iNACOL Symposium 2017: Culminating the Year of Learner Voice

Learner Voices | Insights   09 November 2017


How do we cultivate in others the same deep-seated passion for learner-centered transformation we recognize in ourselves?

There is great value in creating the space for learner-centered pioneers to discuss how we can build systems that support the uniqueness of each young learner. Being in a room with like-minded people who collectively believe in the importance of education transformation is irreplaceable. It allows pioneers to engage in conversations that dive deep into the “how” of transformation, rather than getting caught in conversations about the “why” or “what.”

These are the rooms that beg the question, how do we bring the learner-centered conversation to a more general audience? How do we cultivate in others the same deep-seeded passion for learner-centered transformation we recognize in ourselves? To spark uninitiated minds to engage in the learner-centered conversation, one source uniquely stands out as providing the necessary energy—young learners.

When learners are asked how this new mindset toward education impacts their lives, you can’t help but put your phone down, sit up straight, and listen carefully. We know these insights are far more powerful than any article or speech you’ve experienced in the past or will experience in the future (even those we produce).

Acknowledging this reality and wanting to quickly act on it, Education Reimagined made a commitment for 2017 to amplify learner voices in brand new ways. After building a foundation in Pioneering through our Learner Voice articles and hosting our first SparkHouse gathering last November, we were ready to showcase the wisdom of learners in front of audiences across the country.



I can’t imagine anything more inspiring than being able to spend time with these five learners.

Ulcca Joshi Hansen
Associate Director of National Outreach and Community Building, Education Reimagined

The plan was simple: When selected or invited to speak at a gathering, we would evaluate our capacity to support learners in attending with us. If the capacity was there and learners were available, we would invite them into the experience with a simple piece of advice—be yourself, and you’ll inspire everyone in the room.

Our goal to bring learners wherever we go has grown into something with far more reach than we initially set out to accomplish. Although we are far from the sole cause of this shift, the demand for learner voices across the country this year has been remarkable. This demand has culminated in a month’s worth of high-impact events that have featured learners at conferences with thousands of attendees from around the nation. From iNACOL Symposium 2017 to EdSurge Fusion to our second SparkHouse gathering next week, listening to the voices of learners is becoming a conscious choice we can no longer be apathetic about.

The momentum began with an iNACOL Symposium tradition, featuring a panel of young people sharing their insights and experiences with the audience. This year, after submitting our session as one among many looking to find a slot within the busy conference schedule, iNACOL leaders invited us to take the stage in this year’s conference closing keynote. For iNACOL, this tradition is at the core of the Symposium’s purpose, regardless of the year’s theme.

“All of our attendees, be they a classroom teacher, school or district leader, or policy maker, come to the Symposium with the goal of listening and learning from those who are creating personalized learning environments. The Student Panel Keynote is always one of the highlights. Ultimately, it is the students’ voice that helps us understand not only the progress we have made but also the great work that has yet to be accomplished.” —Bruce Friend, Chief Operating Officer, iNACOL

As Bruce mentioned above, these learners are the evidence of the impact learner-centered implementation has made to date. And, when given the space, they will be the first to let us know when what we’re doing is not meeting their needs. With the opportunity to bring learners from learner-centered environments, we couldn’t wait to show just how powerful these environments are for learners of all ages.

For the keynote, our very own Ulcca Joshi Hansen, Associate Director of Education Reimagined, moderated a panel of five learners from Iowa BIG, Lindsay Unified School District, Pike Road Schools, and McComb School District. Learners discussed questions like “Why does it matter to you that you’re attending a learner-centered environment?” and “What impact has the role of failure played in your learning?” With each response, symposium attendees were lighting up Twitter in awe of the compelling presence each learner exhibited on stage.

The inspiration educators garner during these sessions is one thing, but the experience for the learners themselves is something that should be examined. Imagine yourself at the age of 10, 11, 16, or 17, and what it would have meant for you to travel and represent your family, peers, learning environment, and community in front of a national audience of educators. What sense of agency would you have developed from that experience?

We caught up with some of iNACOL’s panelists after the Symposium concluded. We invite you to reflect on their thinking and what it could mean for your own learners to be given an opportunity like this, even if on a smaller scale.

Attending iNACOL and having my voice heard in front of so many educators, leaders, and advocates left me feeling inspired and hopeful. To see so many individuals working so hard for such a needed change that has affected my life in so many aspects, deeply inspires me! It’s heartwarming to know my story and learner perspective is helping support change in other communities and might even ignite more learner involvement in this learner-centered movement. —Jemar Lee, Learner at Iowa BIG

It felt good to know that I was being heard and to know that many lives will be affected by my voice. My families thought that after I spoke I could do anything and my mom said to me that I had set the bar. I always had faith in being heard and now I have been. It means so much to me that people took time out of their day to listen to me and my fellow learners. —Keyonna Griffin, Learner at McComb School District

I was very proud of myself that I was picked out of a school that is in a small community to speak out about how we do personalized learning, which is a big deal to many people. My family was proud of me, too. They always told me I was a smart child and I would accomplish big things when I grow up and that inspired me to be the person I am today. I can be courageous and brave enough to go in front of 3,000 people and talk about my experience as a learner. —Jada Rollins, Learner at McComb School District

When learners are invited to fully express their learning experiences to adults who are willing to listen and take action on what they have to say, they realize they have the power to make an impact now, not just in some distant future.

Leaning into that power, these learners are ready to bring an honest and important question to the nation, “What are we waiting for?”

This question coming from a learner has our go-to excuses fall by the wayside and our minds poignantly ponder, “What are we waiting for?” It can also make our stomachs drop. We might feel as though we have failed the very kids we promised to devote our every day to. But, it’s important to remember this challenge is not an admonishment. Just as you strive to spark the young minds of learners in your community, they are striving to spark yours. And, together, we can build learner-centered systems that represent the voices of our learners and, on a larger scale, the voices of our communities.

As you become more and more present to the power learner voices bring to the education conversation, take a breath and reflect. Ask yourself why their voice is so palpable. Explore how you can keep their voices at the forefront of your work. Share the lessons you’re learning with friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. Pose the same challenge the young learners at iNACOL posed to you, “What are we waiting for?” Because as Keyonna from McComb School District mentioned in her closing comments, “Please don’t walk away from this and not let it change your mind.”

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