5 Questions We Aren’t Asking Our Learner-Centered Leaders Enough

Q&A   16 April 2019


If you’re doing this work, you have to remember to include folks who you might not think to include. They might not be the first people you go to because they might not have the money or the visibility to be on your radar.

Karla Vigil
Co-Founder, EduLeaders of Color Rhode Island

Learner-centered leaders are tasked with answering a wide variety of questions from their stakeholders. Without a well-executed design process that includes parents, young learners, educators, and the community at-large, the transformation will find an impossibly steep mountain to climb from day one.

The questions they receive come in giant waves, but are often predictable. Parents want to know how this transformed learning will impact their child’s ability to gain acceptance into a respectable university. Veterans of the traditional system want to know why they would change their practices when graduation and college acceptance rates are at an all-time high. At community forums, skeptical stakeholders ask why something that worked well for them as children should be done differently for the newest generation of learners. Stakeholders from other communities who visit the learner-centered environment often focus on how they can replicate what they see—trapped in thinking in terms of scalability, rather than spreadability.

With so many questions to address from so many stakeholders, it can be difficult for leaders to find the space to open up inquiries that reach beyond the traditional notions of education. This inspired us to make a slight change in how we conduct our conversations with learner-centered leaders. The operative word: conversation.

Although we do our research and have themes prepared in advance, those themes often go out the window after the first five minutes. The uniqueness of every leader we speak to allows us to inquire about a variety of ideas that can only be explored in one-on-one conversations. This isn’t so different than when the leaders themselves speak with their community members. Only so much information is exposed on paper or in well-formatted articles. It isn’t until a one-on-one conversation takes place that we are able to step inside and truly experience the humanity of this transformational work. Afterall, the extrapolation of learner-centered education is a human-centered culture—one that recognizes the gifts everyone brings to a community.

Since November, we have asked everyone we’ve interviewed one ambiguous question: What do you wish people—parents, community members, educators—asked you more often? 100% of the time, our participants have to first take a moment to think. And, 100% of the time, they then provide insights that, more than in response to any other question, expose the drive and passion they have for this work.

Here are some of the answers we’ve gathered to date:

Gabe Kuriloff, Principal, Vaux Big Picture School

I have done a lot of talking about the school over the past year. I talk a lot about feeling honored to be doing this work. Nobody ever asks me what I hope for in terms of the broader mission of the school.

I hope we are the beachhead in showing you can run a progressive, neighborhood high school—that learning-by-doing can be for everyone. I’d like to walk away from this work in ten years knowing we were the first of a breed of schools that helps people understand the value of this kind of learning. For 30 years we’ve been spouting, “No Child Left Behind means test, test, test;” whereas I believe “No Child Left Behind” means “love, love, love.”

Rachel Allen, Director, Village Free School

I think it’s a profound experience to be with people and understand what that means—to be present and to honor someone’s experience. Shifting our perspective and cultural narrative from ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ to actually addressing the bigger issues that are going on in the world is paramount.

We need to dismantle mindless thought and become mindful and intentional. We need to protect people’s autonomy and provide the opportunity to access their real power in this world. We need to show other people the way and bring it into the collective conscience.

We’re just over here fomenting the education revolution. That’s all.

Karla Vigil, Co-Founder, EduLeaders of Color Rhode Island

How can we have more people of color at the table making decisions? When I walk into spaces with educators who are trying to lead change, I don’t often see anyone else. I don’t see people from the community who represent a diversity of backgrounds who can help find solutions. It’s not just a matter of being at the table but also being partners in building things together. How can we all build solutions for our students? If you’re doing this work, you have to remember to include folks who you might not think to include. They might not be the first people you go to because they might not have the money or the visibility to be on your radar. That’s the question I wish we kept front and center as we look to make change.

Doug Knick, Co-Founder and Advisor, DREAM Technical Academy

I wish people would ask what is the purpose of education? We all assume we know why we’re in school. By not asking that question, we don’t become critical of the education that is being delivered to us. My frustration is that all we do is jump from one reform to another without asking that critical question.

It is something that is asked here on a weekly basis. It is asked so much that our students will ask that question about their own learning experience. Until we have that debate as a country, we are not going to find ourselves being able to move out of this quagmire of dysfunction in education. When we can incite students and adults to ask that question, then we can begin to create learning environments that benefit all students and the community.

Cory Steiner, Superintendent, Northern Cass School District

Everybody is so concerned about the “how,” that I don’t think they spend enough time thinking about “why” we made the choice to begin our transformation. We have a why statement—“Every learner can change the world, therefore we must provide a world class education.” It was six or seven months of discussions about what world class means that led us to this change effort. Our why drives everything we do in this building. I wish people would take the time to figure that piece out. People will talk about how they already have a mission and vision, but people have to know their why before they engage in this work.

The other question I wish people would ask is: “What’s next?” People love seeing what’s happening now, and it gets them excited. We did it too when we first visited Harrisburg. When we visited Lindsay USD, they told us, “Yeah, we’re ten years into it, and when you come back in ten years, we’ll be 20 years into it.” You won’t ever be done with the work, so I’d love for people to ask, “What are you looking to do next?” This is not something you just implement and call it “done;” you always have to adjust based on your learners. This is truly why you exist—to serve learners.

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