Shift Your Paradigm: Putting Learner-Centered Lessons Into Practice (Part 4) [#ShiftYourParadigm]

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 the first three parts of our series exploring how learner-centered leaders lead differently from school-centered leaders, we shared the context of our leadership inquiry and why it caused us to create 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, we’ve discovered four key distinctions that we feel characterize learner-centered leadership. Learner-centered leaders:

  • Reframe transformation by distinguishing shifts in learner agency and the role of the teacher in learner-centered environments;
  • 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;
  • Prioritize a culture of deep relationships. Relationships are central to learner-centered education. Without a deep connection to the learner—both young and adult—there can’t be “learner-centered” anything; and
  • 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 over the past two years, leaders accomplish this by first believing in their learners.

To wrap up this series, we wanted to share examples of how we have applied these takeaways to our own practice. As Superintendent and Associate Superintendent in Salisbury Township School District in Allentown, PA, we are on our own unique path toward developing knowledge, skills, and dispositions as learner-centered leaders. While we have been intentional about these efforts, we are early in this journey, experiencing both successes and challenges.

How are we reframing transformation?

We began our work around transformation during the 2015-16 school year when we developed our Profile of a Graduate. While doing the Profile design work, we crossed paths with the key learner-centered document, A Transformational Vision for Education in the US. Reading this document, we saw that, if they were to be successful, the components articulated in our Profile of a Graduate needed to be embedded in a context different from the dominant school-centered paradigm of traditional public education.

After engaging our stakeholders (parents, learners, teachers, leaders, board members and community) in conversations around their hopes and dreams for graduates and the conditions that would cultivate deep, powerful learning—we had our vision. On a philosophical level, we had reframed transformation from school-centered to learner-centered. As an organization, we want to respond to innovations through the lens of asking “how?” rather than reverting to the classic: “No, because we’ve never done that.” Reframing transformation is important for us as we continue to provide new opportunities for our learners. Ultimately, our reframing transformation moves past tweaking our current system toward reimagining what is possible.

Of course, a philosophical shift is only as important as the heavy lifting you engage in after the fact. Those working to transform their organizations know a vision is important, but actually bringing that transformational vision to reality is no easy task—particularly in a world dominated by school-centered thinking and an immunity to change. We love the quote from Joe Erpelding, principal of Design39Campus, that frames this challenge: “I think I had to reroute my whole firmware in terms of what I believed about education.” (Episode 45)

Over the past few years, we have created the conditions for our stakeholders to rethink their beliefs about education and how they apply to learning in Salisbury Township schools. Most of our efforts have been focused on teachers through Leading #YourSalisbury, a three-year series of ongoing professional learning opportunities where teachers conceptualize what it means to be a teacher in a learner-centered environment and apply those understandings to learning task redesign. These professional learning experiences were designed and facilitated by district and school leaders.

To support the ongoing shift of our stakeholders’ mindsets, we pursued connections to learner-centered environments throughout the country—with the support of Education Reimagined—to learn from their transformative work. These conversations have been published and are available publicly at Shift Your Paradigm. Many of our teachers have listened to these conversations, learning what is possible in their own classrooms.

The podcast project reflects one key principle we have learned about leading transformation: leaders create the conditions for stakeholders to deepen understanding of the transformation at a personalized pace. The shift to a new paradigm and resulting transformation cannot be forced or commanded, as in a top-down, school-centered style of leadership.

By creating conditions, pockets of transformation now exist in classrooms throughout the district. Two of our most notable artifacts of transformation are our high school internship program and a school-within-a-school model (named Project Wonder) at our middle school. The internship program and Project Wonder are examples of teachers, learners, parents, and leaders working at the edges of the system to create learning environments that embody Education Reimagined’s five elements of learner-centered learning.

As we learn from these and other “edge examples” across the district we expect the school-centered core of the organization to slowly be transformed. This is a key mindset of leading transformational work: Start at the edges with those eager to transform their practice, provide resources to support continued success, and the core will slowly be transformed.

How are we supporting the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation?

With the Profile of a Graduate and beliefs about learning permeating the culture, the allocation of resources is driven by the question, “What will support forward-momentum toward our Profile of a Graduate and learning beliefs?” Whether it’s providing time for teacher learning, program offerings for students, or requests for additional staffing, resources are now allocated in a manner that focuses on achieving our vision for transformation.

This past year, a new position, Director of Teaching and Learning, was created to focus solely on building the capacity of our stakeholders, particularly principals and teachers, to implement our vision for transformation. During the 2018-19 school year, the Director co-led a process through which all teachers redesigned several learning tasks to better align to the beliefs about deep, powerful learning, based on the five “north star” elements from Education Reimagined. The decision to focus resources on this position led to a scaling effect we hadn’t previously seen. Every teacher redesigned multiple learning tasks for their learners.

In addition to impacting instruction in the classroom, the Director of Teaching and Learning is responsible for professional learning for adults across the district. The most significant program that has been developed is our Summer Academy. Every employee is offered learning opportunities that directly connect to our vision for transformation—including opportunities for adult learners to personalize their experience through book studies, face-to-face meetings, and even online modules pertaining to the district’s Learning Beliefs.

Expenditures of school resources are aligned to the vision. When a teacher, leader, or group requests to expend additional resources, the question is asked: How does this request support the Profile of a Graduate? As an example, we wanted to offer summer camp opportunities for our learners. When we planned the camps, we asked ourselves a couple of questions. If we were to offer camp opportunities, how could the camps support our Profile of a Graduate? How could they represent the learning environments we are striving for in our classrooms?

We developed a camp which we believe reflected what we are working towards in our classrooms. A small group of middle school learners participated in a Culinary Camp this summer. They had the opportunity to debone chicken, create healthy recipes, and design a recipe for their family from scratch. The learning experience was personalized and contextualized as students brought in their own recipes, each requiring different culinary skills and kitchen equipment. While one learner was learning how to operate the food processor, another was learning to pipe icing—all with the expert guidance of a chef. Through this open-walled learning experience, students developed knowledge, skills, and dispositions outlined in the Profile of a Graduate. They learned to communicate and collaborate in the kitchen, developed a deeper understanding of health literacy, and cultivated increased levels of persistence as they experienced productive struggle. We are looking for teachers to continue to transform their practice and seek to launch more learner-centered pilots throughout our district.

Asking teachers and leaders to transform their practice from school-centered to learner-centered can create a healthy relationship to risk taking. We have learned that it is important to create the conditions and provide the resources for these stakeholders to take risks and try new practices with the help of their learners.

This past school year, we formally recognized risk-taking through the Scaling the Mountain Recognition. Teachers and principals nominated colleagues for taking risks to design learning opportunities that reflected our beliefs about deep, powerful learning. We celebrated these risk-taking teachers by visiting their classrooms and providing them a certificate to purchase professional resources—in the spirit of continuing their own learning. We celebrated teachers for opening their classroom walls and extending the learning beyond our school buildings. We celebrated teachers for redesigning learning tasks in ways that better reflect our learning beliefs. And, we celebrated teachers for taking risks and pushing against their comfort zones, as they created new learning experiences.

Over the past several years, mini-grants have been provided for projects and task redesigns that support the transformation of learning. Funds were provided through the district and also through the Salisbury Education Foundation. One teacher submitted a proposal to grow an indoor garden to help learners see and engage with science. Another teacher submitted a proposal to provide materials for learners to work together to create a Gaga Pit to use at recess. Both of these examples were demonstrations of what can be made possible when we are intentional with planning and provide the space to invent new experiences.

How are we prioritizing a culture of deep relationships?

Relationships fuel transformation. We have learned that leaders need to understand their stakeholders and teachers need to understand their learners.

Some of the ways we gain an understanding of our stakeholders is by engaging them regularly in conversations about the work of transformation. Our principal meetings have transformed from conversations largely about school-centered management issues to conversations focused on our vision and the leadership needed to get us there.

We meet regularly with learners in each of our schools and focus on what they are learning, how they are learning, and what we might do differently alongside them to make their learning experience more meaningful. For example, to help our teachers build better relationships with learners around learning, we have introduced learner profiles. We expect there will be more of a focus on this in the coming year so that our teachers can go even deeper into creating the conditions for personalized, relevant, and contextualized learning. Learner profiles were piloted in Project Wonder this year, and as we learn from this experience, we expect more teachers will embrace learner profiles as an avenue to build deeper relationships with their learners.

We also share changes in practice regularly with our school board and state policymakers, and we provide opportunities for parents and the broader community to share their thoughts and provide input during “Coffee and Conversation” gatherings. Building relationships with our various stakeholders keeps us accountable and also provides valuable input into how, as an organization, we adjust our implementation over time.

The Director of Teaching and Learning has spent her first year building positive, supportive relationships with teachers and principals. She has developed multiple systems for collaborating with and supporting teachers and leaders. She designed a teacher leadership workshop for our middle school teacher leadership team. She attended regular meetings with teacher leaders, including monthly liaison meetings and department meetings. As a key presenter in district-wide professional learning opportunities, she quickly became a recognizable resource for staff members.

How are we prioritizing learner voice?

Opportunities to build relationships with stakeholders are opportunities to shift agency and control to learners. Learner-centered leaders need to create opportunities for learners to communicate and share their voice.

In Salisbury, learners from each school have the opportunity to share their voice and impact our district’s transformation through various avenues. We schedule quarterly Superintendent Advisory Council meetings with representative groups of learners in each school. Principals join us as we seek feedback about our schools and the learning experiences that are offered. Students also have the opportunity to share at monthly school board meetings. As leaders of our organization, we realize it is important to listen to our learners.

Other opportunities for learner voice are developed on an as-needed basis. Near the end of this school year, focus groups were self-organized and surveys created for a high school taste-testing provided by our Child Nutrition department. Learner input will be used to plan menu changes for next school year.

At the conclusion of our first year of Project Wonder, we met with learners to reflect on their year. We asked them to share their greatest successes and failures from the year and talk about how this learning experience was different from previous learning experiences in our district. Learner voice is impacting how we design the learning opportunities they will experience in the future.

This past year, learner voice at our high school impacted the areas of school safety and social media, with learners organizing and leading committees in these two areas. Both committees came to exist as a result of students identifying a need and creating a plan to address the need. The Social Media Advisory group facilitated a community workshop about social media, and the School Safety Committee provided feedback on school safety practices, assisted with the development of protocols. This Committee even had a representative speak at a district press conference. Learner voice has impacted our district in significant ways.

At the elementary level, teachers are building more agency in learners through student-led conferences and learning portfolio sharing. Learners develop leadership notebooks, tracking data to tell the story of their learning journey and goals.

This coming year, a district-wide open house is planned to showcase learning across the district. Learner voice will play a significant role in determining what this celebration of learning looks like for our community.

These are powerful words from Education Reimagined: “Learners are seen and known as wondrous, curious individuals with vast capabilities and limitless potential.” (A Transformational Vision for Education in the US)

They remind us of the potential within our learners—young and adult. They remind us that learner-centered leaders listen and learn with and from learners as they create opportunities for all learners to pursue their limitless potential.

Throughout our work, we have learned context matters. The size of the school, the available resources, the community values, the mindsets of teachers and leaders, an articulated vision, learners’ goals—these are all pieces of the context puzzle that shapes transformation. And, it’s these pieces that will make your strategy entirely unique. However, if you begin your journey by using the four learner-centered leadership distinctions we’ve uncovered through the Shift Your Paradigm podcast, you are bound to hit the ground running and have your own unique solutions to share with the broader learner-centered community. We have shared strategies and applications which work in our context—Salisbury Township School District in Allentown, PA. What might work in yours?

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


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