When you stop to think about it, you are learning all the time. Whether figuring out a new app, mastering a basketball shot, practicing a different language or solving a problem with colleagues, humans are learning machines. We thrive on making connections, learning the basics, getting the skinny. Learning equals survival, especially during a time of rapid change. Like right now.
If the basic premise is everyone is learning at all times, why is the main mode of learning in school restricted to teachers imparting knowledge that is absorbed (or not) by students (“the learners”)? Aren’t teachers learners too? Can’t students learn from each other? Can’t teachers learn about students from their parents? Can’t adults learn from young people?
Schools should be environments where all of the above takes place. In 1998, after a lot of learning about what schools in the new century could look like I developed a learner-centered diagram for a new secondary school that I helped create and establish. Since then I have been harping on learner-centered education rather than the more in vogue student-centered education.
Recently, while Googling something else, I came across Education Reimagined started by “an ideologically diverse group of education practitioners and leaders” who came together in a Convergence-initiated group. Convergence is a Washington, DC-based policy resolution center that starts a conversation with experts and practitioners with different points of view that leads to solutions to America’s most challenging issues – in this case quality education. Through discussion, they created a vision of school that could transform learning—“a vision with the learner at the center” that is “both a challenge and an invitation to transform rather than reform schools.”
Let’s challenge the notion that learning is centered on any one constituency. We need to rethink what school can be from the space learning occurs in to the methods that we use. This is what Laurene Powell Jobs, president of the Emerson Collective, and Russlyn Ali, CEO of The XQ Institute, set out to do last September when they launched the XQ: Super School competition to rethink America’s high schools. Over 1,300 teams of educators, students, parents, community members and professionals came together across the US to submit concept papers.
Center for Powerful Public Schools submitted a Super School application to start Accelerate XQ, a learning lab that pushes the boundaries for what a learner-centered “school” can be. It will be located in a social impact zone, within a nurturing incubator lab environment where tech startups trying to develop novel ideas engage diverse younger learners in coming up with solutions to real world problems.
There are a number of places like our future learning lab where learner-centered education is alive and well. But they are the exception instead of the norm. Why? Our system of education needs to shift from compliance based to learner based. Policy needs to be rethought and reformed. School districts need to be free to do something different that honors all learners.
Yet it’s tough to change a district system to be learner-centered. Well-intentioned federal and state policy holds the hegemonic fabric of traditional education firmly in place. Most of the learner-centered schools you’ll find on the Education Reimagined or the Super School site are charter schools that operate somewhat outside of the current paradigm.
The Center champions quality public education in historically underserved district schools. Yet we know that our super school will need to be a charter because we can’t do a truly learner-centered high school within a school district.
Or could we? Could a district team up with their local teacher’s union and other partners to create a learner-centered zone that lets innovators shift from the still prevalent factory model to one that celebrates all learners and allows them to combine their minds and talents to create meaningful futures for our country’s most underserved young people? It will take an avalanche of united effort, policy reform and openness to learning together. Now is the time to do it.