Learner-Centered Leaders Are Uniquely Prepared for This Moment

Insights   08 April 2020
By Lindsy Ogawa, Education Reimagined


The work learner-centered educators have done up to this moment has uniquely prepared them and their young people to continue learning and being in community together in powerful ways.

Lindsy Ogawa
Director of Practice and Field Advancement, Education Reimagined

Education Reimagined is hosting an on-going series of Lab Forums for learner-centered leaders in The Learning Lab and SparkHouse communities. Each week, we will be highlighting the insights that emerge from those conversations. The first forum touched on why they were uniquely prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. The second focused on the power of trusting relationships. The third showcased how learner-centered leaders are strengthening their communities. The fourth challenged us to take full advantage of the new flexibilities the current moment is providing. And, the fifth and final for this series invites us to acknowledge what real, authentic learning looks like.

At Education Reimagined, we often point to the pockets of learner-centered models across the country as flickering lights turning on and off. This illustration has never been so apt. Over the past few weeks, we, as a nation, watched the literal lights of school buildings being switched off indefinitely.

After what seemed like a few days of silence from educators and young people, stories slowly began trickling in from learning communities about how they’ve been in action—oftentimes focusing not only on the “learning needs” of their young people and families but also tirelessly creating and implementing new solutions to serve their basic needs—like food, shelter, and access to technology.

The Learning Lab and SparkHouse—two of our national learner-centered communities—are fundamentally built on understanding that being in relation to each other is important and that no one should or can do this work alone.

With that front of mind, we have recently launched the Lab Forum—an ongoing series of virtual conversations where leaders in our national communities and their colleagues are able to:

  • Take a deep breath;
  • Be together and learn from each other;
  • Reaffirm that the work they are doing matters; and
  • Reflect on their needs and opportunities, even in this challenging moment.

On April 2nd, learner-centered leaders came together for our first forum and shared inspiring stories about how local communities are serving their neighbors in response to COVID-19. And, more specifically, how educators are and have been serving their young learners.

Listening to their stories made two things clear—this current moment is illuminating the flaws and inequities that pervade our current education system more starkly than ever before. And, that the work learner-centered educators have done up to this moment has uniquely prepared them and their young people to continue learning and being in community together in powerful ways.

The hour-long conversation was filled with so many insights from learner-centered leaders who serve a diversity of communities that I knew we needed to share them more broadly. So begins our weekly commitment to bring these insights to our readership. If you would like to be kept in the loop on new articles in this series, be sure to sign-up here. 

Below are the six takeaways from our first conversation. As you read through each section, we invite you to see these takeaways as an opportunity to simply pause and think about your own work and how you might more clearly move forward with your transformation efforts.

1. Change needs direction.

Learning communities had to quickly react when ordered to close their doors. And, as the dust begins to settle, communities are determining “what’s next” both in the short-term and long-term. Working without a clear direction often results in getting stuck creating answers to the wrong questions. Does your learning community have a north star to guide the decisions and actions they take? If they don’t yet have a direction, what can you and your community do to articulate and engage them in the change and the learner-centered destination you’re in pursuit of?

2. The learnings of this moment are too important to let slip away.

During a global disruption, there is a natural tendency to want to get back to “normal” as quickly as possible. What type of conversations could you have with (and what type of resources could you provide to) parents, educators, young people, board members, school administrators, and policy makers who may be newly exploring if going back to “normal” is the right course of action? Reflect with your team: What is the purpose of standardized testing, grading, and bell schedules? If they aren’t needed now, might now be the time to explore other ways to “do school”?

3. Learning is non-linear. So is the journey ahead.

Setting realistic expectations for what’s to come will be important—expect highs and lows and twists and turns for everyone involved. What context are you creating for educators, families, and yourself about education and your roles in it? Might you consider asking for grace from (and give grace to) families, colleagues, and yourself? (Things won’t be perfect the first time, but you have committed partners!) How is your team taking care of each other? Are you remembering to take care of yourself?

4. Take advantage of opportunities, like waivers, that allow for more flexibility.

Learning communities across the country are more supported than ever to apply for waivers from conventional accountability measures. What waivers exist that support your community’s well-being? What (new or pre-existing) waivers are available after (and when) the dust of COVID-19 settles? Are there “data points” worth documenting that might demonstrate the impact of these waivers? Ask your colleagues: What do these waivers mean for your community and what’s possible that wasn’t before?

5. Learners have interests, skills, life experiences, and questions. Tap into them!

Educators and families have understandably felt the pressure to figure out what “distance learning” means and how to do it. What if we first started by asking young people: “What do you want to learn?” What opportunities exist for young people to teach and share with their peers? What responsibilities might educators and guardians let go of that young people can own? What are they learning about their own health and well-being? What are the challenges young people currently see in their households or communities—and, what can they safely do about it now and after COVID-19?

6. Recognize life experiences, chores, playing, and hobbies as learning. Make it count!

What do the days look like for the young people you serve (and where is learning already happening)? What chores or contributions are they (or could they be) making to their households? Do they have siblings or grandparents to learn from or support? Do they have phones or computers? (If yes, consider encouraging them to capture their learning via photos, videos, or voice recordings. If not, consider encouraging them to sketch or write their reflections.)

Future Lab Forums will focus on broad topics that are important to contend with during the pandemic, and more importantly, for the future, if we want to have an equitable and socially just education system that is designed to serve all young people. In our next conversation, our topic will be about effectively communicating with parents and guardians in various circumstances, including families who are experiencing differences and challenges other than our own.

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