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Aurora Institute

More Insights from the 2020 Aurora Institute Symposium

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Communications

The most anticipated part of every Aurora Institute Symposium is the student panel. Students from across the country with authentic stories of teacher-student engagement spoke of learning and thriving, and they provided insight and testimony on what’s working in the design of student-centered, personalized, competency-based learning. This year’s panel included:

  • Nia Innis, Walter Payton College Preparatory High School,
  • Ashley Lin, Union High School,
  • Dayvon Woodard, Big Picture Nashville High School,
  • Eloisa Trujillo-Carrillo, Denver Public Schools, and
  • Julius Pedro, Native American Community Academy

Students shared how mastery-based learning practices helped give them agency and voice in their learning journey. They spoke of what it’s like learning virtually in the wake of COVID-19, the challenges and positives they’ve experienced so far this school year. Some said they loved having freedom over how they spend their time, but lamented not being able to be with their teachers and classmates in person.

Students also talked about matters of social justice; for example, how the protests following the murder of George Floyd showed up in their learning.

“Identifying as an African American male,” Dayvon said, “you start to see that, at a young age, you experience racism and discrimination very, very early. It hits you hard when you find out what it actually means. The thing I like about my school is they let us express and use our First Amendment rights, you know, the right to protest and the right to speak freely. Then they also tried to integrate it into our work, and let us speak on it. Our teachers make sure they listen to us and that they understand us. They respond and make sure we’re okay. So that’s what I really love, how my school handles these situations.”

Reflecting on a year marked by a pandemic and increasing xenophobia, Ashley spoke about being seen and having her identity be a critical part of learning.

When she was younger, she said, “I was actually just embarrassed of my family and my identity. My grammar was always incorrect. I didn’t really learn math the same way as everyone else. I just really felt like that part of myself, like, didn’t belong in the classroom. And I tried to actively  diminish my Taiwanese culture because I felt like it was a barrier to my learning.”

“I felt really seen and connected just starting in high school when my teachers emphasized that there are multiple perspectives and worldviews, and there are multiple right ways of doing things. I feel seen when teachers are open to learning about these other ways of doing and teachers who introduce new things not to try to change my values or change my beliefs, but help me see how different truths can coexist and how my cultural and family identity is actually a strength to my learning.”


After the student panel, 16 breakout sessions followed. They focused on such themes as equity-driven design thinking, diversity in the education workforce, partnering with families during the pandemic, positioning competency-based education as an equity strategy, remote learning, social-emotional learning, and the learning sciences.

The Symposium closed with a hard-hitting plenary on trends for advancing future-focused, equity-driven, student-centered education. It was led by:

  • Nicholas C. Donohue, President & CEO, Nellie Mae Education Foundation
  • Susan Patrick, President & CEO, Aurora Institute
  • Virgel Hammonds, Chief Learning Officer, KnowledgeWorks
  • Felicia Cumings Smith, Senior Director, US Regions, National Geographic

Susan Patrick shared themes and trends expressed over the previous two days of the event, including calls for:

  • Systems change, leapfrogging to remake education so that all young people can thrive;
  • New designs that are equity-driven;
  • Re-examining the purpose of education and determining whether our education system is fit for purpose,
  • Unleashing the power of the collective and collaborating with communities, students families;
  • Redefining student success more broadly to include building knowledge and skills, empathy, problem-solving, navigating through uncertainty, care for self and care for others, and learning across difference;
  • Curriculum redesign for what kids need to know and be able to do, and to help them become the changemakers and future-makers for human flourishing;
  • Creating local and regional learning ecosystems inside and outside of formal institutions;
  • Building capacity to lead change;
  • Modernizing and diversifying the educator workforce; and
  • Changing power dynamics to disrupt the inequitable structures and replace them with equity-driven systems that serve all students.

Here’s a look at various attendee’s tweets and reactions to our last plenary and series of breakout sessions.

To view all of the sessions and keynotes from the 2020 Aurora Institute Virtual Symposium, visit