Colleen Broderick: What is a Learner-Centered Education? And Why the Need for a Shift?

It is a privilege to share the Foreword from my book, Learner-Centered Leadership, which is written by Colleen Broderick, the Director of Learning at the International School of Zug and Luzern.  I strongly recommend that you follow Colleen on twitter and also check out her insightful new website.  

When asked to define learner-centered education, I look to my grandmother. She taught in a community school in rural, central New York state. I imagine it the stuff of old movies: the young woman charged with educating the community’s children in a one-room schoolhouse, regardless of age or perceived ability. 

In order to address the diversity of needs across all the students, collaboration and trust were essential. It was imperative that grandmother create an environment where she and the students “committed” to one another. Rather than working independently, they needed to work in support of each other. That required a different mindset of how one teaches, of the relationship between teacher and student, of the way in which the learning environment was structured, and the nature of the curriculum. At its center, it required her to know and to partner with each learner. 

For much of the 20th century schools got bigger, not smaller. And there were good reasons for it, like reducing costs and making greater use of diverse teacher expertise. In this change, however, the dynamics of learning shifted. The conditions that necessitated a collaborative learning culture in the one-room schoolhouse gave way to standardization and efficiency. 

Today there is a new urgency. Given the accelerating pace of change in the world and the crushing amount of knowledge that is readily accessible, the toolkit that students need to develop now is very different than it used to be. To develop this toolbox requires a very different commitment to children that expands beyond academic achievement. Instead, it requires a distinct departure from routine, standardized teaching towards a whole-child approach that honors each learner as unique.  It requires the development of all parts of a child within a supportive and adaptive learning environment valuing both social-emotional as well as academic growth in equal measure. 

The ultimate goal of whole-child education is to empower students as creative, resilient, inquiry-driven citizens who are able to self-advocate, develop strong relationships, navigate complex information, and drive their own learning in diverse environments beyond the classroom. These outcomes, complex and nuanced, require a shift towards learner-centered education.  

There is no doubt that to deliver on a more robust set of outcomes is simply more complicated. Today, however, we find ourselves in a Goldilocks moment where conditions are “just right” to place learners at the center, empowering them to be the primary agents of their learning journey. Both our growing understanding of cognitive and psychological development and the ability to intentionally integrate technology has made it possible to responsibly put the learner in the driver seat. 

As one can glean from my grandmother’s experience, learner-centered education is not new to education. Instead, it is a shift to embrace a powerful pedagogy that has been developing over the past 100 years, enabling us to act on what we know about how human beings learn. Learning theories such as progressivism, situated learning, constructivism, competency-based and experiential learning are foundational to learner-centered models. 

What binds them together are principles that are intended to deal holistically with learners in the context of real-world learning situations. The principles center around empowering the learner to construct meaning from experience, to generate and pursue personally relevant goals, to create and use a repertoire of thinking and reasoning strategies that include thinking about thinking, and to engage in social interactions that require diverse mediums of communication with others.

To tackle what’s best for learners, will require change, not a new to-do list of activities or additions to the already full plates that exist in schools. As Will Richardson points out, “Change in schools is not really about teaching. It’s not even about education. It’s about learning.”  

In brief, learner-centered education is a mindset that stems from the belief that every learner is unique and capable and where all decisions must measure up to the question, “What is best for learners?”

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