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?
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