At Education Reimagined, we are always discussing the importance of collecting stories from education stakeholders who have experienced an “ah-ha” moment when the paradigm shift from school-centered to learner-centered education happens for them. Together, we can expose the unique roads we’ve traveled and unearth what is common amongst them all.
To kickoff our intention to collect these stories en masse, each member of the Education Reimagined team will be sharing their personal story with experiencing the paradigm shift. Our first story comes from Education Reimagined’s Paul Haluszczak.
Want to share your story? Let us know!
FOR MANY, MYSELF INCLUDED, THE “AH-HA” MOMENT WASN’T A MOMENT AT ALL. Rather, it was a long, continuous buildup of frustrations—witnessing the lacking results of education “reform” and its unfulfilled promises of changing the face of education for the better. Over the course of my academic career, unbeknownst to me, I was an active member of Outcomes-Based Education, Common Core, No Child Left Behind, and Marzano. Funny thing was, I never noticed anything changing in my educational experience other than an increasing lack of internal motivation and an outwardly expressed frustration by my teachers.
Privileges Abound, Ownership Unfound
Before digging in too far, it’s worth mentioning I was the type of learner the traditional system was built for—the logical-mathematical type, attuned to following authority without resistance, growing up in a white, upper-middle class household. Regardless of the system I was being taught under, I had a high probability of becoming a productive member of society and not experiencing any negative impacts from the faults and glitches of the underlying design. Whatever learning I couldn’t access in school, I could rely on the experiences of my college-educated mother and father to fill in the holes.
This is an important qualifier to present. Even though I had every resource at my disposal, I still found myself at the age of 22, college degree in hand, disenchanted by what little value I saw in my academic pursuits and achievements. If it wasn’t for my extracurricular involvement, I would have been left with zero self-direction. I would have been sitting in my parents house, twiddling my thumbs waiting for another adult to come along and tell me what to do next. After all, that was exactly what I was conditioned to do.
Fun fact: that society doesn’t exist anymore.
Rewind the Tape
I began taking off my “school-is-fun” blinders around the age of 13 after spending a couple of weeks learning about atmospheric science. I was more excited during those few weeks of lecture than my antsy four-year-old self was on the first day of Kindergarten. But, of course, the lessons ended, and we moved onto a new, teacher-chosen topic in who knows what.
I couldn’t take it anymore. Every time some minor component in my learning journey sparked my interest, it was immediately quelled by the limits of time and curriculum.
Life is remarkably full of unexpected happenings—for better or worse—and…our ability to adapt…should be at the foundation of our educational experiences.
As my middle school years ended and high school began, I allowed the honeymoon phase of entering yet another traditional learning environment fade away before choosing to cope with the system by treating it like a game. All I was there for was to earn that diploma and get the heck out of dodge.
It might go without saying, but I was really good at the game—memorize, test, forget, move on to the next shindig with an inflated GPA attached to my transcript. I had a 4.6 GPA in a 4.0 system. What in the world does that tell anyone about my ability? The answer was irrelevant. I won the game and was ready for the mind-altering experience of college.
No More Fun and Games
Remember that exciting time I had learning about the atmosphere? That little moment in my life was all I had to go on in deciding where I wanted to go to college. I was going to be a meteorologist. So, after visiting various institutions, I landed on Iowa State University—at the time, the top public meteorology program in the country.
How long did I last? Six weeks.
In just six weeks, I was already signing paperwork to transfer back in state (Missouri), go “undeclared,” and save some money along the way. I never knew how truly lost I was until this point. Getting good grades and standardized test scores made me honestly believe my future was crystal clear—when in reality, the opposite was true.
Life is remarkably full of unexpected happenings—for better or worse—and, in my opinion, our ability to adapt to such circumstances should be at the foundation of our educational experiences. Learning such a lesson at 19 was less than ideal.
Of course, I regrouped and continued pushing forward, but man was I distraught. It wasn’t until my sophomore year when I finally decided to stop expecting academics to guide me forward. It was time to start owning my future by seeking out the lessons I had missed over the years—whatever those lessons might be. As an aside, it just so happens I met my fiancée shortly after this mindset shift. The timing couldn’t have been better.
My main motivation for taking control of my learning was to pursue a dream of joining the Peace Corps. In order to do so, I needed to find the avenues where I could use my knowledge and skills in ways that could positively impact my campus community and the city of Columbia, overall.
I started by joining a program that I held a personal connection to, and from there, my the next three years of college shaped me into the person I wanted to be all along—engaged in my community, passionate about learning anything and everything my mind was fixated on, and unafraid to try, fail, and try again.
Along the way, I found myself working on a diverse range of projects and initiatives with local, national, and international communities. Each experience showed me a new layer of understanding about what was missing from the traditional education system:
- In South Dakota, I learned from Lakota and Dakota communities that are consistently left out of the education (and political) conversation altogether.
- In Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, I saw how education can not only happen but actually meet kids where they are by removing age-based cohorts.
- While working at a local Juvenile Justice Center, I had a 13-year-old unable to perform basic arithmetic tell me how she had been passed along year after year because “teachers didn’t want to deal with her.”
- While part of a team of campus leaders operating a university food pantry, I learned how food-insecurity drastically impacts academic and career success.
As a witness to all of these negatives, I still didn’t see myself as a possible contributor to transforming education. I was an Economics major looking to skip town for the two years following graduation, working in a foreign country as a Community Economic Developer. I was thankful for the knowledge I gained from these experiences, but I was meant to work with numbers, not teach. Yes, the teaching profession was the extent of my understanding of the education world.
I came back home from the Peace Corps well before my two years was up with even more questions about how I should move forward. I eventually shipped out to Washington, DC with a new job as an analyst in corporate America, and it felt way too similar to my academic experience—restricting, non-autonomous, and soul-sucking.
It’s remarkable how the excitement we have for learning when leaving school translates to the amount of excitement we find in our careers. I’m lucky enough to have found a way to buck the trend, but if it wasn’t for the stars aligning and Education Reimagined having a position open that translated to the career change I was looking for, I would still be stuck with the notion that this is just how education is and always will be, endlessly tweaking the old machine that needs to be replaced altogether.
Upon reading “A Transformational Vision for Education in the US,” all of my hopes and dreams about how education could be were sitting right in front of my eyes. If my mind was still operating in the school-centered paradigm, I would have thought there was little to sing about when reading the vision. But, the years long shift I experienced over the last decade made the document a written representation of my truth.
I may have never experienced a single point in time where I discovered learner-centered education was “the” way to transform education at the systems level, but I certainly found a vision that brought all of my fleeting thoughts to life. As we continue to share the moments that brought us into the learner-centered movement, we’ll create a map of diverse pathways that all lead to the same checkpoint, gathering a community of trailblazers to forge ahead, together, into a bright future.