Discovering Distinction and Community in the Learner-Centered Movement

Insights   26 January 2017
By Anya Smith-Roman and Lindsy Ogawa

EDUCATION REIMAGINED HIT THE GROUND RUNNING IN 2017 with our first Learning Lab Training. Winter storm Helena brought uncharacteristic weather to the south, but was unable to prevent our leaders from making it safely to Atlanta.

The room was filled with new faces from across the country, but it was also filled with learners who had attended our SparkHouse convening last November. There were 14 learners out of the 70 attendees, and the perspective and energy they brought to the room was unmatchable. One of our past writers, Anya Smith-Roman, was in attendance and was gracious enough to share her experience of the training, so our readers could take a closer look at the type of impact the training makes on these leaders. A modified version of the following originally appeared in a blog post by Anya: “Community of Learners”

Discovering Distinctions

by Anya Smith-Roman

It’s always such a relief to meet with learners from around the nation who really see, and have experienced, the world of possibility that lies in the future of education. In the second week of the new year, I had the immense joy of attending the Learning Lab Training hosted by Education Reimagined right in my own backyard—Atlanta, GA. I was blown away by the people in attendance. So much so that I needed to take a full day to reflect before writing about the experience.

In my own words, Learning Lab is a gathering of learners (of all ages) from learner-centered environments that come together for inquiry sessions around major components of the education transformation movement. What I attended this past week was the training for this lab. The purpose of the training is to prepare learners for the Lab itself by establishing a common understanding of language to use within the learner-centered community.

Having common language is really important for a movement because if I tell you “x” is a dog and another person tells you “x” is a giraffe, then you will end up just being confused as to what “x” really means. In the world of education transformation, these misrepresentations are everywhere, so the learner-centered community has created a lexicon which distinguishes key elements of a learner-centered environment.

After spending more than two days with the attendants of this training, I came to realize there isn’t an “easy” or “short” way to distinguish everything these words encompass unless we want to feel unsatisfied with the result. While I could try to summarize these distinctions (I practiced explaining them to others during role playing exercises at the training itself), I would prefer to use this space to reflect on the broader scope of what I learned. However, here is a link to where you can read more about the context of these words in a learner-centered paradigm.

Distinguishing (not Defining) a Community

One of the important distinctions I learned was the difference between a network and a community. In a network, people are connected through one-to-one relationships because each person has an interest in being connected to the other. A network is similar to a web—each thread is needed for the whole, but all threads are not connected to each other. Jack might know John, and John might know Sally, but that doesn’t mean Jack knows Sally. A network is great for solving one-time challenges and problems, like finding a job; however, a network is not very helpful when trying to do something that requires a lot of people to accomplish a task that will have many little challenges arise throughout the process, like trying to build a house. This is where a community is required.

In a community, individuals elect to contribute their gifts to some greater purpose. A community requires synchronization, timing, and nurturing from others in the community in order for a product to be created. And, the bonds formed among community members are just as important as the final product. A community can build a house.

This particular distinction stuck with me because I have personally used the words network and community interchangeably without considering their differences. After this training, I now realize that these words have very different meanings.

I have been involved in this movement since 2014. But, I’ve only been involved on a network-level. I’ve connected with people through Twitter and my school. However, now, I’m finally starting to feel like a real part of the community outside of my school. Sure, I’ve been blogging, facilitating, and speaking with groups of people over the past three years, but only since this past summer have I really begun to find myself working with teams of people with an intent to make change outside of just my own school. I didn’t fully realize this until the last few days, but it’s crazy to think how much has changed since my sophomore year. Now, I show up at conferences already knowing and working with some people!

The Voices of All Learners are Being Heard

To backtrack a tad and give some background context, I came to this training because I am passionate about the movement to transform education thanks to my firsthand experience with how different forms of education can affect learners. I dream of the day when every student has the opportunity to experience learner-centered education because I know it has changed me for the better. It has made me feel more confident in myself, passionate for those around me, and empowered to enact change now, rather than waiting to get to the “real world” after graduating.

Furthermore, I came to this training because I believe it is vitally important to include student voice in this movement because students are one of the primary users of school. When teachers talk about learner-centered education people ask, “Where’s the evidence of this working?” but when students talk about learner-centered education, we are the evidence. It is working. Everyday I feel like I know myself a little bit better and am improving my skills as a learner a little bit more due to the opportunities I have to take ownership of my learning and blur the lines between school and the real world. — The Life of Pinya; “The Movement: Transforming Education”

I was thrilled that out of the 70-some people at the training, there were 14 young-learners in the room; I’m ready for even more! Sometimes when wanting student voice, adults gather a group of only young-learners to discuss education transformation topics. While I love speaking with a large group of young-learners, when adults are still in the room there is still this power struggle with the idea that the adults still have the superiority in the room. Something I loved most about this experience was that everyone, no matter their age, was treated the same. There was no separation of groups or tables by age, there were no limits on speaking time that either inhibited adult-learners from speaking or made an unnecessary space for young learners to be heard. The balance is starting to become more equal, and it is extremely powerful! In all of the conversations, no one felt limited by their age to participate or felt forced to hold the burden of representing all student voices by themselves.

I personally hope to continue to empower more young-learners to be involved in the movement because it’s always helpful to have some smaller people in your community in order to hold up the part of the house’s wall that’s closer to the ground.

EVERY TIME WE COME IN CONTACT WITH YOUNG LEARNERS, they remind us how important it is to make a particular distinction of our own—we are all learners, regardless of age or professional status. In the past, we have commonly formed a dichotomy between learners and educators to clearly distinguish two groups of people in the learner-centered system.

As we should have expected, this is still too hierarchical in the young learners’ eyes. We always have room to learn more, and the more we open ourselves up to accepting the gifts and knowledge of others, “young” and “old,” the more we realize experience has no age limit. This mindset expands our community beyond our wildest dreams, and with their power breeds a sense of place and belonging for all who participate. Such was the feeling evoked inside a former Chicago teacher, now Education Reimagined team member, Lindsy Ogawa.

Finding My People

by Lindsy Ogawa

As I continue riding the short and bumpy rollercoaster that has been my education career, I recently found myself partaking in a Learning Lab Training in Atlanta, GA. Here I was in Atlanta, a former burnt-out teacher who was only recently re-inspired by the possibilities of education, surrounded by incredible learner-centered leaders from across the country. With the turn of the calendar, I had officially gone from intern to new hire for Education Reimagined. As the newest member of the team, I had the opportunity to fully participate in the Atlanta training. As a culmination of the last few months I’ve spent taking a deep dive into the ins and outs of learner-centered education, this training gave me a greater grasp of the language, context, and emerging sense of distinctions that will allow me to speak more articulately about the possibilities for the future of education.

Elements in a Traditional Lens

Speaking of context, here is the context I brought into the room over the course of the training. I became a special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools pumped up and ready to change the world. While education had not originally been on my career radar, I had stumbled upon a K-12 tutoring center down the road from my Hawaii college campus. Our small gatherings were personalized, allowing me to recommend books and articles in areas each student mentioned was of interest. Other times, they shared with me their own accomplishments—videos of their judo competitions, photographs of colorful murals they had spray painted, and even a functioning car made mostly from scrapped parts. I viewed each student as incredibly creative, if not genuinely inspiring human beings, providing unique value based on their own skills and strengths. These individuals were undoubtedly talented, and no below-average standardized test score could convince me otherwise.

These kids convinced me education was the only road I wanted to travel down. After undergrad, I enrolled in a teaching fellowship in Chicago. Shortly after, I pursued and earned a master’s degree in Education.

However, as a teacher, I was in for a rude awakening. My story is similar to many other teachers I have spoken with who work or have worked in the traditional school system. We were drawn to this work because of passion but were repeatedly body slammed by the rapid changes, unrealistic expectations, inadequate training, and accountability talks. Yet, we trudged on. We personalized learning by pulling small groups for differentiated lessons and ordering laptops so students had self-paced learning opportunities. Professional developments taught us socially embedded tactics, such as non-verbal hand gestures, to utilize our economy of language. The Gradual Release Model transferred agency to learners through completion of independent work after teacher-modeled lessons. Occasional field trips offered open-walled and relevant opportunities for students to learn about topics they studied a few units prior. Competency assessments with questions from former standardized tests were given bi-monthly to ensure students were prepped and ready.

Test scores were impressively high, but morale was painfully low. Despite personal efforts to improve the culture of our classrooms, students still groaned from frustration or worry. I wasn’t faring well, either. At the time, I didn’t know as teachers that we were simply tinkering with a system that needs to be tossed and reimagined altogether, that we were attempting to fix a vicious cycle. But, what I did realize was that all the reasons I became a teacher—to learn alongside, grow with, and empower kids—were not feasible in what I now know is an Industrial-era school system.

So, at the end of June, I left. I packed my things, and set out on a journey with a mission to find ways to help the voiceless find a voice. This mission brought me to Education Reimagined, which eventually brought me to Atlanta.

Context is Everything

If Education Reimagined has taught me only one thing, it is this—knowing the context when framing the purpose is vital when creating distinctions. After initially reading through the vision document and learning about the five elements, I thought, “This is everything I believe education should be. Unfortunately, I already tried these things and failed.” I had witnessed time and time again teachers implementing what I translated as personalized learning and learner agency. And, time and time again, my gut knew this was not deep, authentic learning.

However, I didn’t realize I was reading the Vision and elements in a school-centered context, and with time, my understanding would shift. While both contexts view practitioners as people who care about the wellbeing of our children, the traditional lens translates the elements as ways to ensure students have heads full of knowledge and high-enough scores for college acceptance. The learner-centered lens views the elements as starting points to learn about and foster the individuality of each learner—to empower young and adult learners, ourselves, and our communities. Context is everything.

In Learning Lab Training, I was fortunate enough to meet, discuss, and listen to people working on and thinking within the learner-centered context. Despite diverse locations, years of practice, and resources, many participants shared a similar sense of hope and responsibility to work for or within an education system that recognizes the potential and worth of each child—a paradigm that naturally envelops equity and diversity because of its belief that we must learn about and understand the needs of each individual.

That said, the work isn’t easy. At the training, practitioners informed me elements they struggled with, that their work is far from “perfect.” Yet, in this national community contextualized in the learner-centered paradigm, I acknowledged each individual’s failures, lessons learned, and accomplishments as one individual’s contribution to raising the learner-centered “barn.” While the training’s objectives were to familiarize participants with the learner-centered paradigm as an entrance point to the Learning Lab, my main takeaway was much simpler: I had finally found a supportive community serving a purpose that I believed in and admired.

On one of the training days, a participant entered the room, raised his arms, and yelled, “My people!” I could not have worded my sentiments any better.

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