Shift Your Paradigm: What Does Learner-Centered Leadership Look Like? (Part 1)

Voices from the Field   22 January 2019
By Randy Ziegenfuss, Salisbury Township School District, and Lynn Fuini-Hetten, Salisbury Township School District


Do learner-centered leaders lead differently? Absolutely. And, the Shift Your Paradigm episodes have led us to reflect on all the possible ways.

Randy Ziegenfuss and Lynn Fuini-Hetten
Superintendent and Associate Superintendent at Salisbury Township School District

Both of us have been in education our entire lives. From young learners to career educators, we are the education system. We grew up and worked in educational systems that fit the mold of the school-centered paradigm—learning happens in school, learners travel through the system in age-related cohorts, and learners pass through a prescribed curriculum, often disconnected from their interests and passions.

We didn’t even realize we had beliefs rooted in the school-centered paradigm until we were given the opportunity to question and explore our assumptions. In 2015, as Superintendent and Associate Superintendent in the Salisbury Township School District, we had that opportunity with the publication of Education Reimagined’s A Transformational Vision for Education in the US.  

We were unexpectedly exposed to the publication during a presentation by David Andrews at Lehigh University School Study Council. David is the former Dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and one of the vision’s signatories.

Since then, Education Reimagined has challenged us to explore our assumptions about learning and education and shift our paradigm from one that was school-centered to one that is shifting more closely to learner-centered every day.


Reflecting on over 50 published podcast episodes and accompanying blog posts, we want to illuminate four overarching outcomes to the question: How do learner-centered leaders lead differently from school-centered leaders?

Randy Ziegenfuss and Lynn Fuini Hetten
Superintendent and Associate Superintendent at Salisbury Township School District

One of the most significant outcomes supporting our district transformation was the collaborative development and adoption of the Salisbury Profile of a Graduate. The beliefs about learning that led to the creation of this profile were grounded in the learner-centered paradigm. Rather than distinguish a successful learner as one who solely meets the systemic requirements of 13 years in education, we distinguish a successful learner as one who knows his or her strengths, challenges, and interests and is ready to personalize his or her life journey to meet a personalized definition of success.

Over the past three years, we have deepened our understanding of the five elements by reviewing resources from Education Reimagined, attending Learning Lab Trainings, and talking with other learning organizations. Our exploration has given us the tools necessary to positively shift the mindsets of our leaders, teachers, parents, and community.

Beginning Our Leadership Inquiry

In the early days of our transformation work, a leadership inquiry emerged:

If the transformation of education requires a paradigm shift accompanied by new learner-centered mindsets, how might leadership intentionally support the shift?

Like just about all of our colleagues, our ideas about educational leadership had been framed by the dominant, school-centered paradigm. We wanted to know if these mindsets were enough to lead in the new learner-centered paradigm. Or, might leaders need to transform their leadership mindset to best support systemic transformation?

In collaboration with Education Reimagined, we launched Shift Your Paradigm, a podcast series that explores this leadership inquiry in depth. The podcast invites young learners and leaders making the shift to learner-centered education to share their stories of transformation.

Since launching the podcast in May 2017, we have learned a great deal about learner-centered leadership and the underlying mindsets. Reflecting on over 50 published podcast episodes and accompanying blog posts, we want to illuminate four overarching outcomes to the question: How do learner-centered leaders lead differently from school-centered leaders?

Learner-centered leaders:

  1. Reframe transformation
  2. Support the development of the resources, people, and conditions for transformation
  3. Prioritize a culture of deep relationships.
  4. Prioritize learner voice.

Part one of our exploration is going to reflect on the first two outcomes. In a subsequent article, we’ll explore the final two outcomes we’ve identified and how they connect to our own work.

Learner-centered leaders reframe transformation

What better place to begin our exploration than distinguishing “transformation” itself. How can we be confident we’re engaging in transformational work if we don’t have the proper framing for it? Early in the podcast series, Allan Cohen, Program Leader and strategic consultant for Education Reimagined, framed transformation as

“…a kind of change that actually let’s go of the past and creates something entirely new. As a practical matter, that means breaking from or disrupting or interrupting the way things have been going, not simply improving it. But, imagining something that’s not constrained by where it’s been.” (Episode 2)

The leaders we’ve spoken to consistently work from a vision for learning where systems conform to learners, rather than learners conforming to systems. What better way to “imagine something that’s not constrained by where it’s been”?

As these leaders revealed their community-specific framing for transformation on our episodes, we began to hear many parts to a disruptive whole. Several of the strongest actions included reframing learner agency, redefining the role of the teacher, and being intentional about releasing or giving up conventional ways of “doing” school.

Reframing learner agency

Learner-centered education begins with the learner. Without a shift in mindset around agency, systems simply cannot become learner-centered. In Episode 5, Dr. Trace Pickering, Executive Director of Iowa BIG, put it bluntly,

“Essentially, what we have learned is that learner agency is that secret ingredient, that secret sauce that unlocks the other four elements. If you’re not serious about giving the learners agency and ownership of their learning, all of the other elements—open-walled, socially embedded, personalized—take on a “less than” kind of meaning. And so, I think if you were to sit and watch, observe at Iowa BIG, you would see teachers relentless about finding ways to make sure the students own their learning.” (Episode 5)

Redefining the role of teacher

Rethinking the role of teaching was a theme that emerged from many of our conversations. Learning environments often begin the redefinition of “teacher” with new language: learning experience designer, coach, advisor, or mentor. At One Stone, teachers are known as coaches—embracing the development of learner agency as a core component to their professional role. Bennett Huhn, a young learner from One Stone shared this analogy to illustrate the shifting role of the coaches at One Stone,

“If you’re in a bowling alley, and we’re the bowling ball, then the coaches are the bumpers on the side that are really kind of just guiding you towards your goal.” (Episode 37)

Big Picture Learning (BPL) Co-Executive Director, Dr. Andrew Frishman, spoke about how he as a learner-centered leader explicitly reframe the role of the teacher in a transformed learning environment.

“Advisor is a term that we use to redefine the role of a teacher because a teacher sort of implies [someone who] has the information and will deliver that content to the student. Whereas an adviser is working with the student to say, “Who are you? What is it that you are passionate and excited and interested about? How do you want to go out into the world, and how can I help work with you to create learning experiences that will help you advance in that way?”” (Episode 25)

Being intentional about releasing or giving up conventional ways of “doing” school

At Design39Campus, founding principal Sonya Wrisley shared her experience conducting intentional conversations with stakeholders about what to give up from the school-centered model.

“We really thought deeply about what we would need to let go. And in some ways, we may have let go of a lot.” (Episode 14)

What were some examples of what was given up in the transformational design of Design39Campus?


“I wanted to break down the isolation. I wanted to make sure that everybody would learn to collaborate and really work together all the time, not have their own classrooms. They are not teacher classrooms; they are learning spaces for our learners. And then, part of that was if teachers weren’t going to have their own classrooms, then I shouldn’t have my own office. I should model this for them. So, we had open collaboration areas, design studios is what we called them. So, that was one of the first big things we let go of, territory.” (Episode 14)

Individual ownership of classroom resources:

“We wanted to make sure that they didn’t come with all the trappings that then caused the classroom to become their storage place (teachers, or Learning Experience Designers—LEDs). Things like construction paper and markers and all that—we put those into what we call our makeries, places where kids can make things. Books were then donated, in a sense, to the classroom libraries, given to what we call our loft. This is where we house all those books, so kids can go and borrow a book. They don’t even have to check it out. So we were letting go of that type of stuff.” (Episode 14)


“The very biggest thing in my mind was letting go of control, allowing the students to learn how they want to learn and find what they’re passionate about. That was just a whole shift in thinking. Teachers, or LEDs in our case, were not going to control. We frame things, but overall, the kids are given a lot of choice and voice and student agency to really learn their content.” (Episode 14)

At the inception of every transformation is a group of community leaders, formal or informal, open and willing to think differently. They are challenged to think about the learner first. This reframing of transformation leads to reframing other leadership challenges within the learning environment.

Learner-centered leaders support the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation

Related to the idea of reframing transformation, the development of learning opportunities that stretch the organization beyond the edges of the status quo and into an entirely new paradigm of learning are a focus of learner-centered leaders. In the process of designing new opportunities, leaders provide support for developing the mindsets and skill sets of the organization’s stakeholders, creating the conditions for risk taking and unlocking time to maximize opportunities.

Providing powerful learning opportunities to develop the mindsets and skill sets of their people

In Episode 24, we were introduced to an innovative career development resource in the Cajon Valley Union School District, World of Work (WoW). WoW is an initiative designed and developed through a partnership between Cajon Valley, the University of San Diego, and Qualcomm.  It aims to help every child discover their unique strengths, interests, and values through learning experiences directly tied to the world of work—ensuring every child knows there’s a place for them in the world. Ed Hidalgo, Cajon Valley’s Chief Innovation and Engagement Officer, shared how the resource was developed from a learner-centered lens,

“We’re integrating this (World of Work) into the classroom setting because we believe that career development is a human process. It’s something that the teacher really needs to unpack with the students…it is integrated into the curriculum. It’s part of bringing relevance into what the teachers are already doing.” (Episode 24)

Jenny Finn, Co-Founder and current Head of School at Springhouse Community School, recently supported her learning community in the development of a community internship program to support open-walled learning.

“At the end of the year, I did a listening session with almost every student in the school. In one of those sessions, I was interviewing one of our seniors. I knew that she needed more freedom, being a senior. And, I didn’t feel like what we were doing was offering her what she needed. Being in the four walls of a school, all day, every day, is frankly, unnatural. I feel it now more than ever. All of us were learning and gaining these skills, but we’re not making use of them in ways that helped us to grow. We don’t know how we’re doing with those skills unless we are out in the community and using them.  It became very clear to me that we need our students to be going out into the community, learning from the community, offering their gifts to the community, and then coming back to the safe place that Springhouse is to reflect.” (Bonus Episode 6)

Create risk-friendly environments

In the Harrisburg School District in South Dakota, Travis Lape, Innovative Programs Director, shared an example of how risk-taking is built on trust. Moving to a competency-based model, Harrisburg leadership ceded full control of the transformation to their teachers. Travis described,

“It has not been a top-down initiative. We took four facilitators to schools and said, “Just see what they’re doing. Do you believe in what they’re doing? And, if you do, how do we come back in and replicate this, or how do we make it ours?” It’s really been a different approach from the administration to say, “We’re going to support staff in this development, as well as come alongside them and learn with them.”” (Episode 41)

In Henry County, GA, Bethlehem Elementary School principal Dr. Jessalyn Askew described how she helps teachers feel safe to take calculated risks in the classroom.

“I would definitely say, as a leader, you have to create a risk-free environment. Teachers are always concerned about their evaluation, and they want to do their very best. When you’re asking them to think “out of the box,” and you’re asking them to try something different, something that is foreign to them in a lot of ways, that’s just not the norm. They have to feel comfortable that if it isn’t perfect, you’re not going to hold it against them. That’s a huge game changer, for teachers to know that they can try the new work, and it’s okay if it’s not perfect. We’ll give you the support and continue to help you grow. But surely, the teachers have to feel safe in trying new initiatives.” (Episode 17)

Dr. Askew’s risk-taking disposition has not only transferred to teachers in the classroom, but she has seen it embraced by learners as well.

“The feeling that I truly can take a risk, and I’m not going to be penalized by it, I’ve seen the teachers share that idea with the students, and let the students know that they, too, can be risk takers.” (Episode 17)

Unlock time to maximize opportunities

Transformational work is messy. That message comes through in all our conversations. Compounding the messiness is the fact that there is a finite amount of time teachers, leaders, and learners have to do the work. How do learner-centered leaders unlock time to maximize opportunities?

Wendy Little, Director of Intersession and Community Learning at d.Tech High School spoke to us about how they unlock time for learners through their intersession program.

“So at the end of each quarter, we have a two-week intersession. This allows students to go deep in terms of studying…different industries or professions or electives for two weeks at a time. It allows the students to choose highly personalized and high-interest classes, without the year-long commitment of being in a class, every day, for a whole school year.

I found in guiding and connecting with students that it’s a lot easier for me to sit down and say, “Have you thought about this? Would you give it a shot for ten days?” I have found students are much more comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone where there’s this shorter commitment to time. They often find that they really do love what they’re learning.” (Episode 40)

At North Star, described as an “alternative to school,” learners have a high level of agency over how they utilize time. Ken Danford, Executive Director of North Star shared how the use of time is transformed in the learning environment.

“The main thing about learning in North Star is that it’s schooling upside down. It’s where adults offer classes to teens who can choose whether or not to attend them. There’s a lot of one-on-one tutorials which students request from adults. There’s a lot of time to socialize or just be present without doing what schools would consider academic learning.

The model allows teens full control over how they spend their time in the building. Many of the teens have homeschooling curriculum or requirements or things from their parents. Some of this they work on at North Star, and some they do at home outside of North Star.” (Episode 43)

Do learner-centered leaders lead differently? Absolutely. And, the Shift Your Paradigm episodes have led us to reflect on all the possible ways. From reframing transformation and redefining the role of teachers to supporting the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation, every community has the opportunity to adapt these insights for the specific needs of their young learners. As you await part two of this series, why not consider the inquiry that launched us down this path: If the transformation of education requires a paradigm shift accompanied by new learner-centered mindsets, how might leadership in your learning environment intentionally support the shift?

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