Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Education Reimagined: Creating a Learner-Centered Movement

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

Paradigms are hard to change because they are invisible. In fact, they are more than invisible. They are like the air we breathe. That’s why Education Reimagined’s movement building for learner-centered education begins with helping leaders think about their context and making visible the assumptions of the paradigm we all grew up in. And to then introduce the new paradigm of learner-centered education.

Back to the Beginning

Education Reimagined is one of six projects in Convergence Center for Policy Resolution (others include health reform, the federal budget, and re-entry). Convergence seeks to bring new solutions by bringing “together stakeholders with diverse perspectives on an issue – business leaders, policy practitioners, non-profit executives, elected officials, think-tank experts, academics, and community leaders – to build relationships over time …” In 2013, stakeholders were brought together for an 18-month dialogue to consider education. Their work together produced A Transformational Vision for Education in the U.S.

Reflection: From what I can tell, Convergence brought together primarily national organizations to the dialogue on education, although other issues such as re-entry had a much stronger mix of perspectives, including formerly incarcerated people. This may not necessarily be a problem, but I would think it influences how problems are defined and solutions are valued, as local perspectives tend to see important intersections between issues.

The vision is for learner-centered education. Staff from Education Reimagined emphasized that learner-centered is not a reform, model, or practice. Learner-centered is a mindset. One staff person described learner-centered as “each student is seen as unique. Learning happens naturally to explore their unique interests. We do not need to force education. Learning is something done by students, not something done to them. Once people adopt this mindset, it permeates beyond kids. What does great learning look like? What do schools look like? What are the roles of educators?”

Reflection: Although highly compelling, this explanation of learner-centered reminds me of one perspective of personalized learning (not one that we use at CompetencyWorks) that challenges the idea of common outcomes altogether and wants students to follow their own interests and curiosity. This perspective can assume that the world is a fair and wondrous place without injustice or inequity, where it is okay for kids to get to different places in their learning because they just followed their curiosity. I’m sure that the ER staff have a strong interest in equity and certainly the school participants who attended the Pioneer Lab do, but there is a risk in explaining learner-centered in this way that would allow equity to drop from the table.

Although they start with a mindset, Education Reimagined does go on to define learner-centered education beyond this with a five-part definition: competency-based; personalized, relevant & contextualized; learner agency; socially embedded; and open-walled. The Education Reimagined team are strong communicators, so I’ve included how they describe each of these components at the very end of this article.

Building a Movement

To advance learner-centered education, Education Reimagined has created three initiatives that are all part of building a learner-centered movement:

  • SparkHouse: High school learners have been convened to allow them to speak to their experience in learner-centered education and to see themselves as leaders who can make change in their communities. One learner in Cedar Rapids, Iowa created an organization called Edrevision to engage with multi-stakeholders around a vision for education. The focus is to increase awareness about learner-centered education and why it is necessary. In GA, a group of young leaders published two issues (with more coming) of a learner-created authored e-magazine called Trailblazers.  
  • Pioneer Lab Community: Education Reimagined is bringing together teams of leaders from after-school programs, district schools, and charters that bring a learner-centered orientation to create a network that builds proof of concept and leadership at the local level.   
  • Pioneering is a quick-to-read magazine highlighting learner-centered programs and schools.
  • A Year of Learning: Coming up next year is an effort to bring more attention to learner-centered learning through a 12-month nationwide community engagement campaign.

An important part of this work is creating shared language. (See their Lexicon.) This isn’t an easy task, as many people at the Pioneer Lab were from other networks, each with their own language. I totally agree that we can’t allow language to get in the way of our advancing learner-centered (or student-centered or personalized) learning. I’ve also come to understand that local context makes a difference and that there will always be some language differences. In order to not let this get in our way, it’s important to always ask what people mean in pursuit of deeper understanding of each other’s perspectives and to honor local preferences, as they know what will work in their community.

Staff explained to me that they are not advocates. They aren’t advocating for specific policies and programs – only to advance learner-centered education and understanding that models will look different based on unique learners and communities. They want to bring attention to and create conversation about learner-centered learning. They want to help identify leaders in this space and bring them together as a network. They want to “make it inevitable that our schools become learner-centered.”

Education Reimagined is bringing much-needed capacity to our work. They bring students to the table in a very authentic, meaningful, and powerful way. The training on understanding a paradigm shift is masterful. Their ability to help local staff of schools and programs understand themselves as national leaders and to help form relationships to build a network is exemplary. Pay attention to A Year of Learning, as it may open opportunities for you and your school or district to tell your story.

Reflection: With the demise of the Coalition of Essential Schools, there is certainly a need for a convening organization around a shared set of ideals. However, I’ve had trouble getting comfortable with this strategy. To me, movement building is about creating shared understanding and about building power. It takes a very strong results-oriented outlook and needs to have targets for what it wants to change. Education Reimagined is using a semi-managed approach of “enrolling” people into the movement. I can’t tell if this is simply an early stage of movement building, a different type of movement building that I’m not familiar with, or a communications and network strategy being called movement building. I’m also just not willing to call myself a “pioneer” with its historical implications of claiming land upon which native people lived, especially as this dynamic is so painfully continuing today at Standing Rock and other communities.

All that said, the training at Pioneer Labs is valuable in its leadership training, network formation, and strengthening efforts across the country to transform education.

How Education Reimagined Explains the Five Elements of Learner-Centered Education

For more information on learner-centered education as a mindset, see the lexicon and vision.

Learner-centered education is:

COMPETENCY-BASED learning is an alternative to age- or grade-based learning. In competency-based learning, each learner works toward competency and strives for mastery in defined domains of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Learners’ trajectories toward mastery are guided and managed, rather than placing the emphasis on their achievement of specific benchmarks in a fixed amount of time. Competency-based learning recognizes that all learners are unique and that different learners progress at different paces. It allows the system structure to support variation of learning speeds in accordance with each learner’s specific challenges and needs. Assessments, both formative and summative, are utilized on a continuous basis to inform the learning and instructional strategy for each learner. Additional resources are provided to learners who need help to accelerate the pace of competency development.

PERSONALIZED, RELEVANT, AND CONTEXTUALIZED learning is an approach that uses such factors as the learner’s own passions, strengths, needs, family, culture, and community as fuel for the development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Learning experiences are leveraged to bridge gaps and meet learning challenges; designed to expand interests, opportunities, and perspectives; and responsive to learners’ passions. At the same time, they are rooted in real-world contexts and empower the learner to demonstrate his or her learning in a variety of authentic ways and settings. Personalized, relevant, and contextualized learning also acknowledges that different learners face different challenges to learning, whether in health, safety, economic situation, emotional well-being, social interactions, or competency development. Those challenges are both identified and addressed so that the learner is adequately supported, thus ensuring that his or her current life situation does not constrain the breadth or depth of learning.

Learning that is characterized by LEARNER AGENCY recognizes learners as active participants in their own learning and engages them in the design of their experiences and the realization of their learning outcomes in ways appropriate for their developmental level. As such, learners have choice and voice in their educational experiences as they progress through competencies. Harnessing his or her own intrinsic motivation to learn, each learner strives to ultimately take full ownership of his or her own learning.

SOCIALLY EMBEDDED learning is rooted in meaningful relationships with family, peers, qualified adults, and community members and is grounded in community and social interaction. It values face-to-face contact, as well as opportunities to connect virtually, and recognizes the significance of establishing continuity in children’s lives through the development of stable relationships. Independent exploration and practice; collaborative group work; structured, intentional instruction; and structured and cooperative play, among other experiences, are integrated to develop learners’ competencies. Both peers and adults are recognized as integral partners in learning, and learners are encouraged to interact with those developing at different competency rates, from different backgrounds, and with different interests. Furthermore, socially embedded learning catalyzes and structures partnerships with families, community-based employers, civic organizations, and other entities that can foster learning.

OPEN-WALLED learning acknowledges that learning happens at many times and in many places and intentionally leverages its expansive nature in the learner’s development of competencies. It creates and takes full advantage of opportunities in a variety of communities, settings, times, and formats. All learning experiences, whether highly structured or exploratory and experiential, are valued, encouraged, and integrated into the learner’s journey. These experiences may be in-person, virtual, or blended. Play, recreation, technology-enabled experiences, community-based work, and service opportunities, for instance, are all recognized as legitimate vehicles for learning. While opening learning to a myriad of settings, open-walled learning also provides learners with a physical space in which to socialize, collaborate, and learn with peers and adults. Where a particular community possesses relatively few educational resources, they are supplemented to provide learners with authentic, rich, and diverse learning opportunities.

See also: