College looked like everything it was hyped up to be, from the soaring arches and weathered stone buildings, to the kids casually throwing frisbees on the quad and studying on the sun-soaked grass.
LIKE MOST KIDS, I WAS BOTH EXCITED AND APPREHENSIVE IN THE WEEKS LEADING UP TO MY FRESHMAN YEAR OF COLLEGE. As the only student from my school district to attend Duke that year, I worried about fitting in and making friends, while my anxious parents fretted about potential laundry mishaps (which thankfully never occurred) and my lamentable cooking skills (which still remain a work in progress). But, when I first set foot on campus, I knew the brochures and email advertisements had been telling the truth.
College looked like everything it was hyped up to be, from the soaring arches and weathered stone buildings, to the kids casually throwing frisbees on the quad and studying on the sun-soaked grass. The first few weeks were a blur of new faces, late nights, and free food. I quickly formed friendships with people from various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds—discovering a shared eagerness to explore different disciplines, learn new concepts, and take on the world’s challenges. In that moment, despite coming from different corners of the world, we were all connected by an infectious feeling of possibility.
As a result, the beginning of classes was a little anticlimactic. Taking notes in a cavernous auditorium while a professor wrote out formulas on a chalkboard felt…boring. But, I quickly discovered that “class” in college was not limited to the lecture hall. An introductory course of two hundred kids was sectioned into intimate discussion groups of ten students—turning dry lectures into active debates. The chemistry equations I learned in lecture were brought to life the next day in lab, as we synthesized theoretical concepts into practical lessons in science. From papers to problem sets, my mounting coursework lived up to the expected workload of college classes. As my friends and I worked to balance classes and extracurriculars, I began to notice a different kind of diversity in my peers: their academic backgrounds. Some students had already been exposed to higher-level courses, like multivariable calculus, in college preparatory schools, while others struggled to learn the foreign language of academic writing for the first time. Seeing the broad spectrum of “college readiness,” I developed a new appreciation for my own experiences in a learner-centered learning environment.
Learner-centered learning is a shared commitment between students, parents, and teachers to foster an environment that can meet the needs of each and every child.
The remarkable transition my school district, Clear Creek ISD (CCISD), made to learner-centered learning is a case study for how we can transform the public school system. Like far too many educators and learners across the nation, CCISD struggled with the challenges of tight budgets, inflexible teaching requirements, and far too many standardized tests. With over 40,000 kids, individualized instruction was not always a practical expectation for teachers. With a state-mandated curriculum, exposure to college classes like organic chemistry was not always possible for students. With publicly-funded campuses, money was not always available for extracurricular pursuits.
But, these circumstances are exactly why the shift towards learner-centered learning is so necessary.
Learner-centered learning is a shared commitment between students, parents, and teachers to foster an environment that can meet the needs of each and every child in spite of institutional obstacles. This approach to education recognizes that each student is unique and does not seek to diminish a child’s potential through standardization. This framework aims to foster intellectual curiosity and develop portable skills through real-world experiences. Students are taught to think critically, write articulately, and speak confidently. Educators work to instill in learners a willingness to ask the hard questions and the persistence to dig deep to find the right answers.
Of course, teachers and parents recognize that the structure and delivery of learning is often dependent on a student’s educational context. Although we strive for equality of opportunity in education, resource limitations and social diversity contribute to the variation in every child’s learning experience. But, while learner-centered learning will look different for each child, it is still guided by the underlying principle of “students first.”
In my high school, that meant empowering students through technology. Students from all socioeconomic backgrounds were loaned a computer free of charge. This was an incredible achievement for a public education system—one that put a world of information at a kid’s fingertips. With newfound access to online databases and resources, I was able to lead my debate team to win the first state championship in our school’s history.
In my high school, that meant connecting the classroom to the real world. Our Career Technical Education program offered students the opportunity to take career-centered courses, such as accounting, agricultural science, and manufacturing, and then operationalized the curriculum through internships in the field. With the support of our administration, I started a school-based enterprise through DECA, earning $10,000 over my high school career to help subsidize the cost for students to attend out-of-town competitions.
In my high school, that meant fostering avenues for creativity. Whether it was a commitment to the arts, even in the face of budget cuts, or investment in student-driven projects in robotics, entrepreneurship, and science fairs, learners were taught to reject limits and dream big. With the guidance of my teachers, I was able to win gold medals at the International ISWEEP Science Fair three times.
The biggest impact that my learner-centered high school had on me was helping me to develop my own voice as a student.
Looking back, I am immensely grateful to have had dedicated educators who went the extra mile for their student learners. Instead of emphasizing the memorization of facts or the regurgitation of statistics, my teachers challenged me to embrace a global perspective, become proficient with multimedia, and extract the practical applications of what I was learning. Those skills are what got me into college and have become a platform for my academic growth at the university level.
But, the biggest impact that my learner-centered high school had on me was helping me to develop my own voice as a student. I learned early on that education is a two-way street. Although I have been blessed with phenomenal teachers and mentors, at the end of the day, it would be up to me to make the most of the opportunities that I have been given. Knowing that I have the agency to shape the process and outcome of my education has been transformative.
As I approached the end of my high school career, I wanted to find a way to give back to a school system that has given me so much. So, when I heard that 40,000 seniors across the state of Texas were ineligible for graduation because of standardized testing, I chose to speak up. I worked with my Superintendent, Dr. Greg Smith, to share these student’s stories and presented to ten state legislators at the 2014 Bay Area Schools Consortium advocating for reform. Our efforts worked, and in May 2015, the Governor signed a new law offering a second chance to our students. That June, I was proud to walk the stage at graduation with my peers. CCISD had helped me find my voice, opening the doors to my future.
Since coming to college, I have been able to overload on classes, take on advanced research opportunities, and serve in student government and the honor council. My achievements are a testament to the foundation that my teachers and I developed together. Engaging in hands-on science fair projects in high school eliminated my fear of taking risks, helping me win multiple fellowships in molecular biology as a freshman in college. Learning to analyze and synthesize a wide range of information while on my high school debate team cultivated a strong work ethic, helping me get research opportunities in healthcare policy and international law. All of this and more has been possible because of the teachers who stretched me, parents who believed in me, and friends who supported me.
Remembering my roots, I went back to visit my old high school after I finished my first semester of college. My high school certainly looked different from college—there was peeling paint instead of pristine marble, overgrown bushes instead of manicured lawns. But the building still felt like home, with students crowding the familiar hallways and teachers standing outside of their classrooms welcoming learners with open arms. As I walked out the double doors of my high school, I smiled fondly at the inscription on the walls: “Once a Falcon, Always a Falcon.” Not a day goes by in college that I do not think of my time at Clear Lake High School. My school’s educational environment has shaped me into the student, friend, and person that I am today.
Thanks to that community, I am a learner for life.
Kushal joined the Education Reimagined Advisory Board in November 2016