Learner-centered leaders help learners understand everyone’s journey is different

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 41, we spoke with Travis Lape, Innovative Programs Director in Harrisburg School District (SD), Shana Wagers, Instructional Coach at Freedom Elementary School, and Landri, a young learner in the Freedom Elementary program.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders help all learners understand that everyone’s journey will be different.


A typical day in this public school starts with a morning meeting and includes reading, math, and content areas. Learners are grouped according to needs and not age. Groupings are labeled as Littles, Middles, Molders, Olders rather than second or fourth graders.

Learners may attend studios with students across multiple groupings. Learners flex based on where they are at in the learning continuum and what they need. Their learning journey starts where they are instead of with same-age level peers. This has allowed the flexibilty to move learners where they need to be during their school day.

This work started in the high school over 10 years ago. The educators looked at different schedules – blocks, modified, etc. But, they were looking for more of a college schedule with varying blocks of time to meet different learning needs. They developed a customized look for their learners.  For example, some learners might not need a whole year of Algebra 1. Through the early years, they determined they needed to rethink some ideas to make sure they were meeting all of the needs for all of their learners.

The high school now offers two paths – traditional and customized. In the customized path, learning is flexible. Learners control the pace – moving as quickly as works for them. Additionally, they can take more time.  Check points allow for the school to monitor progress.

Travis is thoughtful in sharing their learners express voice and choice. Learners use their creation devices – iPads – to determine how to communicate their learning. In the traditional path, learners may have more paper/pencil tests and move at the pace of the class. Teachers differentiate for learners.

In the elementary school, learners have set blocks of time. In the middle school, learners have greater opportunity to schedule their own courses. In a four block time, facilitators advertise their offerings. Middle school learners then schedule their day based on what they need. For example, students will advocate for themselves. If they have a conflict between a science lab and extra help for math, they work with the facilitators to solve the issues. The middle school use Personalized Learning Tools to facilitate this process. It takes six minutes for the process to occur.

The organization is making bold changes – such as implementing the tools to offer students opportunity to schedule their own day. The school also focuses on Habits of Mind and growth mindset. Learners recognize everyone’s journey will be different, and everyone is there to support each other. Learners work in mixed groups to learn the Habits of Mind.  Sometimes the best learning happens when one learner can explain it to another learner.

Landri shared how her voice contributes to learning. She reflects she and her classmate are working on different math tasks. While she is creating a Write About project after her Mastery Check, her classmate completes another task.  Learners choose how they want to show their understanding.  Learners are taught multiple productivity apps on their iPads.

What kind of leadership competencies do leaders need to have to do this work?  Leaders need to think differently about how they support staff and teachers. It is tough to tear down a system that has been built by others. This has not been a top-down initiative. A team observed other schools, identified strengths, and possible opportunities for change in their own system. Leaders and teachers are on the ground everyday. They have had to empower teachers to make decisions, even if those decisions don’t work. The leadership has to be flexible and feel the heartbeat of the facilitators to better support them.

As a result of that support, the teachers are encouraged to share their voices. Constant communication between leaders, facilitators, and learners is essential. Together, they figure out what can be put in place to improve. The leadership recognizes it is all a process to make sure it is done well.  Everyone in the organization has agency, and that is a big shift in terms of leadership. It can be uncomfortable for leadership as well as new staff members.

This learning environment puts differentiation on steroids. Facilitators learn quickly that in any one room, there could be learners across many standards. Faciltators need to better understand the standards across grade levels.

If teachers are not accepting the agency or invitation, how do you support and enroll them in the conversation? Engage in conversations, develop team norms and standard operating procedures. Facilitators may also need to support in content, math and reading, etc. The facilitators might have pacing and grouping questions or concerns. The leader needs to function as a go-to resource!

Is this shift systemic?  Starting to move forward. For example, Kindergarten has WIN – What I Need groups – 15 minutes, four times per day. Learners are grouped based on need in letter groups and math groups.

What advice would you give to other leaders? We did not get here alone. We encourage others to look at a lot of different models, and ask questions. Travis tells schools not to replicate Harrisburg’s program. Instead, schools need to look at their context critically.  Leaders also need to raise expectations because learners will meet them.  Travis also tells leaders to, “See it to believe it!”  Secondly, he tells leaders to engage in conversations with their your core team. Discuss what the team wants for learners when they leave. Systems are different. communities are different. And needs are different.

Leaders also need to know it is ok to make mistakes and fail. Struggles made this team better, even through the range of emotions – frustration and struggles. Reflect to make it better and the positive changes will keep growing.

Landri encourages learners to think flexibly if something doesn’t go your way. She also tells others to trust their facilitators because they know what they are doing.

The art of teaching and leading is being able to be fluid. This transformation is a long-term process which requires analysis of contextual factors. Learner-centered leadership shifts the agency and voice from the leader to those they are working within the organization. This process isn’t a straight line from point A to point B. Instead it is a messy curvy line with detours and failures along the way. Learners will understand every journey will be different. The norm is not that everyone gets the same and travels together. The norm is that everyone’s journey is different. As leaders, we need to be intentional about supporting our teachers, be on the ground with them, celebrate the positive/less productive risk-taking.

Connections to our Practice

  • Our elementary students learn success skills through the Leader in Me program.
  • We have a traditional path in our high school, even though students have options.
  • We have been working to support our teachers in our Project Wonder program at the middle school.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • Would two paths work in our system?
  • How would our learners feel about creating their own schedules?
  • How are we teaching Habits of Mind or growth mindset in our secondary schools?
  • Do our learners trust their teachers – that there learning experience is better because of them?
  • How could we scale Project Wonder?

Next Steps for Us

  • Take a look at the software scheduling tool. How could a tool like that support our work?
  • Consider running two paths simultaneously in middle school.

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