open-walled and socially embedded learning. The district has provided devices for all learners, developed district-sponsored community wifi, built learning labs, incorporated socially-embedded projects, and created community internships for alternative education learners in support of the open walled learning component of the vision.

What has Lindsay given up in this journey? First, they had to erase time structures. Grades of A-F no longer exist, and grades are no longer averaged. They shifted focus from academic proficiency to life-long learning. In addition to grading, they changed how they use space. All of the initial changes emphasized cultural shifts.

At the early stages of transformation, Lindsay changed their lexicon. Students were referred to as learners. Teachers evolved into learning facilitators because they no longer are the sage on the stage. Schools are now learning communities. Common language created a foundation for the shift.

Mental shifts were also required from early on. Everything was new and different, and this required a mindset shift for everyone. What does it mean for the teacher who is no longer the stage on the stage, but now a facilitator?

In addition to mental hurdles, structural and systemic hurdles needed to be overcome – bell schedules, transcripts required by the state.

The district takes the same approach to personalization when working with parents and learning facilitators. For example, the site adminsitrators support learning facilitators with personalized professional learning.

Sessions for parents are offered and networks are developed so parents can better understand how new assessment systems work.

Before mindsets can be shifted, issues must be brought to the forefront and addressed. Consistency is key. Transparent feedback loops need to be developed while addressing mindset shifts. Failure is a predictable and inherent part of all learning. Learners need to feel comfortable both giving and receiving feedback. Barry shared, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” This pervasive attitude cultivates a growth-oriented mindset.

It is essential to promote leadership roles for all stakeholders. Whether a learner leads within a project or outside of the classroom, everyone is expected to lead.

Barry shared some competencies for learner-centered leaders. Learner-centered leaders are future-focused visionaries who engage in deep listening, serve first, over-communicate, take risks, improve continuously, self-assess, and challenge each other.

Amalia encourages us to begin and stay with the learner at the center of the work. We need to align every decision, every purchase, every hire to the needs of the learners. Learners have needs that we don’t have structures to support. We have to build this as we go. We cannot waiver from what is best for the learners.

Barry reminds us this work is heavy lifting. We need to remember to bring stakeholders, including learners, to the table to have these conversations.

Lewis reiterates the importance for transparency with the learners. Make sure the learners and their parents know what is going on in the system.

Connection to Practice

We are encouraging teachers to develop projects and learning experiences in which students develop collaboration skills. We believe project-based learning can be leveraged to enact our learning beliefs in practice.

Building a shared vision is critical. We provided opportunities for our stakeholders to provide input into our Profile of a Graduate. How can we better engage stakeholders in the on-going process?

We have made significant investments to remove the barrier of access for our learners. All learners 6-12 have access to a MacBook Air which they may take beyond the school walls. K-1 learners utilize a personal iPad, and learners in grades 2-5 have a personal MacBook Air to use in our schools.

This work is indeed heavy lifting. Transforming requires us to push previously-valued ideas to the side to make room for new and better ideas.

Everyone in our organization is a learner, and we are seeking the development of leadership in all of our stakeholders. Both of our elementary schools are Leader in Me schools in which the learners live Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits.

We need to be trusted critical friends for each other. Providing transparent, honest feedback is essential to moving forward in a more learner-centered system. How can we hold someone’s hand to move forward with this difficult work?

Questions Based on Our Context:

  • How many of our learners do not have internet access at home? We are currently investigating piloting a wifi hotspot program to supplement our learners’ resources at home.
  • How do we cultivate a culture of transparent feedback?
  • How are we consistently sharing this message?
  • How do we root all decisions in what is best for the learner?
  • What do we have to “give up” or push aside to make room for the new?
  • Do our learners, teachers, and leaders have critical friends?

Next Steps for Us:

  • Develop our own lexicon for the district.
  • Engage in conversations with our principals and teachers.

Learner-centered leaders provide powerful learning opportunities

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 16, we spoke with Roger Cook, superintendent of Taylor County schools in Kentucky, along with 3 learners – Weston Young, Lexi Raikes, and Lauren Williams – about learner-centered opportunities in Taylor County and their innovative 24-7 performance-based education school, Cardinal Academy.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders provide powerful learning opportunities.  They listen to their learners to find out what they need. Then they identify a way to create a program or other structure that supports the learners’ needs.


The superintendent, Roger Cook, seeks to provide success for all of his learners. Regardless of what the learner needs, he finds a way to provide an opportunity. This can look very different for individual learners, as it should, but he consistently engages in non-negotiables when addressing a learner’s challenge. In Taylor County, no one is allowed to fail. If a student wants to drop out, he/she needs to sit with Roger and talk about why he/she wants to drop out of school. Roger Cook is proud of the District’s 100% graduation rate! “If a teacher fails kids, the teacher is failing me.”  Not only are all current seniors graduating, but the District has also graduated 16 learners who dropped out of school in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Cook developed a six-spoke “Wheel of Learning” that allows teachers and students to chose the instructional style they prefer for each subject. The spokes are:

  1. Traditional: typical teacher-directed learning and lecturing
  2. Self-paced: a flipped classroom approach, in which teachers develop video lessons that students can access anytime, and then complete coursework on campus
  3. Project-based: students focus on applying knowledge to real-world situations
  4. Peer/group-led: Teachers facilitated group work that allows students to teach and learn among another
  5. Virtual: classes offered completely online from an outside vendor
  6. Cardinal Academy: a group of advanced students who don’t have a class schedule or assigned teacher, but instead have standards to accomplish on a daily basis that they decide independently how to complete

Learners in Cardinal Academy need to be proficient on the state standardized tests,  and demonstrate responsibility and discipline. Applicants are interviewed before enrolling in the Academy.  Before graduating, Cardinal Academy learners are required to complete a culminating community project. Learners shared they appreciated the agency they have over their time in the Cardinal Academy. Learners can manage their schedules to earn college course credit.

Opportunities abound in Taylor County. Everybody has a 1:1 device and can utilize it it to engage in self-paced learning. The District realizes some learners still prefer and a need a traditional approach to their education. In the traditional path, the students learn with a teacher in a more traditional, blended school model. Examples were shared during the conversation pertaining to a student-led bank and grocery store, students earning their flight credentials, and career/technology education (welding, cosmetology and agriculture). Regardless of student interest, a program exists at Taylor that can be personalized to student passion and interest.

STARS – Students Teaching and Reaching Students – The district is building student leadership through Cook’s Kids in the STARS program.  Currently there are 350 students teaching and reaching other students. The STARS earn credit by supporting the learners who need extra help.

To create these opportunities, Taylor County had to readjust some attitudes.  For example, they don’t give learners zeros as they overcame the notion of giving up on learners. No zeros. No failures. No dropouts. No excuses. Dropout prevention Specialists will meet with students 1:1 to talk about barriers to learning. If students are not working diligently in class, they are pulled out of class for a conversation with the Dropout Prevention Specialist.  

Teachers and school leaders need to look at every student every day and help to keep them in school.  As the leader of the organization, Roger holds the teachers responsible for living this mindset. He truly values learners. “If you trust kids and you give them responsibility, they will perform.”

The learners shared their perspectives on learning in the rigorous learner-centered environment. Having more agency over the learning environment requires a strong, and sometimes different, skill set.  The learners in Cardinal Academy need to learn how to be highly effective in time management, realistic about what they can achieve, and how to prioritize their learning goals and study time. The students reflected that working with an individualized schedule supports future work at college.

Leaders also need diverse skills to be effective in a learner-centered learning environment. To Roger, it is easy. Listen to the kids. Be compassionate. Be interested in your kids and see what it takes to make them successful.  Get the staff to listen to kids every day.  Be open-minded. Instead of thinking outside the box, throw away the box. Support teachers as they try something new. If something is not working, find out why and fix it.

Professional learning is a critical component to the evolution of this district. Students are dismissed at 1:00 every Friday so teachers can engage in professional conversations and learning. If students are unable to go home, the STARS students will provide additional tutoring.  Providing alternatives and options helps learners get what they need.

Connection to Practice

Our teachers have significant professional learning time. By contract, teachers complete nine full days of professional learning.  Of the nine, two are choice days in which teachers have significant autonomy over their learning. Are we making effective use of the days? How do we know?

As a result of our 1:1 digital transformation, our learners each have a device which can be used to access resources, collaborate, create, communicate, etc.  How can the tool support our next steps in developing a learner-centered learning environment?

Our graduation rate is very high, but as leaders at the top of the organization, we are not consistently engaging with those learners who are considering dropping out of school. Should we have a process for engaging those learners and their families?

Questions Based on Our Context:

  • Will we get to the point where we maintain the “traditional spoke” and yet have much more to offer?
  • How do we support our leaders as we implement this vision?
  • How can we build student leadership?
  • How can we release agency to our learners?
  • We believe we are supporting teachers in taking risks. What would our teachers say?

Next Steps for Us

  • Engage in conversations with our teachers about learner agency and risk-taking.

Learner-centered leaders understand the critical importance of learner interests

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 15, we had a conversation about personalizing learning through internships based on learner interests; and the power of relationships with leaders and learners from Big Picture Learning and Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in Bronx, NY. We spoke with Dr. Andrew Frishman, co-executive director for Big Picture Learning; Naseem Haamid and Terrence Freeman, learners at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School.

Terrence shared examples of extended learning opportunities – internships and panels.  Naseem shared his transition from learning what teachers wanted him to learn to learning about what most interested him.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders provide opportunities for their learners to develop their passions.  They keep the “students at the center, but practice at the edges.”   How do we design a set of classroom experiences that compliment that? A school that supports educators who do that? An evaluation system that determines who is doing that well? Learner-centered leaders understand the critical importance of learner interests in designing deep, powerful, learner-centered opportunities that shift life outcomes and trajectories.

Key Takeaways

Learners need diverse opportunities for growth. For example, Naseem learned to dress more professionallly, communicate professionally via email and network through his internship in Madison Square Garden. These opportunities provide motivation for additional leadership opportunities. Through this experience, and a subsequent internship, Naseem worked towards visioning his future and developing the skills needed to realize it. He tells us he wants to be President of the United States.

Learners will have to adjust to a new environment with new expectations. For example, the development of a portfolio requires learners to write more effectively. This transition may be challenging for some learners.

Big Picture Learning schools are designed for learners who are interested in pursuing their passions. BPL schools are organized around progressive ideas – connecting to young people’s experiences/interests. Learning through interest creates a pull and reward for learners.  Learning is about relationships, and as people we are biochemically connected. Learning requires practice.  Bridging these three ideas – interests, relationships, practice – creates a unique learning environment.

Advisors need to understand students’ interests and passions. Naseem and Terrence really value the mentoring program. The advisors put the learners in a position to succeed, learn more about themselves as learners, and grow. In a Big Picture Learning school, the learners learn from the advisors, and the advisors learn from the learners. Learning happens within and beyond the school, and advisors recognize that.

Naseem encourages teachers to take the time to really learn about the students, and see something in the students that they don’t see in themselves. Terrence encourages teachers to regard individuality. Students should not be on the same pathway, and will not meet the same expectations. Students are not machines that will just mechanically produce.

Connections to Practice

At Salisbury, we are investigating implementing an internship program. We are actually going to start with some internal internships. We are creating a Social Media Intern and a Design Intern. What will this look like for our learners?

We are talking about developing digital portfolios with our secondary schools. Our specialist teachers in our middle school have worked with all middle school learners to create a digital portfolio using Google Sites. Content area teachers are also using the sites to show the students’ work. In the high school, some teachers are tinkering with WordPress sites, but it is not yet systemic.

Learners can help us determine what is necessary in our schools/systems. How can we leverage #stuvoice to learn more about what is possible in our context. We are working with superintendent advisory groups in each of our buildings. How do we connect more with learners?

Questions Based on Our Context

  • What barriers to change exist for us, and how can we push through them?
  • How do we increase opportunities for learners to connect with their passions?
  • How do we leverage our community to determine what is possible for Salisbury learners?
  • How are relationships different between advisors and learners in a learner-centered environment as compared to a school-centered environment?
  • How do we become more sensitive to listening to learner voice – the users of our educational system?

Next Steps for Us

  • Engage in conversations with our learners to better understand the disconnect between what learners do in school and what learners do outside of school. How do we bridge that gap?

Learner-centered leaders are intentional about what is being given up in the transformation

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 14, we had an engaging conversation with Sonya Wrisley, Neel Pujar and Stacey Lamb from Design39Campus in CA. There were lots of takeaways as we listened to the story of designing a school to creating the conditions for intentional conversations about what to give up from the old school-centered model. One of the most significant parts of the conversation had to do with the intentionality of letting aspects of the school-centered system go.

Key Competency

When working with a small team of leaders and learners to design Design39Campus, principal Sonya Wrigley created space for the team to have intentional conversation about aspects of the school-centered system to let go. Learner-centered leaders are intentional about what is being given up in the transformation. Here is what they discussed letting go: control and power, teacher isolation, territory, traditional classroom spaces with “stuff,” learning only happening at a desk, homework for homework’s sake, grade level boundaries.

Key Takeaways

It takes time to create a sustainable vision for transformation. As principal, Sonya worked on this for two years. She researched other school models around the country that exemplified key principles – a school designed with the learner in mind, collaborative community, design thinking, global connections, inquiry, technology and other real world tools, and a growth mindset poised to change the world.

Learner voice was a key factor in the development of the school. Through a design thinking model, learners were asked, “Why are schools built the way they are?”

As they engaged in the design thinking process, they thought deeply about what to let go of during this transformation:

  • They wanted to reduce the isolation and concept of territory. Teachers (learning experience designers) would not have their own classrooms, and Sonya would not have her own office. Instead they created community learning spaces for learners, and the open collaboration areas became design studios.
  • They thought intentionally about traditional school-centered spaces and how they needed to be modified for this new school. Teachers were asked to “dump their stuff.” Instead, they created “makeries” by contributing all of their “making” supplies to the learning community. Classroom books were moved to the loft so students could borrow resources which interested them.
  • Giving up control was one of the biggest challenges. Teachers gave up the position of power or being a sage on the stage. Learners have knowledge, and the learning experience designers can learn from them, too.
  • Traditional school-centered seating was also abandoned. Learners didn’t have to be seated at a desk to be learning; learning takes place everywhere from hallways to community learning spaces.
  • Homework akin to doing 20 math problems was no longer acceptable. Instead, homework was completed when the learning naturally extended beyond the school day because learners didn’t want to stop what they were doing.
  • Grade level boundaries evolved into learners learning at a pace that was appropriate for them.

While engaging in the design and implementation, the team mitigated some barriers. They had to learn to trust the community – including their colleagues. Team members needed to rely on each other because no one person can do this work. The team reflected on its work continuously, made modifications and will continue to assess their work.

They needed to shift mindsets and perceptions – particularly in the parent and school community. Everyone needed to understand this is not the school they attended in the past.   Design39Campus conducted design workshops prior to and during the school year. About 100 people attended the sessions and talked through the ideas. Parent tours were conducted to help parents experience the learning environment.

If they wanted to change the way they thought about something, they had to change the way they talked about it. In addition to classrooms becoming learning spaces, the administration building was referred to as the welcome center.   The shift in language helped the community understand the differences.

Design39Campus discovered the more voice/choice learners have, the more agency. Learners take control of their behavior, thoughts, and actions. They take control of themselves, and changes are evident. For example, issues on the playground have decreased as a result of learners taking control, solving problems, and taking leadership – even in social situations. Learners are empowered with trust and ownership and they then want to make their learning space the best space possible.

Shifting the paradigm of education is not easy and it is not quick. It is hard work. In education, we need to build empathy for one another. We need to listen to understand where others are coming from in their thinking.

Design39Campus team members shared advice with our listeners. They encourage us to start small and make some changes with the learners in our schools. They encourage us to let go of control and share the leadership. We need to encourage teachers to fail forward and fail fast. The environment has to support this with strong trust.

Connections to Practice

  • The design thinking process is woven through this experience. We have been iterating our professional learning over the past few years. We have also iterated leadership team meetings and goals. Where else can we iterate? Where can we start?
  • It is essential to develop trust across the organization in order to provide the space for risk-taking and failing. As leaders, we need to be explicit about this expectation. How well are we communicating this across the organization?
  • To shift our mindset, we need to intentionally shift our vocabulary. As we learn and talk with other practitioners, our language is evolving. We will work with our Leading #YourSalisbury professional learning cohort to develop our own lexicon.
  • We need to provide opportunities for collaboration. Teachers work in PLCs through grade level teams, departments, etc. What structures do we have in place to encourage collaboration? How can we best support out teachers and leaders when they are working in these groups? How can we engage their voice and choice to cultivate ownership?

Questions Based on Our Context

  • Why are schools built the way they are?
  • How can we more effectively engage our parents/community through school visits?
  • What can we give up? Who needs to be involved in these conversation?
  • How do we build empathy for one other?

Next Steps for Us

  • Consider the above questions
  • Identify areas we can “give up”
  • Identify a strategy for getting started on our lexicon