The Learner-Centered Movement One Story at a Time

Insights   21 September 2017
By Paul Haluszczak

 

Working as an “amplifier” of the learner-centered work happening from coast to coast, I’ve come to learn the diversity the vision speaks to is so profound it’s nearly impossible to articulate.

Paul Haluszczak

AS THE SENIOR WRITER FOR PIONEERING, I have the unique privilege of working with learner-centered pioneers from across the country. This means I keep one eye looking over the entirety of the learner-centered landscape, while the other explores the depth and uniqueness of each individual community. All of this is greatly supported by our research team.

A large part of my work is to condense the dynamic learning journeys each community is undertaking and create short profiles that act as incentives for readers to explore further through the links and contact information we provide.

At first, it might seem the structure of these profiles would become redundant over time. And, I would be the first to admit, I had the same impression when I took my first crack at things last July. Sure, the first few profiles would hold some level of uniqueness as I work my way through the “honeymoon phase” that comes with any new line of work. But, I thought, I’m sure these stories will eventually start running together without much differentiation.

I was perfectly fine with this possibility, given the other opportunities the magazine would provide—working with guest authors (young learners and adult learners), soliciting and conducting interviews with leaders in the field, discovering the vast array of tools and resources available to learner-centered educators, and reading articles from other dynamite writers and publications pursuing similar advancements in education. Every job has that certain amount of drudgery to counterbalance the exciting and joyful work that takes up the majority of the time, right?

Fast forward to what has now been a year (and some change) writing profiles for Pioneering, and the expected feeling of mundane, robotic, repetitive work has yet to arrive. To my great surprise and satisfaction, the belief touted in A Transformational Vision for Education in the US has never felt so true—“This document…stands as an invitation and challenge to engage in the next set of conversations about how this vision could manifest itself in the diversity of communities across the country.”

The key phrase here is “the diversity of communities across the country.” Working as an “amplifier” of the learner-centered work happening from coast to coast, I’ve come to learn the diversity the vision speaks to is so profound it’s nearly impossible to articulate. With each new profile I write, and engaging conversation I have with learner-centered leaders, there is only one common thread that holds them all together—the learner-centered mindset. Outside of that, the stories they share and the work they pursue are all unique products of their lived experiences and the lived experiences of their communities.

 

When I dive into the transformational stories present at each learner-centered environment we profile, each one finds discomfort in stagnation, going with the flow, and worse, changing just for the sake of change.

Paul Haluszczak

I could write 1,000 learner-centered profiles and never run into a single story that leads me to say, “Oh, that’s exactly how things are taking shape over at X or Y.” When leaders carry the learner-centered mindset in everything they do, supporting their colleagues and community as everyone transforms together, the lessons learned and strategies taken are uniquely theirs. And yet, in the most paradoxical way, these communities become even stronger by sharing their work across learner-centered models.

There are, of course, unique instances where paths cross—a learning community in Floyd, Virginia might come across a barrier seen 20 years earlier by a learning environment in Jackson, Wyoming. In a more surprising way, a charter system and a rural public school district in California can collaborate in dynamic ways to pursue the shared goal of supporting every learner in their communities. These connections are made as a result of the overarching themes that permeate any learner-centered work—building community buy-in, utilizing research-based strategies, connecting learners to the world at-large, and so much more. However, in any given scenario, the community will have to fail, iterate, and come up with a solution that fits their unique circumstances.

This is where the fun’s at. This is where communities get to choose. They can continue tweaking the old structures—those they know backwards and forwards—or they can dive into something brand new and embrace the idea that learning is a journey, not a destination. This choice point can often be summarized by asking, “Do we want freedom or comfort?” The old way is fairly straightforward, familiar, and can “work” for some kids, some of the time. The new way is rough around the edges, low-lit, and ambiguous. But, it has the potential, for the first time ever, to reach every learner.

As Peter Block noted in his book, Community: A Structure of Belonging, “…the choice to be a creator of our own experience and accept the unbearable responsibility that goes with that…” is the unexpected truth we discover when we come upon the opportunity to truly release ourselves from the grips of any limiting system. Once we become present to that responsibility, our flight or fight response kicks into high gear. As human beings, it’s natural for us to seek out safety and comfort. If we aren’t in harms way today, why would we risk venturing into the unknown tomorrow? For learner-centered pioneers, the answer is simple—the harm is already here. Having a handful of successful learners is not comfortable, and until every learner’s potential is realized, comfort will not be felt.

When I dive into the transformational stories present at each learner-centered environment we profile, each one finds discomfort in stagnation, going with the flow, and worse, changing just for the sake of change. The leaders of these communities are so hellbent on creating an atmosphere of learning that is learner-driven, community-informed, and nationally recognized that the myriad of systemic barriers they run into (i.e. seat-time requirements, standardized tests) are recognized as simply being part of the transformational process. These barriers aren’t seen as an endgame variable that can’t be overcome. Rather, they offer new opportunities to search beyond what is currently known and be the creators of something no one has ever seen before—not to mention the chance to create something that is incredibly effective in cultivating lifelong learners.

 

There’s an unrelenting urgency inside all of these educators, regardless of personality type, to unleash the potential in every single learner across the country.

Paul Haluszczak

This attitude, characteristic, or whatever label you find fitting is what makes these learner-centered pioneers seem superhuman. And, having met many of them over the phone and in person, I couldn’t characterize them any better. There’s an unrelenting urgency inside all of these educators, regardless of personality type, to unleash the potential in every single learner across the country.

In my role, I have the privilege of siphoning this energy into my own mental reserves every time I get to interact with these incredible human beings. With it, I can continue amplifying their stories until the learner-centered movement reaches a national tipping point where conversations around education begin to enter a new age of dialogue. What’s most exciting is knowing how sudden it will feel to the nation at-large. And, how everyone leading the charge today will get to sit back, watch it all unfold, and, holding true to their humble nature, quietly celebrate all they have accomplished.


Speaking of humility, this characteristic is a gift and a curse to many learner-centered pioneers. It’s a gift in that they recognize this is a journey with no end. They will never stop trying to iterate and improve. It’s a curse because they don’t fully see the power in their work and the impact their stories can have on the movement. With that, I invite you (young learner, parent, educator, community leader) to reach out to me (paul@convergencepolicy.org), so we can amplify your stories. Every story deserves to be told, and I love working with people to make their story as powerful on paper as it is in action. Let’s team up and make some magic happen.

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