What I learned at the Education Reimagined Symposium 2019: #whyLCE

I was excited to learn recently that a new learner-centered school, Gantry Academy, is launching soon in Round Rock. Soon after, I had the serendipitous pleasure of meeting its founder and director, Jennifer Phillips, at the Education Reimagined Symposium in Washington, D.C. It was the best education conference I’ve ever attended, and I’m grateful that Jennifer offered to share her takeaways and insights from the symposium in this guest post. —Teri Sperry

The time is now. Kelly Young, president of Education Reimagined, at the organization’s symposium, January 17, 2019.

The time is now. Kelly Young, president of Education Reimagined, at the organization’s symposium, January 17, 2019.

While many parents feel that the standard modern education system doesn’t work for their child, we might not know that there is another way. We just have this nagging feeling that our children are not widgets to be produced by an educational factory. So, some of us are moving to private schools, where lower ratios and individual attention give us hope for a better outcome. But then we hop from school to school, looking for the right fit that we can’t articulate, only knowing that something about each offering is just not working for our child. What we are developing alone together is the concept that education should start with the learner, rather than the institution.

Education Reimagined hosted a one-day symposium in Washington, D.C., on January 17 focused on sharing the message of Learner-Centered Education (LCE). There were over 200 educators, philanthropists, vendors, and learners present; chances are you missed it, quite possibly just because you haven’t even heard the term LCE, and you aren’t alone.

A true learner-centered education is more than a majority consensus on a thematic unit topic. It allows each learner to strive for mastery at their own pace (competency-based), with personalized, relevant, and contextualized content that they themselves engage in designing (learner agency). It is rooted in meaningful relationships (socially embedded) and it does not stop in the classroom (open-walled).

As it turns out, I was sent to the symposium because the educational goals I have for my own children align directly with the purpose of Education Reimagined. This organization is fully committed to transforming all education into the learner-centered paradigm. I didn’t realize it before, but my family is just a small piece of a much larger movement. I knew intrinsically what I wanted education for my girls to look like. I could describe it to other parents as “learner-driven” or “passion-driven” or even a “hack school” model, and I could cite specific studies supporting this approach, but what I lacked was the common vocabulary and the knowledge of the sheer magnitude of the existing efforts pushing in the same direction.

After a full day of immersion with these passionate, dedicated innovators, I came away inspired and recommitted to building a better educational method for every single child! It may sound fantastical or like an unreachable goal, but here are my top takeaways from the symposium that make this dream possible. 

1. This is not a “fancy liberal fad.”

At the conference, I spoke with leaders from both private programs and public school districts, from northern states like Vermont and from heartland states like Missouri. I was not the only person from Texas there. The idea that each person is unique and learns best in their own unique way has so much research to back it up that LCE is not just trending; it’s only a matter of time before it is the new standard. How can anyone make that claim? It’s already happening in most other major industries, from personalized television programming from Netflix and Hulu, to personalized medications based on your DNA. Personalized education is not just preferable; it’s inevitable.

Jasmine McBride, a student who spoke at the symposium about her experiences in a learner-centered high school.

Jasmine McBride, a student who spoke at the symposium about her experiences in a learner-centered high school.

2. Kids are people NOW.

While this may sound like an obvious statement, how many times have you heard “Children are our future?” Implying that age limits the usefulness of a person is not only harmful but also wasteful. There are now high school students who are published authors, Emmy award winners, and mentees of Broadway superstars, all thanks to their experiences with LCE. Learner agency, the ability for a student to make decisions about their own education, seems to generate one particularly interesting outcome (among the many additional benefits): sense of self. Self-confidence. Self-esteem. Self-efficacy. I heard from the young learners I spoke with directly that even one year in an LCE program can have a major lifelong impact. The more this seed grows in learners now, the more exponentially it will take off as they take on leadership roles in the community.

3. This is the best-kept secret in your neighborhood.

Remember when I mentioned that we are each developing this feeling “alone together”? The latest study shows that up to 60 percent of the public feels that education should be aimed at preparing individual learners for personally fulfilling lives. And yet, those same people think that only 5 percent feel the same way! Start the conversation with those around you. Even if they don’t have the same vocabulary, it’s something we can discuss together rather than in isolated pockets.

What can I do for my child NOW?

First, read about Learner-Centered Education at Education Reimagined to learn more about the national conversation happening now. Familiarize yourself with the vocabulary so we can all be having the same conversation locally as well as nationally. Decide if a fully personal, engaging educational path is right for you or your child. 

Second, act locally! While some public schools near us have shifted to competency-based report cards and portfolio assessments, they are still required to teach to the standardized tests. Work with your PTA to encourage change within your school. Some private schools are run democratically. Take a proposal to your leadership circle to discuss the LCE concept in depth.

Third, drop in to one of the regular workshops hosted by Gantry Academy to help us develop the LCE method that best offers custom, individualized programs to each learner right here in Round Rock, Texas!

[For a more comprehensive review of the symposium’s specific events, read Suzanne Freeman, Ph.D.’s blog post here.]

Jennifer Phillips

In praise of (educational) selfishness

Ted Graf leads Headwaters School and, among other worthy pursuits, plays ping-pong.

Ted Graf leads Headwaters School and, among other worthy pursuits, plays ping-pong.

In his first guest contribution to the Alt Ed Austin blog, Ted Graf, Head of School at Headwaters School, provides an excellent list of questions to ask when looking for the right school for any individual learner. If you’ve ever spent time in a private consultation or group workshop with me, you’ve likely grappled with many of these same questions. You’re invited to discuss them with Ted and other Headwaters community members at their January 26 middle and high school open house.

For most schools and those of us who work in them, this time of year is both highly stimulating and thought-provoking. On the stimulating side, we’re doing a lot of thinking, imagining, and planning for next year—how can we deepen our programs and make them more meaningful for students? Are there ways we can strengthen our culture, especially in the context of so much disequilibrium in the larger society? On the thought-provoking side, we’re finding that children and families have more and more insightful questions about how our education (or anyone’s) is really meeting a child’s needs, and I view this as a hopeful development.

So, I find myself having conversations with students and families about the “best” environment for that learner. Though it may sound counterintuitive, I urge students, in partnership with their parents, to think as much about themselves (as learners) as they do about a school setting.

This scene from the Headwaters River Campus shows an example of a relatively informal learning environment that can be a better fit for many kids than more traditional classrooms.

This scene from the Headwaters River Campus shows an example of a relatively informal learning environment that can be a better fit for many kids than more traditional classrooms.

Below, you’ll find the questions I encourage students to ask themselves as they consider different schools; they can be adapted for younger learners and work nicely in dialogue with parents.

  • In your most rewarding year of school, what was that environment like? Describe its characteristics for yourself. Are those characteristics still true for you as a learner?

  • What kind of learning environment are you looking for now? Informal? Formal? Bustling and busy? Quieter and more reflective? Structured? Individualized? What do you want that environment to look and feel like?

  • What role do your health and sense of balance play in your decision-making about school?

  • What kinds of relationships do you want to have with your teachers? Do you want to be known and understood, or do you prefer some anonymity? How do you feel about calling your teachers by their first names?

  • What kinds of students do you want to be around? After all, you’ll share hours of discussions, projects, rehearsals, practices, games, and performances together. Who motivates you? Who stimulates you? Who lights you up?

  • What kinds of curriculum are you seeking? Answer-based? Question-based? Socratic and discussion-based? How much research? How many projects? How do you feel about exams and the like?

  • Particularly pertinent to grades 4 through 12, how willing are you to use your voice to shape the learning environment around you? [At its essence, this question is asking you (and your parents) about whether you see education as something happening WITH the student or FOR the student.]

Headwaters students deep in exploration at the Blanton Museum of Art last December. How active—and interactive, and proactive—should your learning be?

Headwaters students deep in exploration at the Blanton Museum of Art last December. How active—and interactive, and proactive—should your learning be?

To be clear (and based on my own experience as a teacher and school leader), I am biased toward making a meaningful and vigorous education WITH the student. If you have other questions you find useful at this moment in a child’s educational journey, please share them in the comments.

Ted Graf

Media Monday: “Our grade book is the real world.” Learners take control.

“It’s time for education to be transformed,” say the founders and curators of Trailblazers, a new journal about what’s happening in learner-centered education right now. Of course, we couldn’t agree more. But what’s worth noting and celebrating about this manifesto is that is it written, edited, and designed by students themselves. They plan to publish once each semester.

Anya Smith-Roman, Kaylyn Winters, and Abigail Emerson are all students at Atlanta’s Mt. Vernon Institute for Innovation (MFIVI), which is linked to Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School. As part of a unique “innovation diploma” project, the students and their friends are energetically doing all the things alternative education is about: They’re connecting with community members and entrepreneurs. They’re making choices about their own learning and creating something new and all their own. They are declaring that they want to “blur the line between school and the real world and leave the world better than we found it.”

At MVIFI, the emphasis is consistently on getting out in the community to act and interact. “Our grade book is the real world,” says 10th-grader Brady Vincent. Brady is an entrepreneur who has consulted with outside organizations and is now working on a backpack with modular, interchangeable parts.

The first issue of Trailblazers includes a look at a recent learner-centered education conference through interviews with participants. Education Reimagined'sPioneer Lab program hosted the conference in Washington, DC, last fall, with more planned for this year.

Also in the journal: Neel Pujar, now in college at UC San Diego, talks about his experiences working on Design39Campus, a unique K-8 learning environment within a traditional public school district in San Diego. And New Zealander Kim Mi Yeoh writes about blending her interests in animals, architecture, and activism against factory farming in Auckland while studying at  Hobsonville Point Secondary School. Cali Ragland of Perkiomen Valley High School in Pennsylvania explains how she is pursuing a way to enhance curiosity in education and approaching it as a design challenge:

We identified Curiosity . . . as an important component and aspect of learning. We determined that this was an important quality for learning that is often not included in education, and, as a result, we are now trying to determine how a system of education can include Curiosity to better meet the needs of the 21st-century learner.

For more information about learner-centered education, take a look at the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation and at Education Reimagined, a national organization promoting learner-centered approaches. And check out the video below:

Shelley Sperry