Shift Your Paradigm: What Does Learner-Centered Leadership Look Like? (Part 3)

Voices from the Field   12 March 2019
By Randy Ziegenfuss, Salisbury Township School District, and Lynn Fuini-Hetten, Salisbury Township School District


To be learner-centered means to start with the learner, prioritizing their voice throughout the learning process.

Randy Ziegenfuss and Lynn Fuini-Hetten
Superintendent and Associate Superintendent

In Part I and Part II of our series exploring how learner-centered leaders lead differently from school-centered ones, we shared the context of our leadership inquiry and why it led to the creation of our Shift Your Paradigm podcast. In the first two pieces, we highlighted three key insights that have emerged from the dozens of interviews we’ve conducted over the past two years through our podcast:

  1. Learner-centered leaders reframe transformation by distinguishing shifts in learner agency and the role of the educator in learner-centered contexts.
  2. Learner-centered leaders support the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation. This is done by providing powerful learning opportunities to develop mindsets and skillsets, creating risk-friendly environments, and unlocking time to maximize opportunities.
  3. Learner-centered leaders prioritize a culture of deep relationships. Without a deep connection to the learner—both young and adult—there can’t be “learner-centered” anything.

In the third and final part of our series, we will explore how learner-centered leaders prioritize learner voice.

Learner-centered leaders prioritize learner voice

To be learner-centered means to start with the learner, prioritizing their voice throughout the learning process. In the many stories we’ve heard, leaders do this by first believing in their learners. As Education Reimagined communicates, “Learners are seen and known as wondrous, curious individuals with vast capabilities and limitless potential.” This statement resonates with us and is critical in this mindset shift.

Trust the learner

Do we trust learners to approach learning with wonder and curiosity? Do we believe every young person comes to us with the capability to fulfill their dreams with the support of caring adults? Learner-centered leaders answer these questions with a “yes.” Every time.

For example, trust in the learner is highly visible at North Star, an alternative high school and middle school in Massachusetts where learners can quite literally do as they please—to the point where doing nothing is an acceptable choice. North Star’s Executive Director, Kenneth Danford, shared:

“The main thing about learning at 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 are a lot of one-on-one tutorials that students request from adults, and there is a lot of time to socialize and just be present without doing what schools would consider academic learning.” (Episode 43)

In learning environments such as North Star and others such as Iowa BIG, Big Picture Learning (BPL), Taylor County School District (KY), and Springhouse Community School, we see adults trusting young people to personalize their learning experiences across projects in the school and the community. These learning environments engage learners in developing a high-level of self-awareness; they trust the learner will be able to co-create learning pathways to achieve a variety of personal learning goals. Roger Cook, former Superintendent in Kentucky’s Taylor County Schools had this to say:

“This is what I’ve found out—if you trust kids and you give them responsibility, most of them will perform to your expectations. Some don’t. Obviously, we don’t live in a utopia. But, we’ve done it here for so long, and as a community, they wouldn’t stand for anything else. They would not stand for going back to a six-period day, sit in the class being lectured at for 60 minutes with no freedom. No—our students wouldn’t stand for it now.” (Episode 16)

Self-awareness and trust permeate all aspects of learner-centered environments. Young learners aren’t the only learners in the school. Every adult in the system must be a learner—and learner-centered leaders must extend that pivotal level of trust to all the adult learners, as well. In Northern Cass School District in North Dakota, Superintendent Cory Steiner, shared the role trust plays in making Northern Cass a learner-centered organization:

“One thing that I’ve done to build agency in teachers is trust—that the people in our building are always going to do what’s right for our learners. I believed that before we started this journey. I believe we have this amazing group of people who truly care about kids when they walk in and want nothing more than for them to have their best day, every day, and to become the best version of themselves.” (Episode 44)

When trust exists for all learners—young and adult—something very powerful happens. Learning becomes an act of co-creation, where traditional power structures are blurred and power flows back and forth between young and adult learners.

Transfer power and control

Learner-centered education flattens the hierarchy. The adult’s expertise no longer dominates the learning experience; young and old bring unique expertise to the learning. The adult comes to the learning experience with skills in content and learning design, while the learner holds a personal knowledge around her passions, needs, challenges, and dreams. Both sets of knowledge allow power and control to be shared. This shift invites and values agency on both sides of the relationship.

Elizabeth Cardine, lead teacher and advisor at MC2 Charter School in New Hampshire, was eager to bring the role of power to light in our conversation:

“I think something that a lot stakeholders—students, parents, and the teachers themselves—have to constantly be on guard against, because it’s so ingrained in the status quo of “teacher,” is this [question] of: Where does the authority come from in the teacher-student relationship; [what about]…the role of hierarchy and experience?” (Episode 19)

Kim Carter, CEO at MC2 extends what Elizabeth shared and refers to learners and how they learn to “manage up”:

“We are encouraging students to manage up. And, that’s so different from what traditionally happens in an adult-youth relationship. Some of the research suggests [having the young person managing up] can be very challenging, very threatening for an adult…Building the structures around the expectations for how that works is an important thing.” (Episode 19)

This transfer of power requires vulnerability. Jenny Finn, Head of School at Springhouse:

“I think that [valuing vulnerability] is something that is foundational here. We recognize that connection—authentic, true connection—cannot happen without vulnerability. And so we definitely move toward vulnerability and not away from it. [T]his takes time and energy. I would also say it takes skill.

Whatever we’re teaching and doing—we’re holding that at the forefront. What are the skills that these students need to be more resilient in the world, to be able to really face and move through difficulty and not avoid or kind of force themselves through it? [Rather, can they] find a way that is authentic to them to really navigate difficulty in relationships, in themselves, in each other, or in the earth? Having that value of vulnerability, we know that in order for connection to happen, vulnerability needs to be there. It’s important that we also teach the skills to be able to navigate that.” (Episode 26)

Helen Beattie, the founder and Executive Director of UP for Learning summarizes the flattening of hierarchy and distribution of agency:

“I think one critical piece of this shift of paradigm and the relationship of students and teachers goes right to the heart of power. And, who has power? Right now, in our traditional system, certainly, it’s largely held by adults. A learner-centered paradigm requires a sharing of power—that both [parties] are empowered within the relationship. I think for so many adults, that is a frightening concept and it feels antithetical to where they need to go. They’ve always believed that power is how they get to this destination.” (Episode 30)

While moving power and control to young learners is a goal embraced by the adults in a learner-centered learning environment, how young learners share and showcase their learning is one of the most prominent ways we see the prioritization of learner voice.

Showcase learning

Each learner-centered environment has various ways young learners demonstrate learning. The common thread, though, is that learners have a high level of control over how their learning is shared.

Kim Carter from MC2 Charter School described how students exercise agency through a portfolio and exhibition framework:

“We look at the learning cycle as: designing, constructing, applying, documenting, and defending learning. The defense piece happens in a couple of places so when Sabrina [a learner at MC2] is talking about her gateway process and phasing up, the first step is her creation of a gateway portfolio. This is followed by her gateway exhibition where she presents and elaborates on her learning and how she’s ready for the challenge of the next phase. A panel listens to the presentation and then has a section of time for questions.” (Episode 19)

Iowa BIG builds on relationships with the community to create a learning environment that is entirely project-based. Students showcase their learning in the local community through project deliverables. Jemar Lee, a recent graduate from Iowa BIG [He was still a student at the time of the interview]:

“Here at Iowa BIG, learning is passion-driven and that means projects. You’re picking a project you’re passionate about and tying that to your core academic needs. For me, those needs are literature and U.S. History. My passion is architecture and, more recently, education.

At the beginning of the school year, I picked Sleeping Giant, which was a project that involved building a 3D conceptual design of a Cedar Rapids bridge that had fallen in 2008. We designed a bridge that would best suit and drive attraction to Cedar Rapids. In education, I’ve created a student-led initiative to advance learner-centered education.

The learning adapts to you within projects. The teachers aren’t telling you what you have to learn within that project and how you should learn it. What you learn comes about when you want that project to succeed.” (Episode 5)

Now that you’ve read about the various insights about learner-centered leadership, let’s go back to our original inquiry: Do learner-centered leaders lead differently? After dozens of conversations with those in learner-centered environments, we think so and have shared four outcomes in this series.

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; and
  4. Prioritize learner voice.

Through this three part series, we hope we have provoked your thinking and reflection on your own practice as a learner-centered leader. We invite you to think about your own leadership practice and how the four insights connect to your transformation work. Which insights resonate most? Which provide personal learning for your own practice? Are there insights you would add to the list? We would love to hear from you on social media @ziegeran and @lfuinihetten.

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