Start with Strengths: Developing Agency through Learner Profiles

Devin Vodicka

“If we want learners to drive their own experience, the development, design, and implementation of a data model must be focused on how learners can optimally access, own, and influence their outcomes”

Learner-Centered Leadership, p. 106

We are just weeks away from the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.  Given recent events and increasing cases of COVID-19 across many parts of the country, plans remain uncertain and we are not sure if students will be attending school in-person all of the time, some of the time, or not at all.  As plans for hybrid and distance learning are being rapidly developed, we know that conventional metrics such as attendance and standardized testing are impractical and not helpful.  In addition, grading practices are also in flux with many systems shifting to credit/no-credit models.  

So what can we do? An encouraging approach that may be helpful in considering where to begin with a learner-centered data model is the development and use of holistic learner profiles.  KnowledgeWorks describes how learner profiles are not only helpful for educators, but also serve as a way for students to understand themselves and how they learn.  

Odyssey STEM Academy, an innovative high school in Paramount, California, visualizes learner profiles in common spaces using poster paper and post-it notes.  Their profiles include strengths and interests and also expand into vocational values and careers.  This example also shows how learner profiles are frequently qualitative.  

Learner Profiles, Odyssey STEM Academy, 2018

Unlike many of our educational metrics, the purpose of a learner profile is to inform learning.  This stands in contrast to grade-point averages or standardized test scores that are frequently used to sort students, rank them, and ultimately serve as a selection tool for entry into particular courses or even admittance into a school.  The intent of a learner profile is to help students to know themselves and to see themselves as full of possibility.  

The importance of learner profiles is reinforced when one takes a living-systems view on education.  In an industrial model, all “parts” (i.e. learners) are presumed to be the same, each receiving the same standardized treatment as they move down the conveyor belt.  In a living-systems view, individuals are seen as unique and as having agency to act.  These agents make choices through their own lens, and one of the primary motivators for decision-making is based on identity.  Given the strong influence of identity, it is important that a postindustrial system of teaching and learning provide opportunities for self-reflection, self-reference, and self-awareness.  

As a result, I encourage educators everywhere to embrace a strengths-based perspective and to spend time at the beginning of the school year developing learner profiles with their students.  

Please check out Learner-Centered Leadership for more details. 

This was originally posted to on July 12, 2020.

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