Creating Learner-Centered Systems
Katie Martin
As the world continues to evolve and change, there is an increasingly urgent call to create schools that equip learners with the academic and social skills that are critical for success in work, life, and citizenship in our world today.
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As the world continues to evolve and change, there is an increasingly urgent call to create schools that equip learners with the academic and social skills that are critical for success in work, life, and citizenship in our world today. Many educators recognize the diverse strengths and challenges that children come to school with and understand that to truly develop and grow unique individuals we cannot teach in a standardized way.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, a company that has continuously evolved to meet the needs of consumers argues that obsessive customer focus is the key to keeping Amazon innovative. This focus keeps them continually looking to create new and better models to meet the customers’ needs. I know that schools are not companies, but there are always things that we can learn from others in industry and education and it makes me wonder, What if we were obsessively learner-centered in schools?

Over the last few months, our Chief Impact Officer Devin Vodicka and I have had the opportunity to work with educators around the country to talk about how we might redesign school systems to be more learner-centered.

To do this, first and foremost, we have to begin with the learners. So, one of the first questions we ask is:

What are the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are critical for learners to develop?

Time and time again, educators say problem-solving, critical thinking, empathy, creativity, agency, and perseverance, to name a few. We are always encouraged when we hear these goals. They also mirror the learner outcomes aligned to our Impact Framework at Altitude Learning, a holistic set of measures that better reflect knowledge, skills, and habits that best prepare learners for their future.

Too often in education we focus on test scores, curriculum, programs, or even technology, but when we stay focused on the learners, all of these tools and measurements become secondary—part of what we do but not why we do it. We can have the latest technology or the best curriculum, but if we are not obsessed with who learners are, how to best serve them, and how to partner with them to move forward, we can fail to make the impact that we desire and are working so hard to achieve.

If we begin with what we want learners to know and do, we then think about:

What are the learning experiences that are critical for learners to develop these desired competencies?

To create learner-centered experiences, we have anchored our network of partners in the five components of learner-centered education from Education Reimagined: Competency-Based, Personalized, Relevant & Contextualized, Learner Agency, Socially Embedded, and Open-Walled. Here are a few examples of schools that are redefining learning experiences for students (and educators too!)

Competency-Based - Odyssey STEM Academy has its own learning goals and graduate profile, which educators are able to assess against using the tools in the Altitude Learning platform. Educators plan learning experiences and instruction based on the needs, strengths, and approaches of individuals or groups of learners. They can build and modify experiences within the classroom and in the greater community.

Personalized, Relevant, and Contextualized - At Design39Campus in the Poway School District and at Menlo Park City School District, learning experiences are designed with the individual learner in mind. As a collaborative education communities, they nurture creative confidence, practice design thinking, learn through inquiry, connect globally, use technology and real-world tools, and promote the courage and growth mindset necessary to change the world.

Open-Walled - At Odyssey STEM Academy, through multiple internships and authentic projects, learners become contributing partners in their work with industry professionals. Internship projects are connected to learner interests and deepen understanding throughout the curriculum. Through this work, learners navigate systems, build relationships, and establish a professional network. Mutually beneficial relationships result in academic growth and character development.

Read Odyssey’s story to see how a public high school is engaging students in deep, meaningful learning.

Learner Agency - In Arcadia, students created over 2,700 goals this year, a practice that encourages self-reflection and awareness in students as they work toward longer-term learning and developmental targets. These goals served as opportunities for regular check-ins, active student-teacher reflection, and another way to measure progress.

See how a district is shifting to a learner-centered model in this story about Arcadia.

Socially Embedded - Learning happens everywhere. The ability to document learning is a key way in which the Altitude Learning platform helps give students a voice in shaping their own experiences at school. We love to see images and videos of classroom work captured by students via the platform—this content was used to add evidence of learning, inspire ongoing classroom discussion, and share contextualized updates on student progress with parents and guardians at home.

Despite our desire and innate understanding of what powerful learning looks and feels like, our current system was designed for a different era with different goals. Authentic learning experiences that develop the skills, passions, and mindsets of the whole child are often at odds with our policies, curricula, schedules, and assessment practices in many schools and districts.

As we reimagine our systems, the final question we ask educators to think about is:

What are the enabling conditions that are critical to developing the  desired learner outcomes?

Some of my favorite examples of how educators we work with are reimagining the education system to be more learner-centered.

Part of being learner obsessed is ensuring that the teachers have time, support, and trust to do what is best for learners in their classrooms and throughout the school. As a great number of demands are placed on teachers, teacher retention and burnout is increasing, and the revolving door, in many cases, negatively impacts the schools and their students. Not surprisingly, teachers leave schools where they are not supported or valued or feel ill-equipped or unable to meet students’ needs. We can prevent this by looking for ways to create conditions that empower all learners and inspire leaders rather than demand followers.

Looking to the Future

As I have have been thinking a lot about the purpose of school, I also think a lot about how to change it. It seems daunting and there are so many systems that are barriers to the questions above but I also know that the education system was designed by people and the only way it will change is through people. In 1892, thoughtful leaders created the rules and the systems that made sense for the world then. Now, it’s up to people who believe in our collective future enough to make the changes that are necessary today. That means you are part of the solution.

It only takes one person to take small steps that can lead to big change and I for one am encouraged and hopeful that together we can create that movement. If we want something better for the future, we have to create it. This doesn’t mean we ignore the past, but it also means that we don’t simply recreate the experiences we had as students for our own children. Learners now live in a different time, with exponential opportunities—opportunities that did not exist when we were children. And we would be remiss to allow our apprehensions to hold back their aspirations.

Interested in bringing learner-centered practices to your school?  Get in touch with Katie and the team about professional development opportunities customized to your learning community.