How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Learner-Centered Education

Voices from the Field   11 September 2018
By Josh Ecker, Salisbury Township School District


Those glazed over eyes were starting to light up, and when we assessed their learning, it turned out this method of learning was much more effective than the empty-vessel assembly line I’d created.

Josh Ecker

Movie buffs and history teachers might recognize the title of this article as a reference to Dr. Strangelove, a movie satirizing the world’s fears about what seemed to be an impending nuclear war. Although the stakes might not be that high for the everyday educator, uncertainty and fear certainly exist, especially for new teachers just starting out.

As you gain more experience and become more comfortable in the role of lead learner, you can start to overcome that fear, reflect on your teaching practices, and become the teacher you always dreamed of being.

It’s not always simple or easy, and as you’ll see, it can take a number of years to gain a strong footing. However, if you want to create a learning environment that is an exciting place to learn (and to teach!), the hard work of implementing learner-centered teaching practices is well worth it.

Heading into my fifth year as an educator, being able to look back at the ups and downs of my learner-centered journey so far, I know I would do it all over again.

I want to share my reflections with you to show how I shifted my own paradigm from one that was squarely school-centered to one that is learner-centered. No matter where you are right now as a teacher, I hope this story provides some inspiration—and maybe even an unexpected path to explore—as you continue your journey in serving your learners in the most effective way possible.

Year One: Survival Mode

I walked into my room feeling like Bear Grylls parachuting into a new patch of jungle, eyes darting around trying to figure out how I would ever make it out of the school year in one piece. My first year teaching wasn’t about being a great teacher, although I did try; it was about figuring out how to survive, how to navigate the basic tasks and duties of being a teacher, all while trying to manage multiple groups of high schoolers. It felt like a win to just remember to take homeroom attendance every day. (The main office must’ve had me on speed dial.)

Teacher preparation programs can only prepare you so much before you have to jump into the chaos and figure it out. During my first year, unexpectedly, my attention was focused on the basic practical and logistical duties of being an educator.

Although I entered teaching with an educational philosophy that resembled none of the practices I was putting forward during my first year, the easiest way to focus on my core responsibilities was by putting everything else on autopilot—recreating the default experience I remembered while in school. It was easy. I had a very clear memory, from my own time as a young learner, of what a school-centered classroom looked like and how it operated. Anything I could make easy that first year was like taking a welcome drink from the jungle’s freshwater stream.

That first year was trial by fire and, learning from my many, many mistakes, I knew I wanted to do things differently. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been exposed to resources that could help me implement learner-centered practices, so I ended up going the other direction entirely.

Year Two: Doubling Down

Every unit and lesson was planned out from beginning, to middle, to end in carefully organized spreadsheets. This, I told myself, would be a different kind of school year…I wasn’t wrong. But, it definitely wasn’t right.

Every lesson was structured with such rigidity that a single misplaced question from a student would break the lesson in two. I made sure, like a drill sergeant, that students were moving in lockstep. There was very little time for students to learn without me directing them from the front of the room. Lesson plans were never adjusted because that would have required a level of flexibility I was trying to avoid at all costs after the flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants adventure of Year One.

While we “covered” a lot more, I couldn’t see any sparks in my students’ eyes, nothing that indicated they were invested in what was happening in our classroom. There also wasn’t any long-term retention. They weren’t invited to bring themselves into class, to share their thoughts about the things they cared about or make decisions about what they wanted to get out of the time we shared.

I needed them to be empty vessels I could fill with knowledge. In trying to remove my own fear of uncertainty from Year One, I’d shut down my students and created the kind of transactional learning environment that would have never worked for me as a student.

I lucked out, though. Towards the end of the year, I wanted to do something “fun” with my students. We did a crime scene analysis to learn about inferencing. It was by far the most agency and freedom they’d had all school year. Those glazed over eyes were starting to light up, and when we assessed their learning, it turned out this method of learning was much more effective than the empty-vessel assembly line I’d created.

After that school year, I spent a lot of time reflecting and speaking to my own educational mentors. I began researching project-based learning, which became my entry point for learner-centered education. I spent that summer developing PBL experiences that would give learners voice, choice, and the chance to build their own classroom experiences with me helping alongside.

Year Three: Rip the Roof Off

What do you want to share with the world about your life, your experiences, where you’re from?

That was the question we opened the school year with in my third year of teaching. Learners were tasked with representing their unique perspectives through a vignette (a la The House on Mango Street) that they would turn into a multimedia video, recording their narrations and setting it to pictures of their neighborhoods.

The young learners and I were in it together; none of us had any prior project-based learning experiences to pull from. It was a lot of trial and error, but because we were all working as a team, we were there to support each other as we made it work.

I was truly inspired by my students, both for the work they produced and for some of the obstacles they’d overcome in life, which I might not have ever known about if they hadn’t had the chance to share their voices.

Throughout the year, we had a number of other project-based learning experiences. Learners devised ways to improve their communities, culminating in neighborhood improvement action plans and a project fair in which learners could share their ideas with the larger school community. Learners also had the opportunity to learn about anything they wanted in Genius Hour-style projects; they painted, solved Rubik’s cubes, programmed video games. I was blown away.


I realized, despite having many great experiences as a young learner myself in a school-centered environment, there was a ceiling to that system that could never be breached.

Josh Ecker

Project-based learning (and what I did not yet know by name as learner-centered education) was a breath of fresh air. I experienced a jolt to my system that made me realize I could never go back to the traditional way of teaching.

I realized, despite having many great experiences as a young learner myself in a school-centered environment, there was a ceiling to that system that could never be breached. Learner-centered education ripped the roof off the school, so to speak. It let my students explore their passions and become more effective learners in the process. All the while, I was there to help guide them to deeper levels of learning that resulted in a feeling of personal fulfillment previously unknown to them in a school setting.

When the school year ended, I was presented with an opportunity to work in another district, at the middle school level. I knew this opportunity would give me the chance to explore learner-centered education more deeply because this district’s leadership already had a commitment to shifting away from the traditional system of schooling. While district support isn’t always necessary to make the shift, it definitely makes it easier.

Year Four: Designing from Scratch

The summer I was hired, I met with my principal for an informal introduction to the school. He told me that in addition to teaching 7th grade reading, I would have an extra period each day to co-design a school-within-a-school model in which learner-centered practices would be the focal point from day one. I was paired with another teacher who I would collaborate with on the design and be co-teaching with once the school-within-a-school launched the following year.

This was an important step not only for the middle school but also for the district as a whole, which was and still is in the process of making the shift to learner-centered education. This school-within-a-school pilot would serve as a proof of concept for the district’s learner-centered vision. It would be unencumbered by the slow, incremental change commonly seen within a longstanding, entrenched system.

While co-designing this pilot, I continued exploring and developing my own learner-centered practices in the classroom. I also started adjusting to being in a new school and working with a new age group, middle schoolers (a topic for another post entirely!).

This opportunity was when I was first exposed to learner-centered education as a shared concept, one that others were committed to and actively exploring. Before, I’d been living in isolation with these ideas contained inside my head. Exploring my ideas with my co-teacher first, and then with learner-centered educators from around the country who were brought together by Education Reimagined, I truly saw that learner-centered education can be a reality for my community of learners.

Step-by-step, my co-teacher and I, with the help of our building and district administrators, pieced together our concept, Project Wonder. It was built around a simple progression: learners, starting in sixth grade, would learn about themselves, develop their passions, learn about the world around them, figure out how to apply their passions to make the world a better place, and share their journeys to inspire others.

It would include every element of the learner-centered paradigm laid out in Education Reimagined’s vision. It would give students a chance to turn their attention inward and do the important work of self-discovery, a necessary precursor to making meaning out of the learning experience.

Year Five: Taking Action

As we begin this new school year, my fifth year as a teacher, we’ll be putting this plan into action with a group of 17 incoming 6th-graders. All of us will learn as we go, seeking to make Project Wonder a reflection of the young learners involved.

It will change year-to-year, built on that concept that I ran away from as a new teacher: flexibility. Specifically, flexibility in my own thinking to allow the ideas of young learners to take center stage, whether that be reflected in the learning experiences we’re designing or any other aspect of the learning model.

I Was Lucky, You Don’t Have to Be

This reflection was as much for you as it was for me. Giving myself the opportunity to look back on my growth as a teacher, I realize how much my own paradigm has shifted. I realize, too, that much of it happened without me even realizing it. Some of it was intentional, as I spent time reflecting on my teaching practices. Some of it was serendipitous, being in the right place at the right time to receive these lessons about people and about how we truly learn and grow.

I was lucky in the way I came into this movement. But, it doesn’t have to be luck, and it doesn’t have to be hard. All it takes is wondering if there’s a better way to shape school and having the conviction to explore that idea. It feels like I learned to love learner-centered education by accident, through a series of seemingly unrelated events that led me to this place.

Your journey, like mine, undoubtedly has and will continue to have its own twists and turns, and the ways we all come into the learner-centered paradigm may look completely different. But, from someone who is traveling down this path, I can say to those just starting out that the work is worth it and, looking back, I will never turn around.

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