Month: March 2019

What does learner-centered leadership look like? (Part III)

This article first appeared at Education Reimagined as a part of Voyager, a publication sharing the stories and ideas shaping the future of education.

In Part I and Part II of our series exploring how learner-centered leaders lead differently from school-centered ones, we shared the context of our leadership inquiry and why it led to the creation of our Shift Your Paradigm podcast. In the first two pieces, we highlighted three key insights that have emerged from the dozens of interviews we’ve conducted over the past two years through our podcast:

  1. Learner-centered leaders reframe transformation by distinguishing shifts in learner agency and the role of the educator in learner-centered contexts.
  2. Learner-centered leaders support the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation. This is done by providing powerful learning opportunities to develop mindsets and skillsets, creating risk-friendly environments, and unlocking time to maximize opportunities.
  3. Learner-centered leaders prioritize a culture of deep relationships. Without a deep connection to the learner—both young and adult—there can’t be “learner-centered” anything.

In the third and final part of our series, we will explore how learner-centered leaders prioritize learner voice.

Learner-centered leaders prioritize learner voice

To be learner-centered means to start with the learner, prioritizing their voice throughout the learning process. In the many stories we’ve heard, leaders do this by first believing in their learners. As Education Reimagined communicates, “Learners are seen and known as wondrous, curious individuals with vast capabilities and limitless potential.” This statement resonates with us and is critical in this mindset shift.

Trust the learner

Do we trust learners to approach learning with wonder and curiosity? Do we believe every young person comes to us with the capability to fulfill their dreams with the support of caring adults? Learner-centered leaders answer these questions with a “yes.” Every time.

For example, trust in the learner is highly visible at North Star, an alternative high school and middle school in Massachusetts where learners can quite literally do as they please—to the point where doing nothing is an acceptable choice. North Star’s Executive Director, Kenneth Danford, shared:

“The main thing about learning at North Star is that it’s schooling upside down. It’s where adults offer classes to teens who can choose whether or not to attend them. There are a lot of one-on-one tutorials that students request from adults, and there is a lot of time to socialize and just be present without doing what schools would consider academic learning.” (Episode 43)

In learning environments such as North Star and others such as Iowa BIG, Big Picture Learning (BPL), Taylor County School District (KY), and Springhouse Community School, we see adults trusting young people to personalize their learning experiences across projects in the school and the community. These learning environments engage learners in developing a high-level of self-awareness; they trust the learner will be able to co-create learning pathways to achieve a variety of personal learning goals. Roger Cook, former Superintendent in Kentucky’s Taylor County Schools had this to say:

“This is what I’ve found out—if you trust kids and you give them responsibility, most of them will perform to your expectations. Some don’t. Obviously, we don’t live in a utopia. But, we’ve done it here for so long, and as a community, they wouldn’t stand for anything else. They would not stand for going back to a six-period day, sit in the class being lectured at for 60 minutes with no freedom. No—our students wouldn’t stand for it now.” (Episode 16)

Self-awareness and trust permeate all aspects of learner-centered environments. Young learners aren’t the only learners in the school. Every adult in the system must be a learner—and learner-centered leaders must extend that pivotal level of trust to all the adult learners, as well. In Northern Cass School District in North Dakota, Superintendent Cory Steiner, shared the role trust plays in making Northern Cass a learner-centered organization:

“One thing that I’ve done to build agency in teachers is trust—that the people in our building are always going to do what’s right for our learners. I believed that before we started this journey. I believe we have this amazing group of people who truly care about kids when they walk in and want nothing more than for them to have their best day, every day, and to become the best version of themselves.” (Episode 44)

When trust exists for all learners—young and adult—something very powerful happens. Learning becomes an act of co-creation, where traditional power structures are blurred and power flows back and forth between young and adult learners.

Transfer power and control

Learner-centered education flattens the hierarchy. The adult’s expertise no longer dominates the learning experience; young and old bring unique expertise to the learning. The adult comes to the learning experience with skills in content and learning design, while the learner holds a personal knowledge around her passions, needs, challenges, and dreams. Both sets of knowledge allow power and control to be shared. This shift invites and values agency on both sides of the relationship.

Elizabeth Cardine, lead teacher and advisor at MC2 Charter School in New Hampshire, was eager to bring the role of power to light in our conversation:

“I think something that a lot stakeholders—students, parents, and the teachers themselves—have to constantly be on guard against, because it’s so ingrained in the status quo of “teacher,” is this of: Where does the authority come from in the teacher-student relationship; [what about]…the role of hierarchy and experience?” (Episode 19)

Kim Carter, CEO at MC2 extends what Elizabeth shared and refers to learners and how they learn to “manage up”:

“We are encouraging students to manage up. And, that’s so different from what traditionally happens in an adult-youth relationship. Some of the research suggests [having the young person managing up] can be very challenging, very threatening for an adult…Building the structures around the expectations for how that works is an important thing.” (Episode 19)

This transfer of power requires vulnerability. Jenny Finn, Head of School at Springhouse:

“I think that [valuing vulnerability] is something that is foundational here. We recognize that connection—authentic, true connection—cannot happen without vulnerability. And so we definitely move toward vulnerability and not away from it. [T]his takes time and energy. I would also say it takes skill.

Whatever we’re teaching and doing—we’re holding that at the forefront. What are the skills that these students need to be more resilient in the world, to be able to really face and move through difficulty and not avoid or kind of force themselves through it? [Rather, can they] find a way that is authentic to them to really navigate difficulty in relationships, in themselves, in each other, or in the earth? Having that value of vulnerability, we know that in order for connection to happen, vulnerability needs to be there. It’s important that we also teach the skills to be able to navigate that.” (Episode 26)

Helen Beattie, the founder and Executive Director of UP for Learning summarizes the flattening of hierarchy and distribution of agency:

“I think one critical piece of this shift of paradigm and the relationship of students and teachers goes right to the heart of power. And, who has power? Right now, in our traditional system, certainly, it’s largely held by adults. A learner-centered paradigm requires a sharing of power—that both [parties] are empowered within the relationship. I think for so many adults, that is a frightening concept and it feels antithetical to where they need to go. They’ve always believed that power is how they get to this destination.” (Episode 30)

While moving power and control to young learners is a goal embraced by the adults in a learner-centered learning environment, how young learners share and showcase their learning is one of the most prominent ways we see the prioritization of learner voice.

Showcase learning

Each learner-centered environment has various ways young learners demonstrate learning. The common thread, though, is that learners have a high level of control over how their learning is shared.

Kim Carter from MC2 Charter School described how students exercise agency through a portfolio and exhibition framework:

“We look at the learning cycle as: designing, constructing, applying, documenting, and defending learning. The defense piece happens in a couple of places so when Sabrina [a learner at MC2] is talking about her gateway process and phasing up, the first step is her creation of a gateway portfolio. This is followed by her gateway exhibition where she presents and elaborates on her learning and how she’s ready for the challenge of the next phase. A panel listens to the presentation and then has a section of time for questions.” (Episode 19)

Iowa BIG builds on relationships with the community to create a learning environment that is entirely project-based. Students showcase their learning in the local community through project deliverables. Jemar Lee, a recent graduate from Iowa BIG [He was still a student at the time of the interview]:

“Here at Iowa BIG, learning is passion-driven and that means projects. You’re picking a project you’re passionate about and tying that to your core academic needs. For me, those needs are literature and U.S. History. My passion is architecture and, more recently, education.

At the beginning of the school year, I picked Sleeping Giant, which was a project that involved building a 3D conceptual design of a Cedar Rapids bridge that had fallen in 2008. We designed a bridge that would best suit and drive attraction to Cedar Rapids. In education, I’ve created a student-led initiative to advance learner-centered education.

The learning adapts to you within projects. The teachers aren’t telling you what you have to learn within that project and how you should learn it. What you learn comes about when you want that project to succeed.” (Episode 5)

Now that you’ve read about the various insights about learner-centered leadership, let’s go back to our original inquiry: Do learner-centered leaders lead differently? After dozens of conversations with those in learner-centered environments, we think so and have shared four outcomes in this series.

Learner-centered leaders:

  1. Reframe transformation;
  2. Support the development of the resources, people, and conditions for transformation;
  3. Prioritize a culture of deep relationships; and
  4. Prioritize learner voice.

Through this three part series, we hope we have provoked your thinking and reflection on your own practice as a learner-centered leader. We invite you to think about your own leadership practice and how the four insights connect to your transformation work. Which insights resonate most? Which provide personal learning for your own practice? Are there insights you would add to the list? We would love to hear from you on social media @ziegeran and @lfuinihetten.

Connect with Randy on Twitter, the TLTalkRadio podcast, and the Shift Your Paradigm podcast!


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What does learner-centered leadership look like? (Part II)

This article first appeared at Education Reimagined as a part of Voyager, a publication sharing the stories and ideas shaping the future of education.

In Part I of our series exploring how learner-centered leaders lead differently from school-centered ones, we shared the context of our leadership inquiry and why it led to the creation of our Shift Your Paradigm podcast. Reviewing the insights we’ve gained through the over 50 interviews we’ve conducted with learners and leaders in learner-centered environments over the last two years, we’ve learned a lot about learner-centered leaders. In our last piece, we highlighted two key insights:

  • Reframe transformation by distinguishing shifts in learner agency and the role of the teacher in learner-centered environments; and
  • Support the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation. This is done by providing powerful learning opportunities to develop mindsets and skillsets, creating risk-friendly environments, and unlocking time to maximize opportunities.

In Part II, we will explore yet another: Learner-centered leaders prioritize a culture of deep relationships.

Learner-centered leaders prioritize a culture of deep relationships

Relationships are one of the core ideals of learner-centered education. Without a deep connection to the learner—both young and adult—there can’t be “learner-centered” anything. The critical question is what makes relationships in learner-centered environments different from the dominant relationship conversation in the school-centered paradigm?

Learner-centered leaders begin by reframing “relationships.” Once this new framing is established, “relationships” in learner-centered models bring an emphasis on depth (as opposed to surface-level small talk), are always multi-directional, and are open-walled unto themselves (involving stakeholders beyond the conventional school walls).

Reframing “relationships”

In the current dominant paradigm of school-centered education, how often do conversations move beyond the transactional and into the realm of understanding each other as learners and as people? This is a significant question when attempting to distinguish relationship building through the school-centered and learner-centered lenses.

It’s moving beyond redundant questions like “How was your weekend?” or “Do you have your homework?” Conversations are intentional, focused on learning, and lead to deeper understanding of the teacher and learner. What are your goals, why are they important to you, and what skills do you want to grow this year? What support do you need in reaching your goals? How can we work together to develop those skills and meet your goals?

Andrew Frishman, Co-Executive Director of Big Picture Learning (BPL), shared how BPL has relabeled the “3 R’s” of education.

“…[The new 3 R’s] should be about our relationship, relevance, and rigor. You start with relationships and get to know people. That’s how you figure out what young people are interested in, and that’s how you get to really deep rigor. If you braid the three together, that’s how you get to really deep, powerful learner-centered opportunities that ultimately shift life outcomes and trajectories for learners.” (Episode 15)

When meaningful relationships are formed, the learner becomes an active participant in mapping out their learning journey. This participation leads to learning that is relevant and rigorous.

Valuing the depth of relationships

In Episode 25, we had an extended conversation about relationships with Andrew and his Co-Executive Director at BPL, Carlos Moreno. Andrew recalled a speaker who prompted him to think about the deeper aspects of conversations and relationship building in contrast to the “small talk” that often occurs in our country.

“I heard a speaker, his name is Gilberto Dimenstein, and he spoke about the importance of learning in community and situated learning in learning cities. He’s from Brazil, and he was talking about one of the cultural differences he sees in the United States. [In the US, people] have this small talk before they then get on to the important business talk. He said, “You know, where I come from, there is no small talk.” That’s the important talk. The important talk is connecting us to human beings.

I think we have a bit of that view [at BPL] that the relationship building, the connection, and the understanding where you’re coming from, who your family is, your communities, your experiences, what your goals and aspirations are…that’s not small talk. That’s the important talk. You go slow a little bit at the beginning to build those relationships so that you can go really fast together later.” (Episode 25)

Carlos added a “niece-nephew analogy” that sheds light on how deep and meaningful conversations and relationships can be around learning and the “important talk.”

“I wanted to share an analogy that one of our colleagues has used in describing what this relationship really means. He has labeled it his “niece-nephew analogy.” If you don’t have a niece or nephew, you can substitute any young person you care deeply about. How do you talk to this person individually, one-to-one? How do you inquire into their interests if approached by them with an exciting idea, something they’re eager to do or investigate? How do you respond? How might you help them learn about something they express interest in? Would you try to share your own learning with them, and is how your caring about the world manifest in your interactions with this young person?

Applying this analogy in teacher-practice really means thinking of your advisory as a collection of these young people you get to interact with at the same time. And, I think that’s the primary reason why a lot of our students really refer to their advisory as their second family.” (Episode 25)

Learner-centered relationships run deep. They are not transactional. Maybe more importantly, as Carlos and Andrew share later in the interview, the relationship building skills learners develop continue serving them long after they leave the BPL learning environment. Notice Carlos’ question, “Would you try to share your own learning with them…” This leads to the idea that learner-centered leaders value relationships that travel both ways—between young and adult learners.

Supporting the development of multi-directional relationships

Relationships in learner-centered environments go both ways. In fact, as we explore the idea of relationships in general, it begs the question how it can ever be called a relationship if everything is one-way.

You can see the significance of multi-directional relationships in fields outside of education where models such as reverse mentoring foster broader collaboration and greater agency and voice on the part of the co-learners. In a school-centered paradigm, relationships tend to be hierarchical. Teachers question and learners share; horizontal collaboration is rarely seen. And, any personal information young learners share about themselves is rarely used to design learning opportunities, while the teacher himself or herself rarely shares insights about his or her own experience as a learner.

Naseem Haamid, a BPL learner at the time of our conversation, described what the learner and teacher gain from a two-way relationship.

“In a Big Picture Learning school, you learn from the teacher and the teacher learns from you. You both grow together. And that’s the beauty of it.” (Episode 15)

At Springhouse Community School, adults model two-way relationships with each other in ways they hope will engage young learners in relationship building conversations. Jenny Finn, Head of School, shared:

“We don’t look at our learners as coming in as empty buckets that we need to fill. We try to acknowledge what they bring to the table. The community of adults in the school practice what we’re trying to teach. We actually take a lot of time to tend to our own relationships and to make sure that we’re doing everything that we’re asking our learners to do. There’s a lot of integrity in what we’re doing.” (Episode 26)

Finn’s attention to “tending to our own relationships” adds a fresh element to how we can distinguish “relationships” through the learner-centered paradigm, not only within the learning environment but also outside the walls of the learning environment and into the community.

Fostering open-walled relationships

We discovered a robust example of building relationships with community partners in the work of One Stone, an independent, student-led high school in Idaho. Chad Carlson, Director at One Stone, provides a glimpse into what these open-walled relationships look like.

“Our forte is our reliance on and our relationship with community partners. A big part of the Design Lab is community members who are willing to embrace and work with high school students, giving them voice, and having trust in what they can do. There’s a lot of research involved in a Design Lab partnership—writing, proposals, and rationales. Learners feel more accountable to the organization or individual. And so, there’s more buy-in from the learner.” (Episode 29)

As learner-centered environments become characterized by learners solving community challenges, building relationships with outside partners becomes crucial.

Iowa BIG and BPL are additional examples in how important community partnerships are when community learning is embedded in their learner-centered model. Iowa BIG has an instructional model that is almost entirely project-based with very few actual courses (Episode 5). Learners work on community-embedded challenges with teachers backmapping learning to content standards. BPL schools, with their “Learning Through Internships” emphasis, asks learners to make personal connections with the community based on their passion and interests. These initial connections eventually lead to job shadowing opportunities and internships (Episode 15).

You’ll notice this idea of building a culture of deep relationships relies on robust communication in all directions and with all stakeholders. Everyone’s voice is valued and acted upon. And, because learner voice is such a critical element to implementing a full expression of learner-centered education, it’s important for us to discuss it on its own.

In the third and final of our series, we will explore how learner-centered leaders prioritize learner voice.