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, Education Reimagined’s Julie Renkoski will be sharing her personal story with experiencing the paradigm shift as an educator.
Want to share your story? Let us know!
I was painfully aware, as hard as my co-workers, the students, and I were working, there were still many students who were struggling.
Research and Mapping Consultant, Education Reimagined
Pursuing My Calling
When I was in college, I tried to run away from teaching. My mom was a teacher—a great one—but I felt the need to forge my own path. Since I enjoyed writing and was a bit of a grammar nerd, I considered journalism. Still, I couldn’t escape the kids. I chose to spend some of my free time volunteering as a tutor and a Big Sister, and I loved it. Despite my initial denial, I enjoyed working with kids more than anything else, so I not-so-begrudgingly caved and earned a Bachelors and Masters in Education.
As a teacher, I had the privilege of working with incredible people in incredible places. I taught 3rd grade in a suburban Missouri elementary school and then English as a Foreign Language in Arequipa, Peru. When love took me to Los Angeles, CA, I worked as a literacy intervention specialist, first in an urban public school and then in an urban charter school. I loved each of these jobs and threw myself into them. By and large, my co-workers were passionate and pushed my practice, and of course, the kids brought
me much joy.
But, it was a lot of work. A LOT of stressful work. I would leave for school at 6:15am and return home at 7 or 8pm. Large portions of weekends and holidays were dedicated to preparation. Thankfully, my wonderful husband cooked, cleaned, balanced the budget, and was endlessly supportive. While I knew this pace of life was ultimately unsustainable, there was something else that bothered me about my situation even more. I was painfully aware, as hard as my co-workers, the students, and I were working, there were still many students who were struggling. We teachers analyzed data, encouraged, differentiated, incentivized, met with parents, met with each other, initiated new programs—it still wasn’t enough. It was so deflating to send a student to middle school knowing he or she wasn’t ready. I feared what this could mean for that child’s future, and it was no consolation to acknowledge that we’d all tried really, really hard.
After teaching for just seven years, I became burnt out and frustrated. I thought there was something wrong with education, and I largely blamed the decision-makers in the system. There was too much testing. Class sizes were too large. There wasn’t enough funding for mental health services. There were too many mandates. Essentially, policymakers were erecting endless obstacles for those of us on the ground.
The View from the Other Side
Then, lo and behold, my husband was offered a position in Washington, DC, and I found myself in the hub of the decision-making that I thought was holding us down. I decided my best course of action would be to learn about and infiltrate this corrupt world. Such was my motivation for becoming a 29-year-old intern with the Re-imagining Education Project at Convergence Center for Policy Resolution (the pre-cursor to Education Reimagined). I hadn’t the slightest idea of how drastically this experience would change and rejuvenate my view of both education and myself.
One of the first things I learned through the Re-imagining Education Project was that I’d likely misplaced the blame. I listened in on conversations with many individuals in policy leadership positions whom I’d previously considered culpable for education’s woes. Surprisingly, I found them exceptionally passionate, well-intentioned, and knowledgeable. Now, who was to blame?
A system rooted in the learner-centered paradigm stretches, adjusts, and adapts to fit each individual learner.
Research and Mapping Consultant, Education Reimagined
Catching the Culprit
As it turns out, I should have been asking about WHAT was to blame. As I watched videos by Sir Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra, and 2Revolutions and listened to the conversations amongst the 28 original participants in the Re-imagining Education Project’s dialogue, I realized that our more-than-a-century-old system was at fault. The structure in which all of us—students, teachers, and policymakers alike—were operating was ill-suited to our purposes. This system’s aim was to provide universal access to core content knowledge so that most of the populace would be prepared to work in the jobs available during the Industrial Age, and it was made efficient through standardization. For this reason, its core design principles were for every person of the same age to learn the same thing at the same pace in the same way. One particular image of this system really brought it home for me—in the video “Changing Education Paradigms,” Sir Ken Robinson likens our education system to a factory conveyor belt that transports batches of like-aged kids from one grade to the next in a uniform way. I began to picture my students on that conveyor belt.
In this system of standardization, exceptions were problems, and it wasn’t difficult for me to come up with a long list of student “exceptions” I’d encountered. Eric could never hold still and focus during large group instruction. Christina was bored and needed more of a challenge. Juliana consistently came to school with lice. Tanya’s interest waned, except when discussing current events. Kenneth only caught on when given extra time to process language and ideas.
The more I thought about the students I’d worked with, the more I realized they were all exceptions (read: exceptional) in one way or another. The problem was not that they were unique, rather that the system dictated that each unique, multi-dimensional child be molded to fit into the same small, rigid box on the conveyor belt. This meant that I must focus heavily on teaching Eric to face forward and tune in during a 15-minute group lesson. That Christina could do something more challenging only after she’d finished the work everyone else was doing. That I find a way to catch Juliana up on the loads of essential instruction she missed every time she was sent home with lice. That Tanya had to pursue her passions primarily beyond the school day. That Kenneth had to endure whole group lessons in a largely confused state until I could squeeze in an extension for him. The conveyor belt moved along mercilessly, as I desperately tried to keep all the kids aboard.
My Ah-ha! Moment
That’s how the paradigm shift truly hit me. I realized that the learner-centered paradigm of education turns our current system of standardization on its head; a system rooted in the learner-centered paradigm stretches, adjusts, and adapts to fit each individual learner. While our current system mandates sameness, a learner-centered system celebrates and leverages uniqueness. Despite our best efforts to deviate from the norm, the system in which we operate sucks us back in.
At first, this idea was a bit overwhelming for me. Viewed from our current paradigm, it sounds like a lot of work. As a teacher, hadn’t I tried to accommodate each individual student’s needs? I knew I had. That’s why, as the learner-centered mindset began to sink in, it was actually freeing to understand the reason my tireless efforts hadn’t yielded optimum results—I was butting up against a standardized system. That led me to identify and question many of the structures inherent in our current system. Is a student’s birthday really the most important factor in determining what, when, and with whom he/she learns? Is it necessary for every student to adhere to the same learning timeline? Is the best way to organize teachers to assign one to every 25-30 kids? Do all children need to have essentially the same daily schedule? Is it necessary for kids to learn identical content?
When I gave myself the freedom to question those structures, I began to get excited about the possibilities. System design features all became movable pieces that could be kept, discarded, replaced, or modified in each learner’s best interest. What an opportunity!
What’s in a Learner
While allowing myself to imagine what education could be, I began to realize how much fun I was having learning. As a teacher, I’d always touted lifelong learning to my students, but it struck me that I didn’t know exactly what that could look like in my own life. By entering an unfamiliar environment that matched my interests, I was learning constantly, and it was a thrill. I was enamored by the new experiences I got to have every day—from conference calls (yes, those genuinely excited me at first!) to meaningful research to strategic communication. I helped compile the thoughts and ideas emerging from the participants of the Re-imagining Education Project into “A Transformational Vision for Education in the US” and felt such a sense of accomplishment in writing for a real purpose. I began reading for fun again, kept up on current events, and spoke out at a local school board meeting. I started to feel like a participant in the world, rather than just a product of it.
That’s when I had my second revelation. Learner-centered education isn’t just for kids ages 0-18 years—it’s for every last one of us. Learning is discovering who you are, unearthing what you love, and channeling your passions and gifts for a purpose. It’s riveting and joyous. After a period of putting up blinders to everything but my job, I began to pursue learning for myself. And, I realized learner-centered education is about supporting our youngest learners through the early stages of their journeys—recognizing those journeys belong to them and they extend far beyond the reach of an education system.
Where to Go from Here
I still can’t imagine what the epitome of learner-centered education would look like or what a system that supports it could be. Often, my Type-A, detail-oriented mind is overwhelmed by the idea of making a truly learner-centered experience possible for each and every learner in a neighborhood, much less the country. But, I do know that I’m excited about education and my profession again, that I see the powerful potential for every single child, and that the beauty of any pursuit is the learning that occurs along the way.