Learner-Centered Education Infuses Humanity and Sparks Possibility

Practice   22 September 2016
By Michelle Carlson


As students, we spend our whole lives trying to create ourselves for someone else—for the system.

OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE HAD THE PLEASURE OF WORKING WITH TEACHERS AND STUDENTS FROM ALL DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS, but I am especially drawn to supporting those assisting students who are considered “more difficult to reach.” These students provide a uniquely bountiful wealth of knowledge for those of us engaged in reimagining education.

“As students, we spend our whole lives trying to create ourselves for someone else—for the system. Then, when we graduate and we’re out on our own, and someone asks us who we are or what we’re interested in, we have no idea how to answer because there wasn’t any room for that kind of discovery in school.”

These are the words of first-year college student, Ericka. Ericka grew up in a school-centered system that made her feel like a failure. Rather than existing as a singular incident, failure became an identity. The school experience that was meant to serve as the springboard to her future left her feeling powerless instead.

Fortunately, during Ericka’s junior year in high school, she became a Makerspace Ambassador—part of a program I created in early 2015 at the Tehama County Department of Education. The program was focused on helping young people discover their passions and dive deeply into personally defined learning goals, supported by adult and peer mentors. As a participant, Ericka rediscovered the joy in learning, and more importantly, she found herself:

“Passing is how we’re measured and graded and, if we can’t pass the tests, we must not be good at anything. That’s what we’ve always thought…until we met you. You saw something in us that we didn’t even know was there. You told us we were good at something. You gave us a way to believe in ourselves and to know that, even if we aren’t good at passing tests, that doesn’t mean we aren’t smart. Now, we know we are smart and that we can do things. We know we can have the future that we want for ourselves.”

Ericka and the other Ambassadors illustrated the power of learner-centered education in a big way. Their achievements and extraordinary personal growth have since led to the formation of Leaders For Sustainable Change, a non-profit we are establishing to extend the reach of these successes to youth and adults on a national scale.

This is what learner-centered education is about—every student being provided with the environment and support to learn in ways that are joyful, meaningful, and personally relevant. The students who are falling through the cracks or have been written off entirely are now given the space to begin the journey toward the future they want. 

Experiences as a Student Come Full Circle—Fueling a Movement for Change

As an adult, I look back on my own school experiences as that kid—the one who questioned everything and demanded more from the system. I was always being told to fall back into line and play by the rules. I wasn’t falling through the cracks because I struggled academically. Rather, I was diving into the cracks, desperately seeking opportunities to be heard and to be given assignments relevant to real-world experiences. To put it simply, I wanted to be afforded the humanity of a learner-centered education.

It was these experiences that brought me to education eight years ago. I wanted to work inside the system by creating the change I thought kids deserved and society demanded. I pushed that envelope as far as its walls would allow, and upon reaching the boundaries, I took a leap of faith and founded Future Development Group, LLC (FDG) . As Sir Ken Robinson would say, I found my personal Element. I am passionately devoted to supporting this learner-centered movement through teaching, speaking, and writing about its immense power.

Authentically Valuing Students Leads to Remarkable Opportunities to Break Through Barriers

Stemming from my previous work with the Ambassador Program, I most recently jumped at the opportunity to help develop a collaborative partnership between FDG, County Probation, and the Tehama County Department of Education to launch a makerspace inside the local juvenile detention facility . To the best of our knowledge, it is the only one of its kind in the country. As such, our work garnered enough interest to be featured in the 2016 reMAKE Education Summit.


‘Now, we know we are smart and that we can do things. We know we can have the future that we want for ourselves.’

During our presentation, Deputy Probation Chief, Mike Coley, illustrated the program’s impact by sharing “there are only three inches of concrete separating the makerspace from the rest of the juvenile hall. I’m not exactly sure how to explain it, but when we cross that threshold, everything is different—in a really good way. Once we’re in the makerspace, everyone recognizes this is a place to be inspired, creative, and collaborative.”

The students who spend time in there tell us they don’t normally speak to each other in the other areas of the facility, but they do in the makerspace. In working on projects, they get to observe others’ work, and in the process, they realize they have more in common than they ever knew before. One student said, “I like to draw, and I never realized how many other kids in here liked the same things until we were all doing them in the makerspace, together.”

Other students have shared how their time in the makerspace has helped them deal with feelings of hurt, anger, and fear. They say it makes them want to reach out and help others, so others can share in the positive feelings that come from being empowered.

These remarkable moments of student growth are born out of the convergence between learner-centered and maker education: intrinsically motivated, hands-on, minds-on learning. This space allows learners to discover what makes them unique and special, while at the same time recognizing the things that make us all the same: the need for power, value, and belonging.

Understanding and honoring these basic tenets of humanity allows us to create environments which empower and inspire all learners, far beyond what standards, assessments, and grades will ever bring us. The fact is, the carrot and the stick were the foundation of the industrialized system, and they, along with all of the other elements that made that system function like a well-oiled machine, are no longer effective or relevant in the 21st century.

The paradigm shift from traditional education to learner-centered education takes a certain amount of willing suspension of disbelief (defined as a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable). It also takes a certain amount of audacity, strategy, and a truly innovative approach to change.

Through my various roles in education—both inside and outside the system—I’ve researched, explored, and put into practice many different teaching philosophies and styles. In that time, some fundamental elements have emerged, allowing FDG and our collaborative partners to develop successful strategies that bring about positive and lasting change in schools. Change not only good for students, but also for teachers, school leaders, and the communities in which they live.

Now that we’ve had some time to test these strategies, our next steps will be to take the successes we’ve created locally and turn them into the seeds of a national movement for change. Nationwide, this is an exciting moment of growth toward an education system that affords every single young person the opportunity to experience joyful, learner-centered education, allowing them to find and pursue their dreams on their own terms. I believe this is possible, and I will work tirelessly with other passionate educators and leaders to bring this movement to the forefront.

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