A Spotlight on Learner-Centered Research—Q&A with Domonique Edwards and Khara Schonfeld-Karan

Note from Education Reimagined   20 March 2024
By Domonique Edwards and Khara Schonfeld-Karan


Research can serve as a critical tool for deepening the understanding of the viability of learner-centered ecosystems. It can provide evidence to inform programmatic, policy, and resource allocation decision-making.

Domonique Edwards
Research Fellow, Education Reimagined

As we work to advance access to learner-centered education, research plays a vital role in illuminating the power of this approach. Domonique Edwards, PhD, our Research Fellow, and Khara Schonfeld-Karan, PhD, Director of Field Research, joined Education Reimagined in 2023 with distinct backgrounds and focus areas in the research needed to explore our big questions. Here, they share how Khara’s work showcases the impact and need for current learner-centered approaches, and how Domonique’s work examines emerging research on learner-centered ecosystems.

Q: Why is now the time for Education Reimagined to explore research in the field of learner-centered education and ecosystems?

Domonique: Education Reimagined is at a pivotal turning point—engaging new partners, collaborators, and supporters in our work to make learner-centered education an option for every young person in the United States. As we grow, it’s important that we capture insights and data in a methodical way. Historically, Education Reimagined has focused on building and advancing the field of learner-centered education. Over the past several years, Education Reimagined elevated the importance of transforming the public education system toward offering community-based, learner-centered ecosystems. Now, the organization is prioritizing the integration of research as a fundamental cornerstone to catalyze this vision. 

Bringing a dedicated research focus to this work is crucial for several reasons, each of which contributes to the organization’s overarching goals. Through systematic inquiry, we can gather and generate evidence to further support the credibility of our organizational efforts, contextualize the work within the broader educational landscape, stay abreast of current research trends and findings, and ensure that our efforts remain relevant and responsive to the ever-evolving needs for innovation in public education. Khara and I are working on launching the research agenda that will serve as a tool to guide the organization’s research endeavors, projects, collaborations, and more. 

Collectively, as we invite more partnerships and support in catalyzing this vision, we hope such resources will invite practitioners, policy influencers, funders, and other interested parties to support activating this vision in their communities, enable the conditions to support the capacity of this type of transformation, and inform investment decisions in these efforts. 

Q: How have you started to establish your research work at Education Reimagined? 

Khara: Our research team decided to build a solid foundation of understanding about how we want to engage and serve Education Reimagined’s vision, mission, and goals. We asked a lot of questions and took time to thoroughly reflect upon them through collaborative discussions with our full team. Some of these questions included: “How do we want to approach research?” and “Why bring research into our work?” While these might be seemingly basic questions, they prompted very rich dialogue and reflections for our team.

In addition to being generative and thought-provoking, these conversations laid the groundwork for our research goals. These involve deepening our understanding of the practices, as well as the effectiveness and impacts of learner-centered education. For ecosystem research, the focus is on the effectiveness and impacts of the ecosystem, along with spreadable solutions for infrastructure challenges that our ecosystem pilots will be testing. 

Our foundation-building process gave us an opportunity to discuss what we mean by terms like “evidence-based data,” which can be conceived in many ways. For some, quantitative research—such as those involving randomized controlled trials or longitudinal studies—might come to mind as evidence-based data. At Education Reimagined, data that is derived from community voice and lived experience—along with other forms of quantitative and qualitative data—are all valued as meaningful evidence. This is important because it expands the breadth of possibilities for us to learn from a rich range of knowledge and experiential sources in our research endeavors. 


At Education Reimagined, data that is derived from community voice and lived experience—along with other forms of quantitative and qualitative data—are all valued as meaningful evidence.

Khara Schonfeld-Karan
Director of Field Research, Education Reimagined

Q: What types of research themes and work will you be engaging in as you explore the field of learner-centered education?

Khara: The focus of our field research work for the next five years falls within three broad investigative themes. These include inquiries into 1) learner-centered education and its five key elements, 2) how it manifests in practice, and 3) how it impacts learners, including holistic outcomes. To explore these themes, we are looking at existing literature on learner-centered practices and have some great research projects underway. 

Currently, we are conducting a scholarly literature review on the five key elements of learner-centered education and are discovering compelling connections. For instance, education that engenders learner agency and is personalized, relevant, and contextualized connects to the work of psychology scholars Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, whose development of self-determination theory toppled dominant beliefs about human motivation. When individuals experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness—as they do in learner-centered education—this can foster the highest-quality volitional motivation, and leads to enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

We have also seen the opportunity to explore data that highlights the progress and success of our community. Transcend’s Leaps Student Voice Survey has offered us a powerful tool to capture the impact of learner-centered education from the perspective of our young people. Findings from this survey can help us see, through data, how learner-centered education offers learners opportunities to actively self-direct their education, feel affirmed as individuals, and value learning that happens anytime and anywhere. As an example, preliminary survey results suggest that youth in learner-centered settings might spend significantly more time learning outside of a school building than learners in other environments, which aligns with the value that Education Reimagined places on open-walled educational experiences.

In addition, we’re studying how learner-centered environments are working with young people with learning differences, and we will be launching an exciting new program this year that will enable us to take deep dives into inquiries like this.

Q: How is research playing a role in catalyzing the invention of learner-centered ecosystems?

Domonique: While part of our work is focused on exploring what’s currently happening in the field, I’ll be unpacking how to build toward our vision, and how to bring key stakeholders into the work. Research can serve as a critical tool for deepening the understanding of the viability of learner-centered ecosystems. It can provide evidence to inform programmatic, policy, and resource allocation decision-making. I’ll be exploring questions like 1) how are learner-centered ecosystems being conceptualized in terms of their defining characteristics, 2) how do these ecosystems emerge within communities in terms of the conditions and factors that make them possible, and 3) how can they impact learners and community outcomes? 

Q: What are some of the outcomes you’re looking to achieve through ecosystem research work?

Domonique: We first seek to synthesize research from diverse disciplines to demonstrate the collective research insight that informs the underlying concepts of community-based, learner-centered ecosystems (e.g., the role of a learning environment’s structural characteristics on learning outcomes, the role of learner’s interpersonal environment on their development). 

By integrating insights from fields such as education, human development, psychology, community development, and more, we plan to produce a resource that holds preliminary evidence on the effectiveness of ecosystems for learner and community outcomes (e.g., positive youth development, responsive mutually reinforcing community networks). Additionally, we aim to produce research briefs documenting insight from case studies of emergent ecosystems, offering valuable real-world examples to inform evidence-based practices in ecosystem development and implementation, as well as anticipated learner and community outcomes. 


Reference: Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. The American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

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.