Shift Your Paradigm: What Does Learner-Centered Leadership Look Like? (Part 2)

Voices from the Field   26 February 2019
By Randy Ziegenfuss, Salisbury Township School District, and Lynn Fuini-Hetten, Salisbury Township School District


Without a deep connection to the learner—both young and adult—there can’t be “learner-centered” anything.

Randy Ziegenfuss and Lynn Fuini-Hetten
Superintendent and Associate Superintendent

In Part I 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. Reviewing the insights we’ve gained through the over 50 interviews we’ve conducted with learners and leaders in learner-centered environments over the last two years, we’ve learned a lot about learner-centered leaders. In our last piece, we highlighted two key insights:

  • Reframe transformation by distinguishing shifts in learner agency and the role of the teacher in learner-centered environments; and
  • 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.

In Part II, we will explore yet another: Learner-centered leaders prioritize a culture of deep relationships.

Learner-centered leaders prioritize a culture of deep relationships

Relationships are one of the core ideals of learner-centered education. Without a deep connection to the learner—both young and adult—there can’t be “learner-centered” anything. The critical question is what makes relationships in learner-centered environments different from the dominant relationship conversation in the school-centered paradigm?

Learner-centered leaders begin by reframing “relationships.” Once this new framing is established, “relationships” in learner-centered models bring an emphasis on depth (as opposed to surface-level small talk), are always multi-directional, and are open-walled unto themselves (involving stakeholders beyond the conventional school walls).

Reframing “relationships”

In the current dominant paradigm of school-centered education, how often do conversations move beyond the transactional and into the realm of understanding each other as learners and as people? This is a significant question when attempting to distinguish relationship building through the school-centered and learner-centered lenses.

It’s moving beyond redundant questions like “How was your weekend?” or “Do you have your homework?” Conversations are intentional, focused on learning, and lead to deeper understanding of the teacher and learner. What are your goals, why are they important to you, and what skills do you want to grow this year? What support do you need in reaching your goals? How can we work together to develop those skills and meet your goals?

Andrew Frishman, Co-Executive Director of Big Picture Learning (BPL), shared how BPL has relabeled the “3 R’s” of education.

“…[The new 3 R’s] should be about our relationship, relevance, and rigor. You start with relationships and get to know people. That’s how you figure out what young people are interested in, and that’s how you get to really deep rigor. If you braid the three together, that’s how you get to really deep, powerful learner-centered opportunities that ultimately shift life outcomes and trajectories for learners.” (Episode 15)

When meaningful relationships are formed, the learner becomes an active participant in mapping out their learning journey. This participation leads to learning that is relevant and rigorous.

Valuing the depth of relationships

In Episode 25, we had an extended conversation about relationships with Andrew and his Co-Executive Director at BPL, Carlos Moreno. Andrew recalled a speaker who prompted him to think about the deeper aspects of conversations and relationship building in contrast to the “small talk” that often occurs in our country.

“I heard a speaker, his name is Gilberto Dimenstein, and he spoke about the importance of learning in community and situated learning in learning cities. He’s from Brazil, and he was talking about one of the cultural differences he sees in the United States. [In the US, people] have this small talk before they then get on to the important business talk. He said, “You know, where I come from, there is no small talk.” That’s the important talk. The important talk is connecting us to human beings.

I think we have a bit of that view [at BPL] that the relationship building, the connection, and the understanding where you’re coming from, who your family is, your communities, your experiences, what your goals and aspirations are…that’s not small talk. That’s the important talk. You go slow a little bit at the beginning to build those relationships so that you can go really fast together later.” (Episode 25)

Carlos added a “niece-nephew analogy” that sheds light on how deep and meaningful conversations and relationships can be around learning and the “important talk.”

“I wanted to share an analogy that one of our colleagues has used in describing what this relationship really means. He has labeled it his “niece-nephew analogy.” If you don’t have a niece or nephew, you can substitute any young person you care deeply about. How do you talk to this person individually, one-to-one? How do you inquire into their interests if approached by them with an exciting idea, something they’re eager to do or investigate? How do you respond? How might you help them learn about something they express interest in? Would you try to share your own learning with them, and is how your caring about the world manifest in your interactions with this young person?

Applying this analogy in teacher-practice really means thinking of your advisory as a collection of these young people you get to interact with at the same time. And, I think that’s the primary reason why a lot of our students really refer to their advisory as their second family.” (Episode 25)

Learner-centered relationships run deep. They are not transactional. Maybe more importantly, as Carlos and Andrew share later in the interview, the relationship building skills learners develop continue serving them long after they leave the BPL learning environment.  Notice Carlos’ question, “Would you try to share your own learning with them…” This leads to the idea that learner-centered leaders value relationships that travel both ways—between young and adult learners.

Supporting the development of multi-directional relationships

Relationships in learner-centered environments go both ways. In fact, as we explore the idea of relationships in general, it begs the question how it can ever be called a relationship if everything is one-way.

You can see the significance of multi-directional relationships in fields outside of education where models such as reverse mentoring foster broader collaboration and greater agency and voice on the part of the co-learners. In a school-centered paradigm, relationships tend to be hierarchical. Teachers question and learners share; horizontal collaboration is rarely seen. And, any personal information young learners share about themselves is rarely used to design learning opportunities, while the teacher himself or herself rarely shares insights about his or her own experience as a learner.

Naseem Haamid, a BPL learner at the time of our conversation, described what the learner and teacher gain from a two-way relationship.

“In a Big Picture Learning school, you learn from the teacher and the teacher learns from you. You both grow together. And that’s the beauty of it.” (Episode 15)

At Springhouse Community School, adults model two-way relationships with each other in ways they hope will engage young learners in relationship building conversations. Jenny Finn, Head of School, shared:

“We don’t look at our learners as coming in as empty buckets that we need to fill. We try to acknowledge what they bring to the table. The community of adults in the school practice what we’re trying to teach. We actually take a lot of time to tend to our own relationships and to make sure that we’re doing everything that we’re asking our learners to do. There’s a lot of integrity in what we’re doing.” (Episode 26)

Finn’s attention to “tending to our own relationships” adds a fresh element to how we can distinguish “relationships” through the learner-centered paradigm, not only within the learning environment but also outside the walls of the learning environment and into the community.

Fostering open-walled relationships

We discovered a robust example of building relationships with community partners in the work of One Stone, an independent, student-led high school in Idaho. Chad Carlson, Director at One Stone, provides a glimpse into what these open-walled relationships look like.

“Our forte is our reliance on and our relationship with community partners. A big part of the Design Lab is community members who are willing to embrace and work with high school students, giving them voice, and having trust in what they can do. There’s a lot of research involved in a Design Lab partnership—writing, proposals, and rationales. Learners feel more accountable to the organization or individual. And so, there’s more buy-in from the learner.” (Episode 29)

As learner-centered environments become characterized by learners solving community challenges, building relationships with outside partners becomes crucial.

Iowa BIG and BPL are additional examples in how important community partnerships are when community learning is embedded in their learner-centered model. Iowa BIG has an instructional model that is almost entirely project-based with very few actual courses (Episode 5). Learners work on community-embedded challenges with teachers backmapping learning to content standards. BPL schools, with their “Learning Through Internships” emphasis, asks learners to make personal connections with the community based on their passion and interests. These initial connections eventually lead to job shadowing opportunities and internships (Episode 15).

You’ll notice this idea of building a culture of deep relationships relies on robust communication in all directions and with all stakeholders. Everyone’s voice is valued and acted upon. And, because learner voice is such a critical element to implementing a full expression of learner-centered education, it’s important for us to discuss it on its own.

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

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