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.

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