4 Ways to Minimize Growing Pains During Your Learner-Centered Transition

Voices from the Field   05 December 2019
By Josh Ecker, Salisbury Township School District


The first step to helping learners thrive in a learner-centered environment is to cultivate buy-in from learners around this vision of learner-centered education.

Josh Ecker

Picture this: You spend months behind the scenes revamping your classroom structure to create a more learner-centered environment. You have some basic pieces in place, but, since your goal is to help learners take charge of their learning, you hold off on as much as you can in order to co-create with learners once the school year begins.

The first day arrives, and you’re ready to share your ideas with your learners and engage them in a meaningful conversation about what they want out of class—out of life, even. You lay your heart out, preaching about why it’s so important for learners to be active agents of their own educational processes, why it’s time for our education system to change, and how you’re going to take the first steps right here today. You say everything you want to say and, to your amazement, you feel like you delivered the most eloquent, moving speech of your life.

Now you say to the students, it’s your turn. What do you want to do with all this freedom? Who do you want to be? What do you want out of life? The class is silent. Riding the high from delivering the speech of your life, you smile across the room, patiently waiting for learners to think through everything, to share their thoughts, maybe even become as impassioned as you.

Twenty seconds pass, 45, a minute, and as the clock ticks, you become crestfallen and try not let it show. Just when you get ready to interject, a hand goes up! All of a sudden, you feel the high return. Finally, you think. You call on the learner, waiting in anticipation for the start of a transformative conversation. “Can I go to the bathroom?” they ask.


The truth is, we can’t, in one impassioned speech, magically undo the socialization each learner has been engaging with over the course of their entire academic life.

Josh Ecker

This is your nightmare come true.

So, what happened? Are the naysayers right about learners not having the capacity to be agents in their learning? Are they too young? Or, are they too old—swept up in the norms of the traditional system, ready to comply?

The truth is, we can’t, in one impassioned speech, magically undo the socialization each learner has been engaging with over the course of their entire academic life. The conventional, industrial-era model of education is “normal” and hoping to immediately change course because you as the educator are ready to do so is not the reality of a transformative process. It takes time.

Remember, you’ve been working on this dream for months. Your learners are only at day one. The transformative process takes time for learners and educators alike to make the mental adjustments necessary to bring our learner-centered dreams to fruition. Now that you acknowledge the long-term nature of this process, where do you go from here?

Enrolling Learners in the Process

I remember a time when the thought of jumping off a diving board was terrifying. I couldn’t even step toward the edge of the lowest board without getting nervous and shuffling back to safer ground. Whether high diving into an actual pool, or into learner-centered education, the fear of taking the leap can extinguish any hope of progress. All of your learners are on that diving board. Now, it’s your responsibility to show how fun and freeing taking that leap will be.

The first step to helping learners thrive in a learner-centered environment is to cultivate buy-in from learners around this vision of learner-centered education. They must see why they should be engaged and excited to take part in this work. In my own experience, I made the mistake of assuming the autonomy and agency learners gain in learner-centered contexts is enough for them to buy in to this new and more egalitarian structure of teaching and learning. In reality, learners need coaching and gentle, supportive nudges in order to move toward the unknown, even when they understand the benefits. I’ve found four things to be especially helpful in preparing learners to make the shift:

1. Share the Big Picture, and Let it Sink In.

As you implement new learner-centered practices, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the minute details—looking for every possible way to iterate and improve. But, without the big picture vision in plain sight, it’ll be easy to go back to conventional practices without ever meaning to. Just like you, learners need to see that big picture before ever engaging with the day-to-day work. Before they enter a learner-centered environment, and again on a regular basis as they adjust, it’s so important to help them bring their thinking back to this “why.” 

In the most learner-centered way, the purpose often needs to be contextualized for each individual learner, so they can see their unique selves inside it. Knowing your learners well enough to know what they care about will allow this enrollment process to go much more smoothly. 

As an introduction, you can discuss the high-level reasons change is important. Over time, as you delve into more details, learners will develop their own personal reasons for why learner-centered education is important to them. At its core, learner-centered education requires learners to be actively involved moment-by-moment and for teachers to cede the control they’re used to having to create the opportunity for meaningful learning. This can only occur consistently if all of us, especially learners, reflect on why learner-centered education is important in the first place.

2. Connect Learner-Centered Education to Learners’ Lives Outside of School

Everywhere in our culture, we’re presented with images of conventional, industrial-era schooling practices, from SpongeBob Squarepants’ driver’s ed course, to Mean Girls, to Grease, and everything in between. No wonder it seems so normal; in American society, it is! 

Introducing a brand new system of learning that doesn’t carry the familiar cultural cache of the conventional system takes some time for learners to grasp. It may seem alien, but there are corollaries in every learner’s life you can help them make to better conceptualize this new model. Whether it’s their favorite summer camp, an after-school club, or a hobby the learner can’t wait to get home and engage with, we all know what it feels like to participate in the kind of authentic, meaningful, self-guided learning that is at the foundation of learner centered education. Aiding learners in making these connections will help them get comfortable with and trust the idea of working this way in school.

3. Create a Roadmap and Introduce Changes Gradually

While much of the work and reimagining process will be in direct conversation with learners, I believe it’s our job as professional educators to have a long-term roadmap planned out to guide group conversations in the learner-centered direction. The roadmap, just like the vision and purpose, acts as a guide to fill in the gaps when learners don’t have strong opinions about particular changes. 

This is particularly true in the beginning (as illustrated in the introduction). Learners may not have or be willing to share many opinions on this topic because they aren’t yet fully enrolled in the process. As their comfort levels and big picture thinking skills improve, the roadmap may even be revised with the help of the learners. 

Once you’ve considered the big picture and considered the steps and checkpoints you want to accomplish over the course of the reimagining process, it’s important to introduce them slowly enough that both you and the learners have time to adjust and create productive habits in relation to these new structures. If there are too many changes done too quickly, especially in a brand new system, it might be incredibly difficult for you and the learners to stay consistent in implementing them. Remember, the conventional system is everyone’s comfort and is always inviting you to come back to it. 

For the changes you make on your own, explain them to learners and emphasize that this change is an experiment that you and all of them will reflect on to decide if it’s working and, if necessary, how it could be improved. In this way, even if learners weren’t ready to be part of the initial design process, they can take ownership in revising it.

4. Incorporate Learners’ Ideas to Co-Create the Experience.

Ultimately, a learner-centered environment can’t be created for learners. It needs to be created by and with learners. While you may be doing the heavy lifting decision-making in the beginning, always push and support learners to involve themselves in the process more and more, so they learn how to become advocates for their learning journeys. 

This is a balancing act and many of the nuances will be unique to your learning community. Ensure there is always space to question anything and everything you are doing. What might be too much freedom to handle in one learning environment could be too much rigidity in another.

The balance will shift over time as you and your learners develop the habits and skills for self-guided learning. But, it will only shift if vulnerability and trust are present. The uncomfortable truth I’ve discovered is that the only way to help learners be vulnerable and trusting is to model the behaviors yourself.

Show them what it means to be vulnerable with your opinions (with the caveat that you are sharing responsibly in your role as an educator); show them that you trust them by assuming best intentions and allowing them to make meaningful decisions about their classroom experience. The classroom culture starts with you, and the classroom culture will either encourage them to or discourage them from jumping into the co-creation process.

Now, Picture This: Following that slightly traumatizing experience, you don’t know what to do. Is learner-centered education a farce, a dream made up by people who don’t actually interact with children every day? Were you being naive, romanticizing the idea? Should you quit teaching and go backpacking through the Himalayas?

After your minor existential crisis, you take a step back and reflect on how to proceed. You realize that, just like all new things in life, it takes us time to adjust, and you need to give the learners you work with the chance to do just that. Throughout the first week, you remind them of the main points you brought up in your initial “pitch.”

You took some time on your own to create a roadmap, the way you see class evolving over the course of that year and beyond. You explain that you’re going to be making a few changes to the way class is structured and explain why these learner-centered changes are important. You ask learners to share what their favorite hobbies are, how they like to spend their time outside of school, what YouTube channels they’re subscribed to. You use this conversation to connect their interests and the ways they learn outside of school to the changes you want to make. You implement these changes and maintain the patience necessary as learners adjust. Before you know it, your learners are advocating for themselves and incorporating their personalities, their individuality, into class. It’s starting to look like the learner-centered dream you imagined.

Whatever your context—primary, secondary, or adult education; public, private, charter, or independent; rural, suburban, or urban; or whether the changes you’re making are district-wide or starting in your single classroom—helping learners engage with the idea of learner-centered education is the first step of making it a reality.

Utilizing the four ideas above will allow you to start the learner-centered transformation process off with a bang. That work will be ongoing and your classroom, from here on out, will be shifting and adapting to meet the needs and interests of the learners in the room. It’s my promise to you that you will become a more skilled facilitator over time. You are unlearning old habits just as your learners do the same. 

This first step, helping learners mentally prepare for the jump, is where it all begins. Once the learners have the will to take part in this process, you need to take the time to help them develop the skills that will help them be successful as the leaders in the room and in their lives. One question that remains on the table is what specific skills will learners need to develop to make this transformation thrive? Stay tuned for that article in the new year!

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