We are frequently asked how can a system be transformed? How can we shift the thing that everyone is operating inside of?
What we do know is that to design fully-expressed, powerful learner-centered environments, you must have the freedom to design and implement radically different models that are not a tweak or an iteration of the current design of education. It is not about adding or bolting on a block in the schedule for social and emotional learning, redesigning or rearranging the furniture, adding a maker space, or learning about African American history every February.
Rather, it is about designing a model and the supporting systems that create the conditions for great learning to happen. We know learning is optimized when learning is:
- Relevant because it starts with what kids want to learn;
- Supported by adults who know, value, and see the whole child including their unique circumstances, culture, community, family, interests, and aspirations; and
- Embedded in the real world—pursuing work that matters.
So, to design learner-centered environments and systems, people need to be freed from the constraints that have a way of keeping things the way they have always been. These constraints come in many forms and from many sources: district, state, and federal policy; community interest and will; district leadership; educator willingness; our willingness to trust young people; and our own ability to imagine something beyond the way we have always done things.
Now, we have another question arise. What does freedom from these constraints look like? From conversations with practitioners and actors in the movement, Education Reimagined has noted two essential aspects:
- Freedom from unaligned systems and norms that currently drive the standardized system; and
- Freedom to choose to be a part of the work of transformation or not.
The freedom to create new models and systems can occur absolutely anywhere. That said, right now, the freest place is outside the current education system (whether district or charter). This is where we see amazing new models emerging like One Stone (ID), Workspace Education (CT), and Rock Tree Sky (CA).
The advantage of operating outside established education systems is the immediate freedom from the constraints inherent in an established system. This enables these sites to advance their practice at a notably expedited pace and to invent models that don’t look anything like the “school” most of us knew growing up. These examples inspire us and create tangible incarnations of the learner-centered vision for people to touch, see, and experience.
The obvious disadvantage is that private learner-centered models have no public revenue stream. Therefore, they rely on private money and tuition fees, which often limits who has access or, for models with reduced or no-tuition, adds a fundraising burden that can jeopardize long-term viability.
This is not to say there are not incredible avenues to foster learner-centered transformation in the public system. We have also seen public efforts carve out freedom of their own to develop inspiring and advanced learner-centered environments. Examples include:
- New Districts that have established different agreements with the state (e.g. The Met School and Norris Academy);
- Programs in public districts (e.g. Iowa BIG) that enable young people to experience learner-centered learning part- or full-time in a different space;
- Alternative Schools (e.g. many Big Picture Learning models, including Lindsay Unified’s JJ Cairns Campus) often offer freedom to school leaders to radically redesign learning;
- School-Within-a-School (e.g. School-Within-School @ Goding) is a way of giving teachers, young people, and families a choice of a learner-centered pathway or a conventional one.
- State Innovation Zones for Charter and District Schools (e.g. how High School for Recording Arts and Avalon School had the freedom to operate in Minnesota) can give freedom to schools to create new models.
Creating learner-centered expressions through these various mechanisms provides proof that it can be done (and done well) within the public system. The great advantage here is that the work is funded and available to any family that wants to come. The disadvantage is that the freedom needed to create these expressions is hard to get and hard to keep. Most of the models highlighted above have existed for over a decade (if not two), and their need to constantly advocate for their existence has never ceased.
At the end of the day, the beautiful thing about the public and private examples is we don’t have to choose one strategy over another as a movement. We need all of these strategies (and more) if we are to make this available to every child in the country, particularly those who have been the least well-served in every way possible by the current system.
The ideal strategy is the one that will work best in the community you are in. We have an ambition that every child in the US, regardless of background or circumstance, has a local learner-centered option they can attend by 2030. So, it is our call to action to everyone and anyone: What would it take to bring a local learner-centered option to your young learners, families, and community? Which strategy would work best for you?