This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. Lynn and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.
It seems with each episode of the Shift Your Paradigm podcast, we have the opportunity to see and explore new facets of learner-centered leadership. In Episode 12 and Episode 13, we had the opportunity to discuss learner-centered learning environments and learner-centered leadership with leaders and learners from the Portfolio School in New York City. We had the opportunity to learn along side co-founder and CEO, Babur Habib; Founding Lower School Director, Dr. Shira Liebowitz; Founding Director of Project Based Learning; and Lucas, a young learner at Portfolio School.
Regardless whether you are starting a new school design such as our guests or transforming a school-centered model to one that is learner-centered, there is a lot of work to do in terms of shifting mindsets. Learner-centered leaders exhibit characteristics of an entrepreneurial mindset. What are these qualities?
- The willingness to consistently stretch your learning and a willingness to adapt as you reflect upon and process your learning. This is the iteration process – constantly iterating.
- The ability to work collaboratively with others. No one person has all the knowledge and skills to transform an organization to learner-centered. Build the team, identify strengths and adapt to the needs of the work. Parents, students and teachers are important members of the transformation team.
- The openness to feedback and the mindset that feedback is not critical. It is designed to improve the work, find the best solution to challenges. Feedback from learners, teachers and other stakeholders is how we create the conditions for a better learner-centered learning environment.
Technology has a role to play in the transformation of education, but first and foremost transformation is about a powerful vision for learning – learning focused on passions and interest. A vision for powerful learning lets go of traditional notion of classrooms, disciplines, schedules, grades, and grade levels.
While we identify strengths in learners, it is equally important that we identify weaknesses. We need to raise the ceiling and the floor. Portfolio school encourages learners to embrace challenges and find their passions. Learners develop passion projects and personal goals – based on interest and choice.
The team focused on transformation should be diverse in experiences, but unified in one area: passion for learner-centered education. Learning spaces and subject areas look different now. Portfolio school let go of the idea of classrooms. Instead they are taking cues from artist’s studios and other design centers. In learner-centered environment there is a “radical” notion of interdisciplinary learning. Learners participate in 3 units per year. Each unit will last approximately 2-3 months. Learning is broken into two main blocks, AM and PM. Embedded between the learning blocks is lunch, recess, and physical education.
For example, one current project relates to ecosystems and the domestication of plants and animals. A fish tank was donated to the school, and learners quickly became interested in filling the tank with fish. Teachers designed a multi-disciplinary unit around this student interest. Once the unit commenced, the students determined they wanted to have a guinea pig in school. An artist in residence – an expert in woodworking – assisted students in designing the habitat for the guinea pig. Students are writing about the process and their learning while preparing for their public exhibition.
The role of the teacher is one of co-learner in a learner-centered environment; teachers are no longer the keeper of the knowledge. Even grades and assessment look different in this mixed-age (based on skill level, emotional maturity, or even a combination of both) grouping environment. Portfolios and exhibitions afford teachers and learners the opportunity to celebrate accomplishments and failures along the way. Showcasing their communication skills during public presentations (or exhibitions), learners take the stage to share their learning for an audience of 20-50 people.
Throughout the iterative process barriers exist and develop, but prototyping and reflection are two strategies to overcome barriers. The greatest barrier is translating educational research around learner-centered into formal learning environment. Team members and leaders working in this environment need to have an ability to stretch continuously and learn from iteration; an ability to work collaboratively w the team, students, and parents; and the ability to give and receive feedback. This is where the heavy lifting occurs!
Connections to Practice
In our context, more and more stakeholders in our organization are stretching themselves with new ideas and new thinking. Each year, this group grows. This has occurred due to formal professional learning opportunities, informal exposure to content/learning experiences, collegial inquiry in professional learning networks and teacher/leader supervision conversations. When will we hit a tipping point that transformation accelerates?
We have seen a shift in organizational conversations over the past several years: from technology being the dominant element to learning being the dominant element. Years ago, when we began our 1:1 teaching and learning initiative, we focused on the technology and learned about the SAMR framework. Our conversations no longer focus on the use of the technology; instead, they focus on the learning. From what experiences could our learners benefit?
We have spent a lot of time planning the vision. How much is too much? Babur shared, “Start as soon as possible.” Do we try too often to get it right on the first try and work too hard to limit the messiness? Are we emotionally attached to any one idea? Are we over-designing?
We do a good job of celebrating along the way. We believe people feel valued. This year’s Superpower focus will help this. Stakeholders may nominate any staff member for demonstrating a superpower (collaboration, gap detection, risk-taking, energy, etc.)
Constant reflection has played a significant role in getting our organization to where it is. Having colleagues to connect and reflect with has been critical to our iterative process. How do we engage more people in the reflective process.
Questions Based on Our Context
- What can transformers learn from the start-up, entrepreneurial mindset?
- Portfolio school is a different context. What can we learn from transformation that occurs in contexts different than ours?
- How are we modeling continuous learning in our organization? What do others see from their formal leaders and peers?
- How has continuous learning propelled us to where we are at this moment in time?
- What are the qualities of entrepreneurial thinking, and do we exhibit them? How do will build this skillset in our younger learners?
- How open are we to feedback? How often does ego play into a feedback session? What are examples of feedback profiling us forward to a better solution?
- What traditional notion can we work on removing from our context this year? In the next year? In the next five years? What are the barriers? How do we overcome them?
- How do we do a better job of investing in the voices of learners, leaders, teachers and community members?
- How do we record reflections across the organization? What structure could we develop to capture this important data along our journey?
- How could we do a better job of prototyping? If we did, how would our transformation process change?
Next Steps for Us
- Continue to focus on the learning conversation and weaving in ideas connected to technology. How can technology fuel the transformation?
- Develop mechanisms to engage the full gamut of stakeholders in this work, being open to feedback and using it to re-norm the vision. Remember, we cannot be wed to any single idea as it goes through iterations and development.
- Find areas we can do rapid prototyping.
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Latest posts by Randy Ziegenfuss and Lynn Fuini-Hetten (see all)
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