Why Value Networks Matter in Creating Learner-Centered Environments

Note from Education Reimagined   25 January 2023
By Kelly Young, Education Reimagined


It isn’t about forcing anyone to change their value network. It is about learner-centered leaders assembling aligned values networks such that they can take their work on in earnest.

Kelly Young
Founder and President, Education Reimagined

At the end of 2022, in partnership with the Christensen Institute, we released K–12 VALUE NETWORKS: The hidden forces that help or hinder learner-centered education

The idea for this paper emerged through conversations between our team and Thomas Arnett of the Christensen Institute.  Over the last ten years, we’ve been listening to and learning from countless leaders who have pursued learner-centered education in their communities. We’ve seen learner-centered sites launch, sustain, and be swallowed up by the conventional education system. Arnett, in hearing about our learnings and noticings, shared his expertise in disruptive innovation, giving new language to what we were seeing happen in the field. 

We thought it was so helpful to us that we should share it with the field. 

In short, whether in schools, districts, or out-of-school, we’ve learned that success is about more than creating a learner-centered environment, it is about assembling an aligned value network in which it can operate.

“An organization’s value network represents the context of individuals, other organizations, institutions, and regulations it interfaces with to establish and maintain its model…  An organization’s value network is the dominant influence on its priorities.”

Learner-centered leaders consistently share the challenges of trying to fit their vision of education — one that nurtures the gifts and strengths of young people, seeing their uniqueness and valuing their diversity — into a system that predominantly values compliance, standardized curriculum and outcomes, bell schedules, and the ability to perform on tests. 

They are running up against a misalignment in value networks, or “the context of individuals, other organizations, institutions, and regulations [something] interfaces with to establish and maintain its model.” Having nothing to do with the commitment of the leader or the clarity of their vision, if they are in an unaligned value network, they will be constrained by what is valued and the strength of the system that reinforces those values at every turn. 

Let’s just say value networks influence a lot and dominate more than the eye might first realize. From the ways we make decisions about funding, to how the space in a learning environment is organized, to whether youth are allowed to leave campus, the value networks matter. And, there are many forces that shape these value networks, such as key stakeholders, existing policies, and available funding.

“Schools’ value networks often include local, state, and federal education agencies and policymakers; learners and their families; employee unions; voters and taxpayers; the postsecondary education system; community organizations; vendors; teacher preparation pipelines; and philanthropic donors.” 

It is these influences that have created and maintained the K-12 education system we have today, the one most learners experience for over a decade of their lives. Because of their dominance in our society writ-large, the value networks of the current system have become self-reinforcing and pervasive. Therefore, when learner-centered ideas or structures are proposed, leaders are often met with uncertainty, wariness, or skepticism. What they are really up against is a conflicting, and hard to overcome, value network. 

This isn’t to say that there are no stakeholders or other influences in the education conversation that are aligned with the priorities of learner-centered education. There wouldn’t be examples of learner-centered environments if that were the case. It is just that under most circumstances, they are a minority, and the dominant value network (because of its long-standing, self-reinforcing nature) prevails. 

But, there are those bright spots, and they are worth learning from. Despite the many stories of how challenging it has been to create a learner-centered environment in a value network that prioritizes more conventional models, we’ve heard, seen, and experienced incredible examples of learner-centered environments — they showcase what is possible when value networks are more aligned.


We must create the most effective, aligned value networks we can and ensure they are being fostered across a diversity of communities.

Kelly Young
Founder and President, Education Reimagined

When families, educators, regulators, and community partners — the value network of the model or system — are aligned and the constraints and weight of the value network of the conventional model don’t inhibit the learner-centered environment from fully expressing what the community needs and wants for their learners, the possibilities are endless. So far, the ability to get fully aligned regulators and funders is still limiting the possibilities, but what’s being expressed is so promising, it defies logic not to develop the promise. 

So, what does it mean to have an aligned value network? It means you have stakeholders who share a viewpoint on the purpose of education and what it takes to advance that purpose; and at least at the moment, it means those stakeholders bring their collective influence and power to keep the conventional systems’ norms, priorities, and requirements at bay. 

At Education Reimagined, we often point to a core set of assumptions operating in the background when learner-centered environments are enabled to exist and thrive:

  • The purpose of education is for each young person to discover who they are, their unique gifts, and how to contribute those gifts meaningfully to the world.
  • The work of education is learning.
  • Education is done by and with the learner.
  • All learners are unique, capable, curious, and wondrous.
  • Learning happens when a learner’s interests, passions, and purpose are engaged.

In places where there is this kind of alignment, leaders like Miguel Gonzalez at Embark Education have built a networked web of businesses and community organizations that host middle schoolers’ learning and development. The founders of Big Picture Learning created a model that is driven by relationships, community partnerships, and rigorous learning. Trace Pickering, formerly with Iowa BIG, was able to develop a model that leverages youth’s passions, innovation, and curiosity to solve local business and community challenges. 

It is remarkable what is happening out there. And, right now, these are the needles in the haystack in K-12 education. There are simply too many hurdles to overcome — the value network of the conventional system is just so strong. So, what does this mean for us?

It isn’t about forcing anyone to change their value network. It is about learner-centered leaders assembling aligned values networks such that they can take their work on in earnest — this work of inventing and bringing to life learner-centered ecosystems. This means that families, youth, and educators must be able to choose to be a part of a learner-centered site, rather than being forced to join. Policies, systems, and governance must be aligned with learner-centered practices and ways of operating. 

Moreover, it invites us to consider where we are starting this work of ecosystem invention. There are sectors out there where the value networks are more aligned from the start, including youth development and early childhood. These sectors will be essential actors in an ecosystem, and more than that, they offer ripe starting points from which to begin building and inventing one. Learner-centered leaders from the youth development and early childhood spaces are prime champions to lead the work in their communities, building on the relationships, networks, and wisdom they have from their deep engagement with families.

If we want learner-centered ecosystems to be equitably available to every child and family in the country, we must give this phase of research, development, and invention the best chance it can; we must create the most effective, aligned value networks we can and ensure they are being fostered across a diversity of communities. That is how we demonstrate to the nation what learner-centered ecosystems can produce for the full diversity of our youth and community; that is how we get to a phase of spread; that is how we get equity. 

Over the course of the next months, we will continue to share why value networks matter so much, as we look to create opportunities for any family to access learner-centered education. Be sure to download the paper and reach out if the ideas resonate. 

And, we invite you to consider: What is the value network in which you are operating, in which you are contributing?

New resources and news on The Big Idea!


We recently announced a new R&D acceleration initiative to connect and support local communities ready to bring public, equitable, learner-centered ecosystems to life.