The Paradigm Shift: How Serendipity Transformed My Mindset

Insights   16 February 2017
By Dr. Trace Pickering, Iowa BIG

At Education Reimagined, we are always discussing the importance of collecting stories from education stakeholders who have experienced an “ah-ha” moment when the paradigm shift from school-centered to learner-centered education happens for them. Together, we can expose the unique roads we’ve traveled and unearth what is common amongst them all.

To continue our intention to collect these stories en masse, Iowa BIG’s Trace Pickering will be sharing his personal story with experiencing the paradigm shift as an educator.

Want to share your story? Let us know!


It was clear that the bulk of my students were bored and disengaged and, frankly, so was I.

Dr. Trace Pickering
Executive Director

I’M OFTEN ASKED HOW I CAME TO THINK ABOUT EDUCATION and the design of student learning the way I do—one which is squarely in what we now call and know as the “learner-centered paradigm.” The short answer is two-fold: serendipity and an intrinsic desire to innovate, create, and make new things happen.

The serendipity part of the story is likely a familiar one. The perfect mentors and guides appeared in my life at the exact moment I needed them, and I was ready to be open to new patterns of thought.

As a high school sophomore, I was a below “average” student with no direction or interest in school—outside of playing basketball. Luckily, my coach and teacher, Dan Koch, saw in me what I couldn’t see in myself. He challenged, pushed, and cajoled me to “see” what he saw—a person with gifts to give and talents to share. Although a traditional teacher in a traditional school, Dan was different. He cared deeply about knowledge, students, and engaging us in American literature and history. He made me want to be like him—a teacher who cared.

Fast forward six years as I began my teaching career. I simply copied the teaching strategies I witnessed as a student. Within a few months something began to gnaw at me. It was clear that the bulk of my students were bored and disengaged and, frankly, so was I. However, I saw a huge transformation occur every day at 3:30 when school let out.

The kids on my basketball team were highly engaged in practice, and they were learning together joyfully. I was engaged and passionate, too. The kids practicing for the school play or heading out to their family farms were happy, excited, and open to learning.

The irony and stark contrast didn’t go unnoticed. I grew increasingly uncomfortable as the year progressed. I began asking myself, “What is wrong with school that it really is the drudgery I remembered growing up?” I thought it just required being a great teacher who openly showed he cared about kids. Clearly, that wasn’t enough or the solution.

The next year, I joined a team of teachers at a middle school where we shared the same students and got to meet every day to plan and help the kids. While still traditional in our approaches, this did allow me to see that teachers could collaborate, work together, and be open to trying new things. I found the energy to try several larger-scale projects, and while the projects were nascent in their development, it helped me see that it was possible for kids to be more engaged in their learning.

Authentic Assessment, OBE, and Dr. William Spady

The big shift, or “ah-ha,” for me happened in the third and fourth year of my professional career. I moved again; this time to a large urban high school.

During the first year, I was engaged in alternative assessment models. I had grown tired of the idea that points and tests made for a meaningful or accurate way of assessing learning. Because of this, I was asked to join the Iowa Success Network where I met my next great mentor, Al Rowe.

As part of the Iowa Success Network (ISN), I worked with a group of progressive educators over the course of two years to develop early iterations of authentic assessment and project-based learning, which led to my burgeoning friendship with Al. During this time, Al was spending every weekend on the road presenting and speaking with Dr. Bill Spady, an often-forgotten name in today’s education world.

I consider Bill to be the modern father of the learner-centered movement. His work was known as Outcome-Based Education (OBE). OBE was sweeping the nation in the early 90’s and hotel conference centers would be filled with 700, 800, 1,000 educators every weekend wanting to hear Dr. Spady speak.

He argued for transforming education, focusing on the learner, and helping them develop life skills beyond content acquisition. In short, he was calling for the development and teaching of knowledge, skills, and dispositions through lifelong outcomes. This powerful learning moved me into a very new and exciting paradigm—what we now call “learner-centered.”

While working with the ISN, I was also traveling with Al and getting opportunities to present on topics around OBE, helping myself and others start to envision a very different way to “do school.” Excited by the possibilities of creating something new and fundamentally more aligned with helping humans self-actualize, I dove headlong into understanding this work.

At the time, I was still school-centric in many ways because I largely believed we could continuously improve the system into what we wanted—in other words, reform it into something new. It would be a few more years before I recognized that you can’t simply improve your way into something entirely new. Rather, you must first step firmly into the belief that transformation is the best way forward. When the OBE movement died a tragic and rapid death in 1994—literally in 3 months—I remained committed to the ideas and ideals of an education system founded on learners and learner outcomes.

From “Continuous Improvement” to “Socio-Cultural Systems Design”

By the early 2000’s, I was involved as an incubator and facilitator of education innovation. This is when I met my third mentor, Dr. Susan Leddick. She led a year-long series in my organization called “Contemporary School Leadership,” which blossomed out of her decade-long work relationship with Dr. W. Edwards Deming and social systems scientists Dr. Russell Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi.

For those who may not remember, Dr. Deming was the father of the quality movement in America and played a major role in helping Japan become a major, high-quality manufacturing nation. Near the end of Dr. Deming’s career, he and Dr. Leddick spent a significant amount of time with Dr. Ackoff and Gharajedaghi, two of the world’s leading social systems scientists, when the distinction between continuous improvement and redesign was clarified.

Dr. Leddick spent the next several years teaching me about systems thinking and how to design social systems, and I was fortunate to spend many days learning from Gharajedaghi as well. This work was the final step in my own transformation from someone hanging on to the last few school-centered beliefs to someone wholly grounded in the learner-centered paradigm.



We are the change schools and communities have been waiting for.

Dr. Trace Pickering
Executive Director

With this, I came to learn that continuous improvement is valuable only if you are operating in a system you believe has the capacity and design to produce the outcomes you want. It became crystal clear to me that I no longer should spend time in the current system trying to squeeze out another drop of improvement or work on things I didn’t believe would produce what I wanted to bring into being.

Reform is all about continuous improvement of the same system, whereas I believed we needed an entirely new system. So, I committed myself to teaching social systems theory and practice, writing about the critical distinctions between reform and transform, and discovering how schools might need to look and act moving forward. Yet, something was still missing. I had been unable to make this new paradigm be realized by others, even on a small scale.

Community Building and Emergence

Enter my fourth mentor, Mr. Chuck Peters, who provided me with the learning and framework to move fully from theory to action, even within the messy contexts of school and community. Chuck asked me to respond to our Governor’s “Education Blueprint.” In a lengthy paper, I described a well-intentioned but reform-riddled vision for our state—one incapable of achieving the outcomes desired by the Governor and Iowans. This response was answered with an invitation from Chuck to join his media company as its first Community Builder focused on “changing the conversation our community is having around education.”

Chuck brought Peter Block, author of Community, to our city to teach us how to be community builders focused on the gifts and possibilities already within our community. Furthermore, he showed us how to tap into those primary resources to help our community co-create its own compelling future. This set of skills was what I needed to convert all that theory and excitement into action! I now had the paradigm of learner-centered education, the science of social systems design, and the practice of emergent community building—I could see my way to making a learner-centered example possible.

With my friend and colleague, Shawn Cornally, we engaged our community in experiences and conversations about education, what we wanted our education system to produce, and the possibilities that would exist if we truly designed “school” from a blank sheet of paper.

This work led to the creation of Iowa BIG and, ultimately, to becoming a leader with Education Reimagined. While Iowa BIG was being born through our community building efforts, Convergence Center for Policy Resolution was engaged in the same work with players at the national level. Their seminal document—declaration, really—directly aligned to what we, and many others across the country, were engaged in.

So, with that lengthy backstory to provide needed context, I’m pleased to now be a member of the Education Reimagined team where I can help sew together, unite, and unleash the collective power of a community of learner-centered educators, community leaders, and legislators to transform the American education system to one that fully self-actualizes every child and cements itself in a positive and possibility-filled America.

I’m thankful to be on this journey with everyone in this community and to be working for and alongside them. I’m always reminded of the saying, “If not us, then who?” We are the change schools and communities have been waiting for. We all must consider stepping up to create this future for not only our own kids and community but also the entire country. I firmly believe our future depends on it.

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