Learner-centered leaders create the space and provide the supports for learners to solve their own problems

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.

Episode 19 takes us to NH and the MC2 charter school where learning, knowledge, assessment and community operate at the core mission of the school.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders create the space and provide supports for learners to solve their own problems.


Learners are key partners in the learning process. At MC2, advisors help learners understand their personal passions, learning styles, strengths/challenges, and interests both explicitly and implicitly.

In MC2, learners are connected to their communities and learn through learner-identified community issues and problems, and they seek to add value.

The learning environment at MC2 is designed to ensure that all learners have the capacity to function in any learning environment. Everyone is a learner (including advisors – or teachers), co-learning with younger learners. If a learner proposes inquiry on a topic the advisor may not have content knowledge in, the advisor and learner become co-learners, engaging ever-important skills in how to learn.

The four elements – learning, knowledge, assessment, community – are intertwined. For example, during a defense of learning (which is an assessment), community members are involved in providing feedback to the learning process and knowledge acquired. MC2 uses rubrics to measure their 17 habits of mind such as curiosity/wonder, organization, critical thinking, etc. Each habit has a rubric – scaffolded progression of the habits – from emergence to lifelong.

Competency is represented at MC2 in phases (instead of grade levels) – Phase I, II, III, IV. Learners develop a gateway portfolio and deliver a gateway presentation to move to the next phase. There are no time constraints on any of the phases. Learning is broken down into phases: designing, constructing, applying, documenting, defending. Portfolios and exhibitions are a part of the defending phase.

MC2 has framed transformation through several ways:

  • assessment (as described above in the gateway process on school-wide rubrics for habits)
  • authority/control – Where does authority stem from, and what does it say about relationships?
  • expertise – Who is the expert, and how do we recognize the expertise of community partners who are applying discipline knowledge in practical ways?
  • Assignments are assessed and given feedback to make the project better. This goes beyond simply grading as is done in the traditional grading system.

Things that don’t make sense are let go! MC2 let go of grades and grading. They recognize though, when you let go, other structures need to be embedded to support the transition from what they know to a new way of working.

MC2 did experience some barriers to transformation: unlearning from the old paradigm – recognize, unlearn, relearn; parent involvement in the learning of their children; helping learners understand how to manage up. Challenges become lessened as the the culture grows and they build sustainability. They are working to develop the mindset that learners do well if they can; not if they want to. This is important distinction for advisors and learners to understand.

Learners are leaders, but there are distinctions between being a leader and exercising leadership. Leadership means taking responsibility for what matters to you. We all have the opportunity and responsibility to exercise leadership. MC2 works to develop the habit of leadership through explicit opportunities in which learners exercise leadership through their strengths. For example, students may lead their own discussion in an English course. Students are required to take on a leadership role, and MC2 does not articulate when, how, or where that happens. While some students may lead from a stage, others may lead behind the scenes by supporting peers. Another way learners exercised leadership is through the development of a Learner Bill of Rights which articulates the learners’ rights and responsibilities.

A compelling mission and vision for learning is important but should be tempered with humility. We are all learners and we are all curious. We need to stick with it, but also be able to step back and reflect on our work. Leaders work to develop the skills and capacity for empathy in learners, teachers and the community. The curiosity and humility factors are important in building a skill for empathy. Additionally, leaders need to step back and listen. If leaders create the space and provide the supports for learners to solve their own problems, learners will solve their own problems. The more they solve their own problems, the greater competence they feel to take action in their own world.

Connections to Practice

We have identified clear skills for our learners through our Profile of a Graduate. Should we consider developing a district-wide rubric for each of the skills? What process would we use to develop those rubrics?

As we move towards personalization, we nee to get to know our learners. How well do our teachers know their learners? Do we encourage teachers to find the time to get to know their learners. What community-building and intrapersonal activities do our learners do throughout their years.

Our elementary students are Leader in Me schools. How do we build structures for our K-12 students to understand leadership and grow in those skills?

How could we connect the Learner Bill of RIghts in our district? What would our learners articulate as their rights and responsibilities? Would our teachers and leaders agree? What process could we utilize to develop this powerful tool?

Questions Based on Our Context:

  • How do we model being co-learners engaged in inquiry with our younger learners? How do we model learning?
  • What conditions do we set in our organizations to promote learning up and down the organization?
  • What do we explicitly do to learn about our learners – assessment of learner strengths and needs?
  • What mechanisms do we have in place that send a message of authority and control?
  • What if we provided the opportunity for our learners to design a Learner Bill of Rights?

Next Steps for Us:

  • Talk with Superintendent Advisory Council about the Learner Bill of Rights?
  • Engage in conversation with the Leading #YourSalisbury team about the development of K-12 rubrics for the skills identified in the Profile of a Graduate.




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