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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
New book examines learner-centered leadership
December 7, 2020
Despite many efforts to improve schools, the U.S. graduation rate has been stuck at 80 percent since the 1970s.
This is the best we can expect from the industrial model of education, according to Devin Vodicka, former Vista Unified School District superintendent and current chief impact officer for Altitude Learning. In his new book “Learner-Centered Leadership,” Vodicka shares his argument for why: “the lack of acknowledgment of each student’s uniqueness.”
In this Q&A, Vodicka explains learner-centered learning and how it engages students in their education and prepares them for the real-world challenges they will face in the future.
Q: In your book, you talk about Diego, a student who slipped through the cracks. Can you explain how “teaching to the middle” fails students like him?
The inflexibility of education is a meaningful barrier to learning. Learners come to school with dramatically different levels of background knowledge and wide variance in the ways in which they advance in their understanding. The “teaching to the middle” strategy often results in some students feeling as if the pace is too fast, while others would prefer to accelerate at a greater rate, with very few, if any, feeling that it’s just right.
In addition, the orientation of the mass-production model of education is to focus on standardization of courses and content. Especially at our secondary schools, students move in batches through a series of disconnected classes in a way that makes it difficult for well-intentioned and hard-working educators to develop meaningful relationships with the students. As a result, students like Diego find it difficult to share their actual needs and this lack of connectedness often results in disengagement.
Q: How do we as educators prepare students for the future?
The workplace of today and tomorrow is rapidly changing, requiring workers to adapt and grow as lifelong learners. Fortunately, a learner-centered approach empowers and prepares students for the future. Extensive use of goal-setting, collecting evidence of achievement, and reflection develop agency. What follows is inevitably a more engaging, social experience. It has also been my experience that by empowering learners to co-construct and drive their learning we also see an expansion of challenging projects that focus on real-world challenges. As a result, the promise of learner-centered education is that all learners can be the best version of themselves and improve communities and society.
Q: How can learner-centered education challenge systemic inequality in our schools?
It is unlikely that a standardized approach will anticipate and incorporate the diversity that exists in our classrooms, our schools, and in our communities. By embracing and celebrating the unique strengths of every learner, it is my hope that we can begin to see all forms of difference, including cultural and racial diversity, as the assets they truly are. Being learner-centered, therefore, is a direct challenge to inequality in all forms. In the same way that we want schools to be learner-centered, society should be human-centered. At its essence, learner-centered education and human-centered societal mindsets embrace the notion that equity requires us to see and know one another as real people and then to design improvements as a community.
Q: Do you think change has to happen from the top down or can it happen at the grassroots, site-level?
I have seen significant, positive change made by educators who work to reshape the system to meet the needs of their students. As a result, I have exceptional confidence in our collective capacity to create and scale a postindustrial model of education that better serves our students, our families, our communities, and our future. With that said, we need support for the necessary changes at every level of our system in order to accelerate the collective transformation. Aligning our policies, procedures and systems around a vision of learner-centered education will be necessary for us to get to a tipping point where learner empowerment becomes the norm instead of the exception. School leaders play a pivotal role in this process. I strongly encourage all educational leaders to take stock of what I call the “Framework for the Future” that includes the vision, mission, values, goals, roles and responsibilities and strategic plans.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge in leading your schools through change?
One of the most difficult aspects of a transformational change process is that the improvements are seldom immediate nor is the path forward entirely predictable. In many cases, an “implementation dip” occurs where some outcomes actually are worse in the short-term before they rise to new levels. In addition, creating the social conditions for meaningful change requires deep work to develop meaningful relationships. As a result, any improvements often occur slowly, slowly, and then appear to dramatically change almost at once. In the early stages there is tremendous pressure to revert back to the past. Therefore the urgency of short-term improvement is often at odds with transformational efforts.
“An institutional model of education cannot work when the institutions are inaccessible.”
—Devin Vodicka, Author, “Learner-Centered Leadership”
Q: You wrote this book over the course of three years, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Is learner-centered leadership more important now?
After reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that the need for learner-centered leadership has never been greater. When I re-read portions of the book, they feel painfully relevant. An institutional model of education cannot work when the institutions are inaccessible. We must be human-centered. We must see and know one another as real people, and then design improvements as a community. It will take learner-centered leadership to make these urgent and necessary changes. Learner-centered education is not a new concept. It’s how the best educators have always met the needs of learners. We knew that it was the future even before this pandemic.
Q: What have been your observations of distance learning? What promising learner-centered practices have you seen?
My current view is informed not only by experiences as a parent of two children that have been adjusting to distance learning, but also by our partnership at Altitude Learning with 120 school systems across the United States that serve approximately 1,000,000 students. In addition, we are co-leading a statewide project called the Texas Learning Exchange to support roughly five million students.
What is very clear is that our educators are working incredibly hard to adapt under very difficult conditions. We’ve made incredible progress with important improvements like greater access to devices and internet service which are imperative for our students.
While we still have a lot of work ahead, I am inspired by some of the learner-centered practices that are emerging during the pandemic. Here in California, I am particularly impressed with El Segundo Unified School District which has aligned their efforts around their holistic graduate profile and the “AMP” (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose) approach. Menlo Park City School District rapidly created a virtual school that is organized around their principles of learner-centered, competency-based learning in the context of meaningful relationships. Odyssey STEM Academy (Paramount Unified School District) and Design 39 Campus (Poway Unified School District) continue to use learner profiles and experiential learning even in distance learning environments.
Read a recent blog post from Vodicka on goal-setting in a pandemic.
Devin Vodicka, Author, “Learner-Centered Leadership”
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