Learner-Centered Transformation: An Evolution in Thinking

Insights   02 September 2021


If not now, when? If not you, who?

Hillel the Elder

Education Reimagined has been deeply embedded in the learner-centered movement since April 2013. Working with thousands of leaders transforming education and learning in their communities across the United States and world, we have seen the landscape of possibilities this work brings to young people, families, and their local communities. In recognition of this, we have curated a collection of stories and resources that draws a through-line since that first conversation in 2013 to today.

Transformation (not reform)

In April 2013, Convergence, a national non-profit that convenes people and groups with divergent views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on critical national issues, brought together a group of 28 ideologically diverse leaders in education. No two participants held the same view of how to fix the current system. What they did share, however, was a fundamental commitment for all children to love learning and thrive, regardless of their circumstances. Coming together for a series of meetings, they generated a new conversation that was not about debating how to fix the system (reform) and but, rather, sought to imagine and invent a new one (transformation).

Education Reimagined is Born

On September 29th, 2015, the group of 28 published “A Transformational Vision for Education in the U.S.”—marking the official launch of Education Reimagined, then an initiative of Convergence, with the mission to make learner-centered education available to every child across the country, regardless of background or circumstance. Our work was to identify, connect, and elevate the many learner-centered leaders already at work across the country.

Why “Learner-Centered”?

The education sector is rife with jargon and trendy terms that often lose meaning over time through mass adoption. Take “personalized learning” as an example. What is personalized learning? RAND Corporation’s 2017 publication, “Informing Progress: Insights on Personalized Learning and Effects,” sums it up perfectly in their opening sentence: “Although there is not yet a widely shared definition of personalized learning…”

This lack of definition allows anyone who uses “personalized learning” to have it mold into whatever serves their purposes—even if those purposes share no similarities. This ambiguity leads researchers, like those at RAND, to conclude: “Schools were implementing specific personalized learning approaches to varying degrees, with none of the schools looking as radically different from traditional schools as theory might predict.”

In “A Transformational Vision for Education in the U.S.” and more robustly in Education Reimagined’s “A Practitioner’s Lexicon,” the term used to describe a radically different future for education is “learner-centered”—a term rarely heard within education conversations 10 years ago and entirely distinct from “student-centered” and “personalized learning.”

The Learner-Centered Paradigm

“Learner-centered” was never meant to be just another term added to the educational jargon. Its purpose is to characterize a very specific paradigm shift for education—a new pair of lenses through which to look at, think about, talk about, and act in the world.

When it comes to education, the predominant paradigm in the United States is the school-centered paradigm—a paradigm born from the industrial age that holds a certain and distinct set of assumptions. These assumptions include seeing:

  • Young people as who are empty vessels that need to be filled with knowledge;
  • Adults as content deliverers, curriculum developers, and data assessors; and
  • A single building, known as “school,” as the only place meaningful learning occurs.

These lenses are often difficult to recognize because when we are looking through them, what we see feels completely normal. It is simply the way the world is. However, when we start to notice problematic outcomes that the paradigm would never predict (e.g. high test scores not resulting in life success or high school dropouts finding significant success as adults), there is an opening for a paradigm shift to occur.

This is where the “learner-centered paradigm” comes into play. At Education Reimagined, we partner and advocate with others who are committed to shifting the paradigm in education to one that centers the worth and dignity of each and every child and unleashes their boundless potential.

Ultimately, the learner-centered paradigm changes our very view of learners themselves. Learners are seen and known as wondrous, curious individuals with vast capabilities and limitless potential. This paradigm recognizes that learning is a lifelong pursuit and that our natural excitement and eagerness to discover and learn should be fostered throughout our lives, particularly in our earliest years.

Thus, in this paradigm, learners are active participants in their learning, as they gradually become owners of it, and learning itself is seen as an engaging and exciting process. Each child’s interests, passions, dreams, skills, and needs shape their learning experience and drive the commitments and actions of the adults and communities supporting them.

Bringing the Learner-Centered Paradigm to Life

When we talk about what it means to create a learner-centered environment or experience, we see five key elements consistently emerge:

  • Learner Agency
  • Socially Embedded
  • Personalized, Relevant, and Contextualized
  • Open-Walled
  • Competency-Based

It is these elements, when brought together inside of a learner-centered way of operating, that transforms the experience of a child and a community. These elements are not a check list of to dos; like the paradigm itself, they are a new grounding orientation for how to approach and organize learning and education.

This is About Invention (not Innovation)

Having an education system in which the learner-centered paradigm and five elements can be fully brought to life will require invention. We build a system capable of delivering on what we most want from education:

  1. Unleash the full potential of all children and young people, especially our most marginalized and vulnerable, as well as those who face far fewer challenges; and 
  2. Deliver the kinds of learner outcomes that set young people up for success in today’s world and prepare them to be agile, adaptable, and caring contributors in a complex, fast-changing world.

To achieve these long sought-after outcomes, we cannot modify or tweak around the edges of a standardized, antiquated system that has shown itself incapable of delivering on these goals.

So, what does it mean to invent? At Education Reimagined, we look to a quote from Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

We are seeking the partners and allies to come together to invent an transformed public education system that can sit parallel to the current one and by its results, eventually, make that existing one obsolete.

This will take a movement of young people, families, educators, funders, community and business leaders who believe in and want to build an equitable education ecosystem that honors the uniqueness of each child, family, and community; values each child’s life goals and contexts; and prepares them to provide for themselves and their families. An education ecosystem that organizes, supports, and credentials learning in fundamentally different ways for a fundamentally different purpose—to support each and every child to discover their gifts, passions, and talents and to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life.

What could be possible: Community-Based Ecosystems of Learning

We believe that what is possible is the invention of an publicly funded education system that supports the full expression of learner-centered education like never before. We see the possibility of fully realized community-based, learner-centered ecosystems of learning that are built with equity and youth empowerment at the center.

This term “ecosystem” is new for Education Reimagined. But, the vision this term captures has long been what we have been working toward.

An ecosystem approach to organizing, supporting, and credentialing learning recognizes the community and world as the playgrounds for learning; fosters equity, human dignity, and liberation; and ensures young people—no matter who they are or where they are from—are supported to thrive and contribute in a complex, fast-changing, and interconnected world.

Community-based ecosystems of learning are a structure that can fully unleash the five elements of learner-centered learning in ways that have never been realized to date. But, it’s important to recognize this vision of ecosystems of learning, although radically different than what exists today, is not radical. It builds on the incredible work that learner-centered practitioners, youth development leaders, and communities have been advancing for decades and their learnings of what it takes to equitably and powerfully serve children and young people who are diverse across every dimension.

Moreover, this vision is strongly informed by the wisdom from communities, past and present, who have joined together to raise their children as people who see and know themselves and are committed to making a difference in the world.

Diverse places for learning exist in every community, but the connective tissue making it a vibrant ecosystem do not. We invite you to imagine and create with us and others in your community so that we can bring these ecosystems to life.

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.