/ Student-Centered Learning / Taking a moment to dream: How can we reimagine what ‘school’ looks like?

Taking a moment to dream: How can we reimagine what ‘school’ looks like?

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It might as well be the motto of 2020: Things aren’t going quite the way that we had hoped. . . Alright. Now, what can we learn from it? How can we do better in the future?
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The cracks in our education system are showing, and educators everywhere are feeling it.

In Zoom rooms across the country, outstanding teachers with more than 20 years of experience in the classroom report feeling like it’s their first day on the job all over again. . . except for this time without proper training.

“The kids who keep me up at night,” says Tanya Leon, an English teacher at Richards Middle School, “are the ones who need food at school, who need love at school, and who need to be told that they are valuable.”

The gaps in education between the haves and the have-nots were present far before remote learning, but now they’re exacerbated, impossible to ignore.

“Teachers are suddenly having to shift a one-size-fits-all model into video conferences, and it’s exposing the inequities in our system,” says Susan Patrick, President & CEO of the Aurora Institute.

“Teachers are suddenly having to shift a one-size-fits-all model into video conferences, and it’s exposing the inequities in our system.”

Embracing a growth mindset

In times like these, it’s perhaps temptingly easy to point fingers and allocate blame for the systemic inequities in education that are becoming more apparent by the day and our collective lack of preparedness to adapt to flexible learning models.

But with the stress of a global pandemic bearing down on everyone, it may be better to give one another grace and instead seek to foster the growth mindset we so desperately wish to instill in our students.

It might as well be the motto of 2020: 

Things aren’t going quite the way that we had hoped. . . Alright. Now, what can we learn from it? How can we do better in the future?

“I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. I don’t think there’s anybody to blame. But I think this opens the door to the future,” says Amy Gwizdz, a technology coach at Dearborn Public Schools. “Hopefully, people can realize that this was a fluke, yes, but good blended instruction and good online learning is not a fluke.”

“I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. I don’t think there’s anybody to blame. But I think this opens the door to the future.”

So what does that doorway to the future look like? Can we pause for a minute to dream?

Taking a moment to dream: How can we reimagine what ‘school’ looks like?

We interviewed several innovative educators from around the country and asked them to dream about what a better system of schooling might look like. You can see some of their responses in the video below:

A common thread among responses was a desire to question the efficacy of a one-size-fits-all model of education in which all students are in the same room learning the same content at the same time.

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to education,” says Gwizdz. “Education is messy.  All students are not created equal. Our kids are the ones who we fail when we try to impose any clear-cut, standardized, or one-size-fits-all on them.”

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to education. Education is messy.  All students are not created equal. Our kids are the ones who we fail when we try to impose any clear-cut, standardized, or one-size-fits-all on them.”

“As we move forward, I hope our biggest question is,” Leon poses, “are we doing things because it’s the way we’ve always done it? Or because it’s what’s best for kids? If we move toward that second question, I think we will realize that for a large part of the population, the traditional model doesn’t work.”

Most educators can call to mind far too many examples of students at their school who were failed by the one-size-fits-all approach.

“If we’re missing one kid, we’re missing one kid too many,” adds Leon. “I would argue, and I think every other educator would argue, that we miss way more than one kid in education all the time.”

But how do we move away from this one-size-fits-all approach to something more personalized that meets each student’s unique needs?

Student-centered learning as the horizon

Many educational leaders believe that the future lies in pushing toward student-centered learning models that offer students agency over their own education.

“In the traditional model, you have a captive audience,” says Dr. Sarah Pazur, director of school leadership at FlexTech High School. “The teacher is in control. But when you destabilize that situation and you can’t control when students are logging in or what they’re doing, all of a sudden you have to ask: What do I believe about learning? How can we leverage the tools we have so students can have more control instead of the teacher controlling the pace, the time, and the place of learning?”

“In the traditional model, you have a captive audience. The teacher is in control. But when you destabilize that situation and you can’t control when students are logging in or what they’re doing, all of a sudden you have to ask: What do I believe about learning?”

It’s scary, she admits, to let go of that control. Especially when that control is taken from you as quickly as it was when schools began shutting down back in March and teachers no longer had all of their students in front of them in the same room.

“It’s a different type of classroom. It functions differently at its core,” explains Dr. Chris Harrington, director of the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. “Teachers have to do things differently to keep students engaged. It has to be far more deliberate and intentional. When kids have more control over their learning — more voice, more choice, and more agency — they will be more likely to choose to stay engaged.”

“It’s a different type of classroom. It functions differently at its core.”

When students are empowered to take agency over their own education — taking directive to explore the subjects, projects, and questions that ignite their passion for learning at their own pace — the results can be incredible. 

What does this look like in action? You can learn more about student-centered learning and see examples of Michigan schools that have achieved great results through this way in our student-centered learning blog series.

The difficulty of personalizing learning at scale

Of course, it’s not news to any seasoned educator that personalization matters in learning. Historically, the problem has been that it’s difficult to personalize learning at scale. There are plenty of reasons a one-size-fits-all model of education has prevailed for so long.

In most classrooms, there’s a ratio of one teacher per 20-30 students. Before recent advancements in technology, tailoring each student’s learning to their unique needs was near impossible. 

Good teachers have always made adjustments to accommodate individual students where needed, but a truly student-centered approach to learning is exceedingly difficult to implement without access to digital tools and digital content.

Good teachers have always made adjustments to accommodate individual students where needed, but a truly student-centered approach to learning is exceedingly difficult to implement without access to digital tools and digital content.”

To make it feasible requires significant rethinking of the traditional classroom as we understand it.

Indeed, reimagining school as student-centered rather than teacher-led requires an incredibly efficient system in which both the strengths of teachers and the strengths of technology are optimally leveraged.

“What I would suggest that folks think about is: How can you leverage online learning to make the most of what it can do?” says Tom Arnett, senior research fellow for the Christensen Institute. “Is there a way to cover a lot of the foundational content in an asynchronous format using online learning resources so that that time when you are face-to-face — whether that be over Zoom or in a brick-and-mortar classroom — you can really focus that time on what teachers do best and what matters most for students in terms of deepening learning, engaging students in meaningful activities, and connecting socially?”

“Is there a way to cover a lot of the foundational content in an asynchronous format using online learning resources so that that time when you are face-to-face — whether that be over Zoom or in a brick-and-mortar classroom — you can really focus that time on what teachers do best?”

Where teachers really shine

Playing on the strengths of teachers often means having them focus on the relationships they’re building with their students. After all, most educators know from first-hand experience that this is where true learning happens: When students form personal connections to their teacher and to the subject matter.

“The number one thing we can do right now for our students is to build community and get to know them,” says Leon. “If we don’t know what they need, we’ll never be able to advocate for the changes we need to make in education.” 

“It’s not just the academic stuff that matters either,” says Dr. Harrington. “The question for each student should always be: What does this particular human being need right now?”

“The question for each student should always be: What does this particular human being need right now?”

“When we’re no longer physically distanced,” asks Monique Uzelac, program director at the Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education, “are we going to go back to putting kids in groups and putting them through things at the same pace, or can we look at this as an opportunity to mix that up and develop structures that can offer more flexibility?”

A hidden benefit: More agile & resilient school systems

Initial studies are coming out that suggest that schools that had already embraced a competency-based, student-centered learning model were more prepared for the abrupt shift to remote learning last spring.

In our statewide survey of emergency remote learning, educators in districts with a competency-based curriculum (a key tenet of student-centered learning) reported managing the emergency transition relatively well. Many districts that were not yet practicing the model suggested that they hoped to transition in the Fall because it seemed to keep more students motivated to participate.

Other emerging research suggests that fostering a culture of student agency can actually help schools become more resilient to change.

“One really exciting thing that we’re seeing is that schools with a focus on learner agency have had a smoother transition to remote learning,” says Chelsea Waite, a research fellow for the Christensen Institute. “So often we see student agency only as an outcome — that we need to build this in students for the long-term — but as you build it, I think, it can be built back into the model. Students can give back and be relied upon in the learning community and not just be recipients of learning.”

“So often we see student agency only as an outcome — that we need to build this in students for the long-term — but as you build it, I think, it can be built back into the model. Students can give back and be relied upon in the learning community and not just be recipients of learning.”

According to Heather Staker, founder of Ready to Blend, creating student-centered learning environments will help us be more agile the next time we face school closures for any reason. 

“The schools that are led by the most forward-thinking leaders,” she says, “and that have teachers with a growth-mindset and entrepreneurial spirit will be most capable of saying: ‘We need to redesign a bit of what we’re doing in our face-to-face environments so if there comes a time where we need to close down for 14 days or a month, that won’t be a crisis anymore. We actually have a flexible learning environment that can accommodate that.’”

The long road ahead

Change is rarely easy. 

It’s hard work to reimagine what school looks like, especially when the traditional model of schooling is one in which most of us were raised during the formative years of our lives. 

“Almost all educators are in school because they were successful and thrived in school,” says Leon, “so telling them that the system that created them doesn’t always work is a difficult conversation to have. It can feel like an attack on you, even if that’s not the intent.”

“Almost all educators are in school because they were successful and thrived in school, so telling them that the system that created them doesn’t always work is a difficult conversation to have. It can feel like an attack on you, even if that’s not the intent.”

Most agree that changes of this scale cannot happen overnight, nor in one summer in the midst of a global pandemic. 

“It takes a lot of discussion with your community to make this level of change,” says Wendy Zdeb, executive director of the Michigan Association for Secondary School Principals. “When people are already in a time of stress and you’re not able to bring people in to have those conversations, that’s challenging. There’s a give-and-take when you talk about innovating because you also have to realize where people are. You have to take into consideration your school community and everything that’s going on and be realistic about that.” 

The power of transformational leadership

We’ve been talking about reforming education and changing the way we teach for 15 years that I remember,” says Tina Kerr, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. “With this crisis, it has created an opportunity for us to actually have change occur.”

What will it take to make this dream a reality where every student’s learning experience is tailored to their own unique needs, circumstance, and interests?

According to Dr. Harrington, transformational leadership is half the battle. “It takes a transformational school leader to make a change like this,” he says. “You have to do a lot of work cultivating the soil in your school community.

“It takes a transformational school leader to make a change like this. You have to do a lot of work cultivating the soil in your school community.”

The need for hope

The long road ahead isn’t possible without hope.

What makes us optimistic is that we have many bright, resourceful, and transformational educational leaders in Michigan, many of whom we were grateful to interview for this article.

COVID-19 has been an incredibly challenging time for many. Now, more than ever, it’s important that we give one another grace. We can’t expect change to happen overnight. 

But we can dream of a better system and begin asking our communities to dream alongside us.

We can plant the seeds of change and reimagine a vision of school that is more flexible, student-centered, competency-based, and personalized to the needs of each individual child’s unique academic, social, and emotional needs.

Things are hard right now, which means it’s more important than ever to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the horizon, and never stop asking, as Leon suggests:

Are we doing things because it’s the way we’ve always done it? Or because it’s what’s best for kids?

The latter should always be our goal.

Are we doing things because it’s the way we’ve always done it? Or because it’s what’s best for kids?

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