There is a synergy that happens when young people’s creativity, insights, and optimism meet educators’ professional commitment, organizational skills, and systems savvy.
There is no shortage of required passcodes in our lives these days—for basic entry into our phones, access to wifi at the library or coffee shop, or if we are fortunate, unlocking the front door’s keypad at a vacation rental. Passcodes are a gateway to frequently essential, often new, and sometimes uncharted destinations, in both a literal and figurative sense.
On the cusp of retirement, I wish to share the story of what I have come to believe, over a lifetime, are the five most powerful codes that enable access to the heart of learner-centered education…and life. These particular codes shaped my first career in health care. Then, during my second career, in education, they drove me to create the non-profit UP for Learning (Unleashing the Power of Partnership for Learning), with the goal to ensure that each and every young person can experience authentic and enlivened learning within a caring community, seeding a life of learning and even joy.
The first three passcodes are interrelated and embedded in our relationships with one another. They are: feeling known and valued, which in turn allows us to claim our own voice. Having a voice means speaking our truth and feeling safe to assert our wants and needs. With these three codes, we know that who we are and what we care about matters. These are essential to finding and mobilizing our personal power.
The fourth code is a sense of purpose in our pursuits; the work at hand is relevant and meaningful, engenders ownership, and invites shared responsibility. Feeling purposeful kindles the spirit and provides a reason for being and doing.
The desire to be known and valued, to have voice, to be purposeful, and to have agency in our lives, is evident across our lifespan.
These four passcodes open the gateway to agency, the synergistic outcome that emerges when an individual feels known and valued, utilizes their voice, finds purpose in life, and has the opportunity to act on that purpose. Agency, the fifth and most powerful passcode, is our capacity to shape our own lives and often to help shape the lives of others. Agency is most often realized in relationship to others and is particularly powerful within the context of an authentic partnership, grounded in care and mutual respect.
The desire to be known and valued, to have voice, to be purposeful, and to have agency in our lives, is evident across our lifespan. We see it in the two-year-old who is adamant that she will pick out what she is to wear that day, and in the 95-year-old elder who fiercely protects his independent living decision when others doubt his capability. We see it in the teenager who craves learning that is personally relevant and meaningful.
This is a shared human desire and need. Yet, far too often, for many reasons, and in many varied contexts, one or more of these essential codes are inaccessible, blocked by institutional norms and practices that intentionally or inadvertently limit individual or group access.
This is my story of a growing realization over my lifetime, in two very different professional contexts, of the profound influence of these codes on health, healing, and learning.
The Passcodes to Healing
The importance of being known and valued, having voice, feeling purposeful, and able to effect change in one’s life, became clear to me during my first jobs out of college. I was a Program Director at the American Cancer Society in Massachusetts, and later, I became Director of Service and Rehabilitation for the state. In between, I was the coordinator of the Cancer Information Service, a toll-free hotline of the Dana Farber Cancer Center. In all three positions, I listened to the stories of cancer patients and family members on a daily basis, learning of the emotional and logistical challenges that accompanied their struggle with a life-threatening disease.
In listening to thousands of stories, I discovered the health care system offered too few opportunities for patients to raise their questions and concerns, and too few chances to be partners in decisions about their health. An entrenched institutional power structure reinforced the assumption that physicians held the ultimate knowledge and sole capacity to diagnose, treat, and cure. The patient’s role was to be the passive recipient of this care: to simply comply, not to challenge or have voice.
My own life journey, however, had taught me something different: that for the people I spoke with on the phone, a more empowered experience was possible. My dad had recently died of cancer. Over the course of his care, he had some extraordinary providers who saw him as a whole person, not simply as his disease. He was known. His caregivers engaged him in his treatment. He was valued and had a sense of purpose, tending to his own wellness with his diet and sustained hope. He rebounded from recurrences many times. It was evident to me that his caregivers’ belief in his strength, coupled with his own will and sense of agency, contributed to his perseverance over years of treatment and multiple remissions.
Even so, his experience had not been an ideal course of treatment. There were some poignant instances where my father was stripped of his dignity and worth, leaving him feeling devalued, helpless, and out of control. My father knew his only option in those moments was to be a passive and compliant patient, a position that robbed him of his own sense of agency. These moments were heart-wrenching to witness. On one occasion, while with him in the emergency room, I vowed to myself that I would do all in my power at my work to protect others from similar experiences.
Exploring the Paradigm of Partnership
Through both my personal and professional encounters, I learned that change was necessary, from the predominant physician-patient relationship to a new paradigm of partnership.
Most physicians cared deeply about their patients, but the norms of the system at large were contrary to patient empowerment. When health care is done “to and for” patients in a compliance model, rather than “with” each individual in a partnership model, there is an implicit message that “you have no meaningful contribution to your healing; it is out of your hands, and in mine.”
Patients’ ability to mobilize their own resources on their own behalf were at best not recognized, and at worst devalued. Patients’ voices were silenced; they were afraid to ask questions, unsure if they had a right to do so. Yet, research has affirmed time and again the power of the mind-body connection—the significant contribution a person can make to their healing if they are given the opportunity. Only then can patients feel empowered to take a purposeful role in their healing, bringing the full potential of their will to live to their cause.
During my time in the health industry, my work and my doctoral studies focused on means to affirm the value and worth of patients’ questions, the essential nature of their involvement in their treatment, and their self-advocacy; the goal was to help them believe in, reclaim, and exercise their voices and agency. I ended this chapter of my first career as director of a network of five rural health centers in northern Vermont. I was inspired by witnessing a deep commitment to the quality and depth of the provider-patient relationship, imbued with dignity and mutual respect—a new code.
The Passcodes of Learning
After 15 years as a professional in the health care sector, I retrained as a school psychologist, returning to my college major and life-long fascination with child development. I anticipated working one-on-one with children, moving away from the systems-level change of my health care years. However, I quickly began to see the same institutional patterns.
The initial focus of my new profession was conducting evaluations for students who were struggling with learning and/or behavioral issues. I noticed the system rendered these children voiceless and disempowered. Sadly, they believed they were “deficient,” that they were “the problem.”
It pained me to witness their loss of hope and lack of agency. As a result of these system forces, I often cited “learned passivity” in my evaluations. They were perhaps known, but they did not feel valued. They lacked a sense of purpose and did not feel capable of shaping their own lives. The educational system, often inadvertently, reinforced these negative messages and low expectations.
These learners were trapped in an environment ruled by a set of institutional passcodes that effectively hindered or blocked them from realizing their capacity to learn. These codes assumed that these children needed to be “fixed;” that their remediation would be best accomplished through adult shaping of their behaviors and/or learning, often through external reward systems. Results were measured in frequency of compliance and incremental progress toward adult designed goals that were not co-created or shared with the learners.
If the child faltered, they had failed the “treatment,” and it was a further indication of their weaknesses or deficits. This would lead to another round of remediation.
I realized the same dynamic that had impeded patients from reaching their full healing power was also diminishing students’ capacity to access their full learning potential. New passcodes were needed.
As physicians care for their patients, so too do educators care deeply about their students. However, the norms of the educational system at large are contrary to learner-empowerment. When learning is done “to and for” learners, rather than “with” them as full partners, there is a powerful implicit message that “you are not wise enough, capable enough, or motivated enough to share responsibility and ownership in learning.”
These low expectations are particularly damaging to students who have struggled in the system and so often have low self-esteem. However, we must recognize the wrong codes negatively impact all learners.
Research has shown that many students are “playing the game of school,” biding their time as they build their portfolios for post-secondary career or college options. They do not question the quality or depth of their learning, often admitting that, although they are receiving good grades, they retain very little of the subject material. These students are gaining the skills to “play life’s games,” but they’re not discovering how to be self-driven learners or advocates for learning with integrity. Faulty passcodes, in emphasizing rote learning and performance on standardized test-taking, deflect young people from authentic learning.
As I observed this system, I came to believe the predominant student-teacher paradigm needed to shift from one of student-compliance to one of partnership. A new paradigm, accessed through new passcodes, could empower all learners to unleash their desire and capacity to learn. Education Reimagined’s articulation of the learner-centered paradigm powerfully captures what happens when the right passcodes are set:
“Learners are seen and known as wondrous, curious individuals with vast capabilities and limitless potential…learning is a lifelong pursuit and our natural excitement and eagerness to discover and learn is fostered throughout our lives, particularly in our earliest years…learners are active participants in their learning as they gradually become owners of it, and learning itself is seen as an engaging and exciting process. Each child’s interests, passions, dreams, skills, and needs shape his or her learning experience and drive the commitments and actions of the adults and communities supporting him or her.”
UP for Learning has been contributing to a learner-centered paradigm shift in Vermont by mobilizing youth as full partners and change agents in school redesign, demonstrating what happens when all five codes are simultaneously activated. For example, young people become integral members of youth-adult teams conducting research and taking actions to:
- Increase rigor, relevance, relationships, and shared responsibility in the learning environment.
- Implement school-wide restorative practices.
- Develop and implement research-based communications campaigns to build public understanding and support for personalized learning and proficiency-based assessment approaches.
- Improve the health and well-being of their communities by utilizing the Youth Risk Behavior Survey data as a catalyst for dialogue and change.
- Revamp districts’ strategic plans by researching stakeholder wants and desires.
UP for Learning introduces and reinforces a simple, yet profound, set of passcodes that guide both the process, as well as the outcomes, of these teams. We provide training and coaching to ensure both the fidelity of the youth-adult partnership framework for these teams, as well as the skill and knowledge base necessary to be successful in their respective goals.
How Will You Share These Passcodes?
If a central goal of education is to prepare young people to be capable and active citizens, we must equip them to be self-advocates and agents of change. Adolescents share an unparalleled thirst for affirmation of their worth in the world and a desire to shape their life course. They are ready! Their voices, their directness, and their ownership of the new paradigm ensures a shared decision-making and change process that rightfully incorporates the viewpoints of all stakeholders.
Being known, valued, and using one’s voice in purposeful change work concurrently develops core workforce skills, such as independent learning, self-advocacy, decision making, communication, and problem solving. Importantly, as teachers share the new passcodes, and free themselves from the traditional power relationship, they discover that their hope and motivation are renewed.
There is a synergy that happens when young people’s creativity, insights, and optimism meet educators’ professional commitment, organizational skills, and systems savvy. As with any paradigm shift, this new relationship must be nurtured to avoid falling back on old habits. When youth and adults share their love of learning and desire for change, however, both are equally empowered and equally humbled. The result can be magical. We all become our better selves.
These passcodes to learning are an imperative for the redesign of our educational system. We might forget our Netflix password, but we cannot allow ourselves to forget the human passcodes: that every individual deserves to feel known and valued, to have a voice, to feel a sense of purpose, and to find agency to shape their lives. As basic human rights, these deserve to be etched into our memory. They provide access to that place where we can realize our fullest potential, whatever our pursuit.