Why is Learner-Centered Education Not Spreading?
Note from Education Reimagined 19 October 2022
By Kelly Young
A core question immediately emerges: Who are the people to invent this [large-scale, learner-centered] infrastructure? And what mindset, skills, and expertise does it take?
Founder and President of Education Reimagined
Why is learner-centered education not spreading?
You can ask this question of any learner-centered leader, and the list of challenges they face in even keeping their program, model, or network up and running are immense. To name a few, there are policy obstacles, funding challenges, and regulations that keep the constructs of the current system in place. But, what these all have in common is that there is a fundamental lack of public infrastructure that enables and supports learner-centered education.
In the last two years, recognizing this gap, Education Reimagined has increasingly turned our focus here — to the question of what would it take to invent, demonstrate, and spread the kinds of systems, structures, policies, supports, and processes that would enable thriving learner-centered, community-based ecosystems.
A core question immediately emerges: Who are the people to invent this infrastructure? And what mindset, skills, and expertise does it take? It is a question I’ve been pondering and a recent conversation with an unlikely source gave me new insight into who we might be missing. I want to share that conversation and the resulting insight with you today.
Recently, I was asking my son what chemistry is for. I wanted to see if his chemistry class was contextualizing what they were learning and providing examples of real-world applications, of which there are many. Realizing he couldn’t quite describe what chemistry is used for, I suggested we call my dad, who was a chemical engineer for the entirety of his career, to tell us about the applications of chemistry.
Before getting to what chemistry is for, my dad started off by describing the difference between a chemist and a chemical engineer — a distinction I had never heard before. He shared that a chemist is a person in the lab that invents new substances, chemical combinations, or applications. A chemical engineer is the one that creates the conditions to make those new things at scale.
The key point is that there are different skill sets to take something to scale. In our case, these learning engineers would share the learner-centered mindset, just as chemists and chemical engineers share the language and knowledge of chemistry.
Founder and President of Education Reimagined
Let’s take, for example, the invention of nylon. Nylon gets invented in the lab by a chemist, and then a chemical engineer builds the capacity to produce it at scale. There is a lot to be invented beyond the creation of a small quantity of a new material if you want to produce millions of yards of it.
While my son got clear on the many applications of chemistry from medicine to textiles, I had an unexpected epiphany about what’s needed to make learner-centered education available at scale.
Taking this new insight as an analogy to the roles in the learner-centered movement, I started considering the idea that the chemists are the practitioners — those inventing learner-centered education at a single site. They are discovering what it truly takes to serve each unique child, the best practices of a learner-centered approach, and the essential aspects of the learning experience that make the biggest impact. To take that to scale, perhaps we need “learning engineers” the people working to create the infrastructure to make learner-centered education available at “scale” to anyone who wants it.
There is a risk of the analogy drawing people’s attention to factories or mass production. But, if you put that part of the analogy aside, there is value here. The key point is that there are different skill sets to take something to scale. In our case, these learning engineers would share the learner-centered mindset, just as chemists and chemical engineers share the language and knowledge of chemistry, but the engineers would be working with the practitioners to see how to create the conditions for learning — our chemical reaction — to happen at scale. And, rather than it being about standardization or mass production, it is how you enable the unique learning pathway of every child to be able to unfold in its own way for millions of children, rather than just in the confines of a few learner-centered sites.
If we take the analogy in this light, we, at Education Reimagined, seek to enable the chemists (practitioners) and the chemical engineers (system-changers and inventors) to work together in communities to create prototypes of learner-centered ecosystems. We are still discovering who the learning engineers are. If you think you’re one of them, let us know!
This interaction and revelation helped me put words to one of the conundrums I’ve been grappling with. Who, and where, are the learning engineers? At first, I thought they would be from the learner-centered sites. And, for some, that is the case, but for others, they are interested in making the chemical reactions happen, not grappling with how to make it happen at scale. Just like chemists and chemical engineers, they have essential overlapping knowledge and skills, but they also have distinct competencies. They must partner together closely to answer tough questions, test out hypotheses, and explore new possibilities.
If we are to invent a new public education system, it will take all of us. In particular, it will take both chemists and chemical engineers, working together in symbiotic relationships (and also in some distinct and individual ways) to create both the new ideas and approaches, as well as the infrastructure and means to scale them.
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