9 Learner-Centered Environments You Must Visit

Insights   16 April 2019


Whatever community you are in, you are bound to find something parallel and worth digging into.

Education Reimagined

Learner-centered is a mindset, not a model. There is no designation—public, private, charter, or independent—a learning environment can bear that necessarily means they are operating with this mindset. If their work fits the distinction of what it means to operate within the learner-centered paradigm, we pin them to our map and explore opportunities to write profiles, conduct interviews, amplify the voices of their learners, and more.

We distinguish the learner-centered paradigm as follows (view the full distinction here):

“The Learner-Centered Paradigm is constituted by a coherent and closed set of background assumptions. The Learner-Centered Paradigm begins with several assumptions about the learners themselves. First, each learner is seen as being unique in meaningful ways…Second, each learner is seen as having unbounded potential—potential that will unfold at its own pace and in its own way. Every single learner is a wonder to behold…And, finally, each learner is seen as having an innate desire to learn.

Building on this view of each unique learner, the Learner-Centered Paradigm includes a set of background assumptions regarding the education system in which the learner participates. The first is that the central work performed in the education system is learning itself and the central worker is the learner…It follows that the education system must then be structured to respond to each unique learner.

Finally, the Learner-Centered Paradigm includes assumptions about what learning is and can be. Learning is understood to be the exercising of our innate capacity to wonder, discover, and make sense of the world around us. It is a natural process going on all the time, beginning when we are born and continuing throughout our lifetimes. Learning can and does happen anywhere and at any time, not merely in a primary learning environment during prescribed hours. There are a myriad of learning modalities, and each individual learner may benefit from different ones depending on who they are, what they are learning, and how they learn best. Finally, it is assumed that learning not only encompasses the accumulation of knowledge but also the development of the skills needed to apply that knowledge and the dispositions needed to do so in real-world situations.”

Through this unique distinction—one that continues to evolve as we traverse unexplored territory within the learner-centered paradigm—we have discovered a remarkable variety of learner-centered models that allow communities everywhere to say, “Hey, they look like our community. Maybe we can do this, too.”

There’s no reaction or epiphany that makes us more excited to keep moving this work forward and ensuring every child has the option to engage in learner-centered learning in their community. In that spirit, we want to feature nine diverse learning environments we’ve profiled over the past 3.5 years that showcase the truly limitless nature of learner-centered design. Whatever community you are in, you are bound to find something parallel and worth digging into.

The Met – Providence, RI

The Met built its permanent home in Providence’s poorest neighborhood, the South Side. Co-founders, Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, sought to ensure the community understood this effort was about so much more than “school.” They wanted to demonstrate how the learning experience could be completely transformed for young people who are too often underserved and under-resourced: learners of color growing up in the poorest parts of our urban centers. They wanted to prove to the community (and the world) that you don’t have to build fences, install metal detectors, and make the learning environment feel like a prison just to keep learners safe. Rather, they created an example of how truly immersing young people in their communities could transform everything.

Norris Academy – Mukwonago, WI

What if your first assignment when entering a new learning community was to simply spend time discovering yourself—your interests and passions, strengths and weaknesses, and overall wellness? At Norris Academy, that is exactly what new learners are tasked with. By focusing on four interwoven diagnostic assessments, learners at Norris Academy explore their unique identities through the lenses of academics, citizenship, employability, and wellness (physical and mental). These assessments form the foundation for tracking future growth as the learner develops their knowledge, skills, and dispositions toward learning.

Iowa BIG – Cedar Rapids, IA

Iowa BIG started as an unorthodox experiment: Send business and community leaders back to school for a day; not as observers, not as guests, but as students. In 2012-13, 60 local business and community leaders got the “Billy Madison” treatment. After their back-to-school experience, they shared reflections and insights and emerged with a set of principles for the kind of schools they wanted for their kids. These principles became the backbone of Iowa BIG’s now flourishing model:

  • Use student passion to drive deep learning and deliver core academic credits;
  • Engage students in authentic community projects, problems, and opportunities; and
  • Connect them deeply to the people and resources of the Cedar Rapids Tech Corridor.
Design39Campus – San Diego, CA

In 2013, Principal Sonya Wrisley came to her Superintendent with a crazy idea to reimagine school: What if we designed a place with the learner at the center? What would it look like? How would it work? Sonya gathered five teachers to explore these very questions. Once they had a vision in mind, they enlisted parents, learners, and even more educators to design a whole new learning ecosystem from the ground up—Design39Campus became reality.

Avalon School – St. Paul, MN

Operating on multiple fronts, Avalon School has brought agency to learners and educators alike. By flattening the traditional hierarchy from day one, every educator is given an equal voice through the Avalon “Fist to Five” voting process. Modeling this collaborative work at the professional level opened up educators’ notion of what could be possible for their learners. Now, they aim to cultivate the confidence-boosting effects of this agency-driven leadership for everyone at Avalon. This collaborative stance speaks to Avalon’s message that “community is everything,” which means everyone’s voice is valued and appreciated.

One Stone – Boise, ID

In 2008, Teresa and Joel Poppen wanted to deeply connect learners to their Boise community. On the surface, their plan looked simple—introduce kids to service-oriented work and help them develop some skills along the way. But, there was one component that would push this One Stone project into a new age of youth engagement: let the learners choose the work they wanted to pursue. One Stone’s original initiative, Project Good, is now only one of several platforms of what has become a dynamic entity on a mission to “make students better leaders and the world a better place.”

Springhouse Community School – Floyd, VA

Tucked away in the hills of Southwestern Virginia’s Blue Ridge Plateau, Floyd County is home to a vibrant and welcoming community. Boasting a population smaller than many senior classes, it may come as no surprise that a local learning environment, Springhouse Community School, is one of the smallest learner-centered environments we have discovered thus far—but don’t let their size fool you. The Springhouse vision allows for adaptability and improvisation, which are of utmost importance when leading an age-diverse group of just 17 learners. Given this small cohort, many school-centric philosophies had to be thrown out the window immediately—giving way to a free exploration of what education could be.

Portfolio School – New York City, NY

At Portfolio School—a micro-school in New York City—grades, tests, and homework are relics of the past that have no place in today’s learning environments. Instead, as their name suggests, learners build portfolios of project-based work that are assessed based on peer, educator, and community feedback. The idea of “testing” is replaced with public exhibitions and professionally drafted publications. These young learners are building proof of learning through competency-based projects that ignore the traditional restrictions of one-hour schedule blocks, age cohorts, and seat time.

Harrisburg School District – Harrisburg, SD

If your district was the fastest growing district in your state, would you see it as an opportunity to transform or would you simply hold on for dear life and hope you can weather the storm? For Harrisburg School District in Sioux Falls, SD, they saw an opportunity. Leaders began asking, “What if we did things differently?” Gaining community enrollment allowed the district to begin a robust learner-centered transformation in 2016. Harrisburg had a unique opportunity to keep up with the guidelines passed down from the state, while at the same time creating new structures and practices to move from a school-centered system to a learner-centered one. During this exploration, they realized many of their traditional practices were simply that—tradition. There weren’t many laws on the books that dictated how they cultivated learning.

New resources and news on The Big Idea!


We recently announced a new R&D acceleration initiative to connect and support local communities ready to bring public, equitable, learner-centered ecosystems to life.