How Boards Lead the Shift to Student-Centered Learning
The Role of District Leaders in Education Transformation
Student-centered learning brings with it the promise to transform education. By involving and engaging students in their own learning, the model rejects top-down teaching and leadership methods and emphasizes skills such as teamwork, problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity — competencies that are critical for tomorrow’s workforce. And while the role of teachers and school-based leaders has been well defined, leaders at the district level are still trying to understand how they can best facilitate the transformation to student-centered learning.
The answer, according to prominent education leaders, lies in gaining a clear understanding of how the changes in the world around us have caused a shift in the needs of today’s students.
“The skills that we want to develop in students are very different than those we’re teaching today,” said Dr. Phil Lanoue, former superintendent of Clarke County School District in Athens, GA. and 2015 AASA National Superintendent of the Year. “When we know the skills we want are around teamwork, collaboration, problem-solving, creativity and innovation – why aren’t those topics at the center of the conversation? District leaders need to step forth and say we need to do things differently.”
Leaders who are ready to make the shift to student-centered education need the ability to balance vision with the work of today, says Valarie Wilson, executive director for the Georgia School Boards Association (GSBA).
“Boards and superintendents must master the ability to be visionaries as well as work in the present,” she said. “We have to think about what we will expect from these children five to 10 years from now and the type of environment in which they will grow, learn and live.”
The best way for leaders to define these expectations, she added, is to understand the work that needs to be done — the changes taking place in education, how children learn and process, and how educators teach.
The Learner-Centered Paradigm Shift
According to the Education Reimagined initiative by non-profit organization Convergence, changes in the workforce and in education are needed because today’s students are learning in a system designed for a different era. In its report, A Transformational Vision for Education in the United States, the organization notes that the world has progressed from the Industrial Age of assemblies and factory lines to the Networked Age of connections.
However, education hasn’t kept up. As a result, we’re still seeing school-centric teaching models designed for efficiency and standardization rather than models that focus on the needs of the student.
“We believe that the current system’s one-to-many approach to teaching, standardized curriculum, age-based cohorts, and classroom-contained instruction are all limitations on our children’s opportunities to learn and thrive in this changing world,” notes the report.
“In order to fulfill the purpose of education for all children and create extraordinary learning for each and every child, our system must be entirely transformed.”
3 Ways District Leaders Can Lead the Transformation to Student-Centered Learning
To help boards and superintendents chart the path to student-centered learning, we asked Dr. Lanoue and Ms. Wilson to share with us their best recommendations. Here are their top three.
1. Have the right conversations
Think about your last board meeting or gathering with district leaders. Would you say that most of your discussions focused on areas like test scores, teacher evaluations and operational issues? Or did you talk about how to make learning better for students?
If you answered the former, it’s time to change the conversation, says Dr. Lanoue.
“Having the right conversations is what changes behaviors,” he said. “Have we really had the right conversations in public education about what schools need for the future, and what the new learner looks like? I’m not sure we have.”
Instead of getting bogged down in federal and state regulations and policies around high-stakes testing, vouchers and choice, says Dr. Lanoue, district leaders need to understand what being learner-centered really means for their students, and then define criteria for success outside of test scores.
Ms. Wilson agrees that leaders are spending too much time talking about testing, and not enough time understanding how children learn. She adds that outside forces like legislation around school spending, or recommendations from education think tanks on how children should be educated are distracting leaders from doing the work that needs to be done.
“We have so many people outside of education who dictate what we should be doing and how, and that gets in the way,” she says.
She recommends that district leaders do their best to understand these external circumstances so they can keep the conversation focused on what really matters.
2. Keep students at the center of your strategy
Both Dr. Lanoue and Ms. Wilson stressed the importance of keeping student needs at the center of strategic planning and policy discussions.
“When discussing the district’s strategic plan and policies, students should be at the core and foundation,” said Ms. Wilson. “Leaders need to ensure that in every meeting and opportunity where the board, superintendent and higher-level staff and teachers get together, we talk about how we’re moving the needle for our students, whether in a board meeting, cabinet meeting, or a gathering of third and fourth grade teachers.”
She adds that the same holds true for community gatherings, such as rotary meetings.
“If a superintendent or board member is in the community talking about the education system, they need to talk about it with an emphasis on student-centered learning,” she said.
Dr. Lanoue echoes the importance of aligning the strategic plan with student needs.
“You need to draw a line from the strategic plan to every student who has a seat in your district and ask, ‘Were they impacted by what we would say we would do in the system?’”
3. Educate your stakeholders
It’s up to district leaders to educate everyone in the school district about what it means to be learner-centric, as well as the role they play in making it a reality, says Dr. Lanoue. This includes everyone from students and teachers to fellow board members and the community.
“I believe that in education, we’ve asked teachers and principals to do things we ourselves didn’t understand,” he said. “District leaders have to model the things we want. We need to have clarity about what these things look like.”
Ms. Wilson says this clarity should extend to both fellow board members and the community.
“If board members don’t understand what student-centered learning is, and that learning goes beyond the walls of the classroom, then they can’t drive policy and be visionaries and advocates for it,” she said.
She suggests providing professional development that showcases school systems in which student-centered learning has been successfully implemented to help board members understand how the model works in action. In addition, district leaders should create opportunities for better lines of communication between boards and superintendents regarding how to implement student-centered learning practices.
Finally, Ms. Wilson recommends improving communication between the school system and the community to help them understand what district leaders are doing, how they’re doing it and why.
“You can do this through policies and the strategic planning process,” she said. “Walk through the planning process with the community and focus on student-centered learning. Help those stakeholders understand their role in continuing the education process, and always keep them connected.”
Ultimately, concludes Dr. Lanoue, the transition to student-centered learning comes down to recognizing and celebrating the individuality of every student.
“We need to know that each child is unique. It’s our job to see those talents, and activate them to be successful.”
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