Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.
On January 1st, 2019, Education Reimagined became an independent organization. Launched as an initiative of Convergence in April 2013, and incubated for over five years, Education Reimagined was ready to leave the nest—opening up new possibilities to further accelerate the learner-centered movement.
Part and parcel to this new chapter, Education Reimagined wanted to celebrate the transformative impact learner-centered education is already making for pockets of young people around the country and take a stand, with friends and allies, that we will do what it will take to make learner-centered education available to all young people, regardless of background or circumstance.
So, we set our sights on bringing together those leading learner-centered work in their communities—young learners, educators, parents, national organization and foundation leaders, policymakers, business and union leaders, bloggers, authors, and more—to take a stand for what the future of education in the United States needs to be.
Education Reimagined’s 2019 Symposium
Education Reimagined’s 2019 Symposium began the same way iNACOL’s 2015 Symposium concluded—two education stalwarts who once saw one another as adversaries hugging each other with loving embrace.
Gisèle Huff (left) and Becky Pringle (right) hug after welcoming attendees to Education Reimagined’s 2019 Symposium
Gisèle Huff, Executive Director of the libertarian Jaquelin Hume Foundation, and Becky Pringle, Vice President of the National Education Association (NEA), have been at the heart of Education Reimagined’s work from the start. They participated as two of the 28 ideologically diverse education stakeholders in the 18-month dialogue designed to wrestle with a question they had been asked hundreds of times before: What will it take for every young person in the United States to have an education system that serves their unique needs, interests, and passions and prepares them for life?
Through intense conversations that began divisive and completed in a unified call to action, everyone in those meetings came to the conclusion that the debates of old were never going to find a solution to the question posed. Rather than tweaking the system that dominates today, they boldly agreed an entirely new system was needed. Transformation, not reformation, was the way forward.
Two weeks ago, Huff and Pringle reflected on why they have continued to support Education Reimagined’s work and the transformational vision they created and signed onto in 2015.
“There’s a new urgency now,” Huff emphasized to the room of over 200 leaders. “The world is shifting underneath our feet as we are walking. I want you to leave this place with your hair on fire because the situation is that dire.” The situation being the unquestionable need for learner-centered transformation to be experienced in every community throughout the country.
Pringle was in lockstep with Huff, passionately bringing the words of W. E. B. Du Bois into the room: “Of all the civil rights that have been fought for over the last 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental. You must fight until the last ditch to keep open the right, the freedom to learn.”
Huff and Pringle set a powerful context for attendees and the rest of the Symposium’s speakers. Following their call to action, Todd Rose, Harvard Professor and author of Dark Horse and The End of Average, joined Education Reimagined’s Ulcca Joshi Hansen on stage for a conversation about how we might consider redefining success for young learners and ourselves.
Exploring the Definition of Success
In Rose’s research at Harvard’s Laboratory for the Science of Individuality, he made an enlightening discovery about society’s perception of success. “60% of people believe fulfillment is the most important indicator of success. But, they believe only 5% of the population holds that same belief.” Alluding to stories he offers in Dark Horse, Rose added, “What drives folks to go off the beaten path has nothing to do with personality. It has everything to do with how they define success. They all want fulfillment.”
Todd Rose speaks about his research on how society defines success.
What new ways of looking at the world and our place in it appear when we see success as fulfillment rather than GPA’s, SAT scores, money in our bank accounts, or social status? When asked what he hopes the education system will provide young learners, Rose reflected, “I would normally say I want kids to live a fulfilling life and be productive citizens in the future. But, after listening to Becky [Pringle], I need to include the importance of the here and now and what kids can apply today.”
This emphasis on today set the stage for Carlos Moreno, Co-Executive Director of Big Picture Learning, who uniquely knows how the here and now of a learner’s experience shapes how he perceives and interacts with the world. As a young learner growing up in the Bronx, Moreno was assaulted and robbed on his way home from high school. The very next morning, he found himself walking that same route right back to the school—expected to return seamlessly to how everything had been the day before.
Carlos Moreno shares why he wants to innovate inequality.
That was in 1992. Today, Moreno uses his story to emphasize that “for 100’s of thousands of learners across the country, this is their reality—living with trauma with no support.” In a room jam-packed with education leaders, Moreno knew he was “preaching to the choir, but [he] needed to state the obvious—there is no one best way to prepare for the future,” and as counterintuitive as it may sound, “we need to innovate inequality.”
As he sees it, “these [conventional] policies and practices, while intended to promote equality, are actually hardening the inequality that our students are showing up to our doors with. By failing to acknowledge the unique strengths each student is coming in with, schools are providing a politically correct, yet completely destructive ‘sameness’ of opportunity.”
The power of Moreno’s seemingly unconventional call for innovating inequality was brought into greater clarity in the afternoon as the voices of unique and diverse young people came front and center. It showed up starkly for attendees: When we recognize every learner as unique, capable, and wondrous, every learner needs to be treated in a way that honors their differences.
Amplifying Learners as Leaders of this Movement
A symposium celebrating the learner-centered movement without the voices of young learners would be anything but learner-centered. Young learners, Jasmine McBride, Angel Velez, and Megan Matson, took the stage during the afternoon—inviting attendees to see learner-centered education through their eyes.
[from left to right] Angel Velez, Jasmine McBride, and Megan Matson were featured speakers at Education Reimagined’s 2019 Symposium.
McBride kicked things off describing her path from being an overachiever to feeling defeated once she began high school in an environment that saw “an African American woman simply being in accelerated classes [as] a success.” As the only black student in most of her classes, she tested her teachers by sitting in the front row with her head down and headphones in, never receiving a request to pay attention while the same teacher would chastise her white peers who would do the same to get their heads up and focus.
McBride became so unmotivated by the lack of support that she dropped down to regular classes. In her new classes—now majority black, “the curriculum was so dumbed down, [McBride] was offended.” In these regular classes, learners were “being treated like Kindergartners. The teachers didn’t think anyone had the potential to be disciplined, and [McBride] knew that wasn’t true.”
After experiencing this dramatic juxtaposition, McBride was ready to search for a new learning experience that honored who she knew she was and could become. Her friend introduced her to the learner-centered High School for Recording Arts (HSRA), where she enrolled immediately.
At HSRA, McBride regained her self-confidence, sought out ways to serve her community, and most importantly, found “her purpose by testing out many different interests.” For her, the entire experience was “character refining.” She closed her time on stage with an inspiring message:
“We don’t have choice for 12 years and when we get out of high school, people expect us to know how to make decisions about our lives. That’s not how it works. For me to have that choice, I was able to choose confidence over insecurity to speak to you all today. I got to choose to harness my abilities and everything I have to offer. If every child has the opportunity to do that from the start, things will be more peaceful; there will be less crime; and I believe overall, the world will be a better place to live.”
Next on stage was Angel Velez, a young man whose early years in school weren’t his best. He struggled playing the game of school. In middle school, “[his] mom was being called every other hour” to discuss his poor performance.
However, Velez, in his optimistic and upbeat way, saw this experience through the lens of Steve Maraboli—“just when I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being redirected to something better.”
Velez began his high school journey at Camden Big Picture Learning Academy (CBPLA) in Camden, NJ—initially, his very last choice of school. But, to his surprise, it ended up being a learning environment “that changed [his] life for the better.” For Velez, this meant learning life skills, rather than how to take tests, and giving public presentations to demonstrate his learning, rather than studying for final exams at the end of each quarter.
The most valuable experience for Velez at CBPLA has been his internship experience. Rather than “pursuing a college degree for three years and accumulating debt,” Velez has been able to use his internship experience to not only find what he enjoys doing, but more importantly to him, to discover what he doesn’t want to do in his future. He went from searching for specific work to discovering the higher-level significance of building great relationships. Through his open-walled experiences, Velez lives the reality that “learning doesn’t just happen behind a desk; it happens throughout the world.”
Capping things off, Megan Matson took the audience through the Iowa BIG experience. Enrolling at Iowa BIG as a sophomore, Matson experienced a “rough transition” going from her conventional school to this learner-centered environment:
“I excelled in the conventional school system. I was really good at memorizing information and taking tests, so when I first got to Iowa BIG and teachers weren’t handing me worksheets and telling me exactly what to do, I didn’t have the initiative to know what I should do on my own.”
Yet, she persisted. And, a couple of weeks into her time at Iowa BIG, Matson found her calling through an initiative called Humans of Cedar Rapids (modeled off of the popular Humans of New York). This was the first time Matson had ever taken on a learning experience that connected with all of her strengths at once—“speaking with people, connecting with others, and writing.”
From this experience, Matson saw the potential impact learner-centered education could have on every learner throughout the country and quickly joined EdRevision—a learner-led project at Iowa BIG that works hand-in-hand with educators in Cedar Rapids to transform school-centered classrooms into learner-centered learning environments.
Matson closed her speech with a reflection that is too important to cut down or paraphrase:
“If you would have asked me three years ago what I was passionate about, I wouldn’t have had an answer. At Iowa BIG, the first question mentors ask you on your first day is “what makes you mad.” I never realized the importance of that question until I realized I didn’t have an answer.
Today, I know that sitting in a desk and listening to a lecture on something I will never use in the real world makes me mad. The fact that a bell can determine what I learn and when makes me mad. And, educators and college admissions counselors who overlook who I am as a person to ask me what my ACT score is makes me mad. Iowa BIG has completely changed my perspective on myself, education, and the world. I now know I don’t need to wait until I graduate college to make a difference in the world. I can start right now as a high schooler, and I am.”
Declaring a New Future for Young Learners Everywhere
After hearing the powerful stories from Moreno, McBride, Velez, and Matson, attendees were asked to consider what it will take to make learner-centered education available to every single learner in the United States. Rather than making this an informal thought experiment, attendees were invited to sign onto a bold declaration [read the full text here]:
“We declare a future in which every child has access to a learner-centered education where they are valued as unique individuals, their agency and passions are cultivated, and their learning is nurtured in caring communities. And, a future in which every educator, family, and community is supported and empowered to make the difference they are committed to making for young people.”
If you would like to sign onto this declaration—pledging to do what it will take to make this learner-centered future available to all children, regardless of background or circumstance— you can do so here.
A Final Toast to Celebrate This New Chapter
Concluding the day’s events, Education Reimagined’s President, Kelly Young, was joined on stage with Convergence’s President, Robert Fersh; Education Reimagined Board Member, Olivia Christensen; Megan Matson, and Angel Velez to toast a learner-centered future where every child in this country is honored and supported in building upon their unique strengths. And, toasting the leaders who have been and continue to be committed to making learner-centered education a reality for young learners in their communities.
[from left to right] Robert Fersh, Megan Matson, Olivia Christensen, Angel Velez, and Kelly Young toast to Education Reimagined’s next chapter.
There could not have been a better way to launch into 2019 as a newly minted, non-profit organization. Education Reimagined’s commitment to accelerating the learner-centered movement has always guided our work, and as we turn the page to this new chapter, we are ready to double-down in bringing this learner-centered future closer to the present reality every single day.