I may have invented a new word this week:
In the past, there have been times when I thought I'd invented a new word, but this time I actually may have done it. I even Googled it and nothing turned up.
So what is learner centeredness and how did it come up for me this week?
It came up in a meeting with several colleagues at central office as we discussed factors in the system that influence student outcomes. In this particular meeting the student outcome we were looking at was graduation rate. As we considered all of the factors within and beyond our control, a pattern emerged. So many of the systemic barriers to student success are the result of adult-centered thinking and I needed a way to identify the opposite of that.
Learner centeredness builds on the idea of being "learner centered" and combines several attributes that someone might be into a comprehensive, cohesive system of beliefs and biases.
I jumped back into public education in 2018 and, since that time nearly three years ago, I have found myself asking hard questions of myself and of public education more broadly. For me, it's been about clarifying my belief systems and the biases that shape my actions. As the leader of a small team charged with developing new experiences for young learners, I've been observing, questioning, and wondering about the hidden assumptions and motivations of our monolithic system of public education, who the system benefits, and who it leaves behind.
In short, I've been reflecting on my own leadership and the role I may have had in perpetuating the status quo while also trying to be more intentional and deliberate about how my biases and beliefs show up in my daily work.
Right now, there are three aspects of Learner Centeredness that I am unpacking in my notebook and on the whiteboard in my office:
- Learner Experience
- Increased Access
- Student Ready
When it comes to Learner Experience, I think about the design of both physical environments and the design of the learning work in which students engage. Essentially, what does it look and feel like to be a student in 2021?
In our pre-launch year, the small team at Futures Lab spent time researching and investigating existing successful models and developed four Design Principles that reflect our vision for what the learner experience can and should look like at the Lab. They are (1) Autonomy, (2) Connection, (3) Authentic Work, and (4) Deep Learning.
As our team continues to grow, I am working to communicate with clarity exactly what each of these mean so that our expanding team of teachers has the framework, coaching, and support they need to ensure that the Principles show up in the environments we create and the learning work we develop.
Resources I'm leaning on here, in addition to our Design Principles, are:
This is closely related to the other components, and maybe it doesn't need to exist as a separate category, but keeping it apart is useful for my processing right now.
I am currently thinking about this as highly tactical; a catch-all for the systems that are currently in place and those that need to exist to remove barriers and create new opportunities. School systems are complex and that complexity in itself can be a barrier for some learners, especially those who lack the support systems that help navigate them.
Certainly culturally responsive classroom practices are another component of ensuring access. For me, though, they connect to the next concept.
Student Ready Practices
I'm borrowing the phrase "Student Ready" from Jesse Stommel whose work has been a source of inspiration and motivation for me since I first came across it earlier this year.
When I think of the work we aspire to do for and with young learners, the human-centered aspect should be our highest priority. Human-centered practices include a bias toward student success, an honest examination of grading practices, and relationships with learners where we connect early and often to understand what they need from us and what they are showing up with.
These things can feel vague and fuzzy which also means that they can feel hard. But navigating the 2020-2021 school year has confirmed for me that we can do hard things in public education. Further, I believe that when we reflect on how education looked for most of the 2020-2021 school year with the benefit of some distance and objectivity, we will see that those who found small successes and silver linings focused first and foremost on the humanistic aspects of our jobs.
Being student ready means that success in the fall of 202 will mean more than a focus on remedial classes and "learning loss." All of us will need to relearn what it means to connect with each other and build community, and that can only be done with empathy, vulnerability, and a willingness to slow down and rebuild.
Before we plow on, dig into remediation and push through with a focus solely on academics, we must stop, take a breath and spend time rebuilding relationships. We need to establish communities and learn how to reconnect with one another...
We have to take time to reconnect. We have to relearn how to be together in a classroom. That takes time. If we don’t slow down, get to know one another, and build a community that cares for each other, because we’re in such a hurry to “catch everyone up” I fear that we will leave more behind.
When I think about Learner Centeredness, it's all of these things. But most critically it means we need to invest the time required to reconnect as a community of learners and understand the lived experiences and basic needs of the young learners in our care.
The decision to address the lived realities of students is both a compassionate one but also a pedagogical one. It is simply not logical to expect “attention” or “academic success” without at least acknowledging students’ basic needs, especially in the midst of a pandemic which is leaving more and more students in a place of acute trauma.
Learning is hard. And fun. And it involves making sure we remain focused on what is truly important in our work and, for me, that means creating environments that are accessible and inclusive, where all students can thrive, and that are focused - first and foremost - on student success.
Thank you for reading and for allowing me to think out loud with you.