Last week, we hosted our fourth annual SparkHouse gathering—a national community of young leaders from learner-centered environments who are committed to transforming education in the United States.
Every year we bring young people together for this event, we are blown away by their incredible leadership, wisdom, and energy. It makes me wonder if gatherings like this were conducted in every community, how quickly society would collectively lean into reimagining the systems and structures that have been unable to produce the outcomes we are all seeking for our children. Better yet, how might we all lean into asking about and listening for the outcomes our children want to see themselves fulfill in order to live prosperously as adults?
A few months ago, as part of our dialogue to inquire into the kinds of outcomes that would constitute success in a learner-centered system, I had the opportunity to interview seven young people aged 7-20 from learner-centered environments including: Workspace Education, Waldorf, the Met, Eagle Rock, and Norris Academy. The goal was to simply discover, in their words, what they were getting from their education.
Marcus (20), when thinking about how his time at Eagle Rock most impacted him, said: “I became a more holistic human being. My foundations sparked my explorations. One of the big things [for me as a learner] is reflections. I look back, and I find new learnings.”
Tatum (12) related to his community at Workspace Education in a way I certainly never related to my own education experience: “We’re exposed to all kinds of people [at Workspace]. We are almost family [here]. We all know and help each other.”
Hearing young people speak about their relationships with everyone in their learning community is such a dynamic shift from what we find in the conventional system. Rather than an unexpected spark here and there, it’s ubiquitous throughout the community’s culture.
Aidyn (12) spoke about this cultural element at Norris Academy: “At Norris, it’s all very personal. You learn how to better connect with people and those connections are used in so many different ways to inspire and motivate you. It motivates you so much more and gives you a sense of purpose about the work that you’re doing because you’re basing your plan off of your interests.”
Of course, these highlights wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t showcase the impact “real world” learning has on these young people. Kalei (18) spoke about her time at the Met and the enormous impact her open-walled learning experiences had on her: “I know that I know things because I would be asked by a mentor to fix something, and I could do it. Rather than just being lucky on a test, being able to show I could do something in real life shows way more. In the real world, they don’t hand you a test—you get tasks and you do the tasks. That’s way more important than a test. [From my learning experiences], I learned social skills, personal finance, how to run a business and sell products, how to get an apartment, and how to find my career interests. If I didn’t have that, I would be lost.”
There was so much gold in what each young learner shared with us, and it was waiting to jump off the tips of their tongues with every question. The overall summary of the conversations is simple—at each of their respective learner-centered environments, they were being prepared for the life they wanted to live; not the life adults or society thought they should live.
Each young learner I spoke with was joyfully learning the things that really mattered to them, enabling them to pursue a path—known or unknown—with confidence.
We can spend days, weeks, or even years debating what type of learning experiences we should design for our young people. Yet, in a matter of minutes, by simply speaking with them, we discover so much more about the outcomes they desire (and deserve). Let’s keep having conversations with the people who are at the center of their educational experience. There is so much to discover.