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Learner-centered education collaborates with learners to design learning experiences and pathways tailored to their interests and needs.

5 models that prioritize learner-centered education


Learner-centered education collaborates with learners to design learning experiences and pathways tailored to their interests and needs

Key points:

School models are, for the most part, outdated–and very overdue for replacement. When students reach high school, research shows that close to 66 percent of students are disengaged. But even students who do successfully navigate their schooling emerge with only a specific (and often narrow) skillset that may or may not match their strengths or interests.

Conventional schooling often leaves students disillusioned, questioning their intelligence and value as it is framed by a system that needs an overhaul.

Learner-centered education can play a critical role in reshaping education systems, offering a more holistic approach to meeting learners’ needs and helping students find fulfillment in their academic accomplishments.

K-12 Value Networks: The Hidden Forces That Help or Hinder Learner-Centered Education, a report from the Clayton Christensen Institute and authored by CCI senior research fellow Thomas Arnett, offers insight into understanding why schools struggle to change their instructional models, along with tips to establish and support learner-centered education models.

Program leaders, sponsors, learners and their families, staff, community partners, and funders are all critical to the success of these learner-centered education models.

The report describes how five different learner-centered education models–The Met, Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, Iowa BIG, Village High School, and Embark Education–were able to launch and grow their models by assembling value networks congruent with their vision for learner-centered education.

1. The Met: The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, known as The Met, is a network of six small, public high schools located in Providence and Newport, Rhode Island. The hallmark of The Met’s learner-centered model is that its learners go out in their communities for two days out of the week to lead real-world projects as interns for partner organizations. For example, learners might work with a local bakery, a law firm, a tech company, or a recording studio.

When learners join the Met, they and their families work with an advisor to identify their strengths, needs, and interests, and then develop an individualized learning plan with an internship as its centerpiece. Learners are responsible for researching potential internship opportunities and communicating with partner sites to arrange their internships. Advisors coach them as they do their research and outreach to ensure that internships match their needs and interests.

2. Virtual Learning Academy Charter School: The Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) is a statewide virtual school created in 2007 that serves K–12 learners throughout New Hampshire. The concept for the school came from the superintendent of the Exeter Region Cooperative School District, who saw an opportunity to take advantage of a new charter school law to apply for a statewide charter. Rather than create another conventional school, however, the superintendent recognized the distinctive value of using a virtual school model to offer a wide array of flexible, part-time and full-time learning options unavailable through brick-and-mortar campuses.

VLACS’s competency-based model is highly adaptable to learners’ needs and interests. It offers a range of options for learners to earn credits: through online courses, learner-designed projects, and out-of-school learning experiences such as internships and travel. Learners who take online courses move through those courses at their own pace and earn credit whenever they’re able to demonstrate mastery of designated competencies. For projects and other learning experiences, VLACS aligns these experiences with state learning standards and then measures learners’ mastery of standards using performance-based assessments.

3. Iowa BIG: A community conversation about the knowledge and skills young people need to become engaged and successful members of the community as adults was linked with an initiative to send 60 community leaders back to school alongside learners over a four-month period. Through this experience, the community leaders realized that most learners were disengaged in school. Partitioning content into discrete subjects and courses made the learning boring and the teaching hard. Meanwhile, the work learners did in school had little connection to real-world problems, careers, and citizenship. Then came the founding of Iowa BIG, a high school learning experience sponsored by four local districts that enables learners to earn core credits by doing authentic projects.

The typical day of an Iowa BIG learner is half conventional and half learner-centered. For part of the day—either the morning or the afternoon—learners attend their local high schools. Then for the other half of the day, they go to an Iowa BIG site for real-world learning experiences. The model works with partner companies and organizations across Cedar Rapids to conceptualize projects learners might complete. Learners then work with partners to co-design interdisciplinary projects that both align with the academic and life goals of the learner, as well as the business or nonprofit needs of the partner. Projects might include creating museum exhibits, helping optimize processes at a hospital, hydroponic farming, or developing a messaging campaign for an animal shelter.

4. Village High School: The Village diverges markedly from standard approaches to high school education. Its learners receive all of their core academic content–English, history, social studies, and math–through mastery-based online courses. This format eliminates the need for scheduled class times and allows learners to progress at their own pace and test out of modules that they already have expertise in. Online courses at Village High School create time and capacity for the most learner-centered features of its model: its array of in-person electives.

Often team-taught and generally in-person, these courses are inspired by teachers’ and learners’ own passions. They cover myriad different topics, often in an interdisciplinary format: from Adulting 101, Renewable Energy, and Beekeeping to Comparative Religions and International Relations. Many electives take advantage of the Village’s flexible format. For an elective on ceramics, learners spend an entire day every week working on ceramics projects; and one physical education elective takes learners out into the Colorado Rockies for hiking and rock climbing. The grading model in electives is also different–closer to a workplace evaluation than to conventional points earned on assignments and tests. Learners and teachers sit down together to discuss learners’ progress and work, and decide on a grade together.

5. Embark Education: Miguel Gonzalez, a career educator, launched Embark Education in 2019 out of a coffee shop and a bike shop in North Denver, CO. His goal was to create a learner-centered model at the intersection of authentic experiences and relationships. That goal translated into a private, tuition-free micro-school serving approximately 50 sixth- through eighth-grade learners. Embark’s two businesses, Pinwheel Coffee and Framework Cycles, enable learners to engage in projects that integrate academics with real-world questions. For example, while working on the practical skill of crafting the perfect cappuccino under the guidance of adult baristas, learners investigate the differing mathematical ratios of ingredients present in a latte versus a cappuccino, and the chemistry behind the extraction of caffeine from coffee beans.

These integrated “shop projects’’ include a combination of direct instruction within the three core academic disciplines (math, science, and humanities); personalized learner exploration; and practical work within the bike and coffee shops. They enable learners to master foundational academic skills while simultaneously experiencing the application of these skills in the world beyond the classroom. Learners’ projects for the businesses must contribute to the success of the businesses. For example, learners don’t work on problems that the businesses have already solved, such as having learners apply math and science to reinvent the latte. Instead, Embark’s leaders look for opportunities that leverage the unique advantage of having learners’ on site to make the businesses better than what they could do alone.

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Laura Ascione

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