Listening To Our Learners

Devin Vodicka

This past week the Association of California School Administrators published an interview with me in EdCal. This was an opportunity for me to reflect on our current context and to highlight some inspiring innovations that are emerging during the pandemic. As we approach the end of 2020, it also feels like a good time to reflect on one of the pivotal moments for me on the journey to becoming an advocate for learner-centered education. What follows is an excerpt from my book Learner-Centered Leadership.

As the new superintendent of Vista Unified School District, when I spoke of the need to have a strategic plan, I was greeted with what seemed like an allergic reaction from everyone I talked to. But in the end, seeking input from stakeholders to inform our strategic plan became one of the most profoundly impactful experiences of my career.

I understood why these other stakeholders were so wary about what needed to be done: previous disappointments with complicated plans had ended up wasting time and energy, often “sitting on the shelf” at their conclusion and not resulting in any real change. To distance this strategic plan from its problematic predecessors, one of my savvy board members suggested that I use a different term: we settled on calling our plan the “Blueprint for Educational Excellence and Innovation.”

Following that blueprint theme would prove to be pivotal. I knew it would be important to get input from those who would be affected by the plan. I used the analogy of doing a home renovation and stressed how important it would be to have input from my wife and children before drawing up the plans and knocking out walls. With that in mind, I met with students, community leaders, families, school leaders, teachers, and classified staff members to conduct forums that would inform the development of the plan.

The student forums were the most powerful learning experience I have ever had. In many respects, I feel regretful that I waited so long in my career to hear the voices of students in such a meaningful way. If there is one strong recommendation that I share now with other leaders—one takeaway from this book if you read no further—it is that you should also take the time to listen to the learners. Taking the time to solicit input, and to act on it, is one of the best ways for leaders to model and create a learner-centric approach.

In the 2012–13 school year, I ended up holding more than sixty forums, and each successive interaction fueled new insights on my part and led me to seek even more understanding. I met with “high-achieving” students who told me that we had not done enough to prepare them to be independent after graduation. I met with students who were deemed “at-risk,” students who were at our continuation high schools, and even groups of students who had dropped out of school. I asked them all to describe what they liked about school and what we should change. I asked who else I should meet with to get more input. One of the elements of each forum was to ask the students to write one word that described their school experience on a sheet of paper. At the conclusion of this series of forums, we put all of the student feedback into a word cloud that visualized their input.

The largest word at the center of the word cloud, the one that had been used most frequently, was “irrelevant.”

This discovery was like a bucket of cold water being thrown in my face. One colleague described it as a kick in the stomach. It was a wake-up call for me and for our team. How could we expect to succeed when our learners did not see the relevance in their educational experiences?

Fortunately, we had an abundance of additional input. I had brought a few other leaders into the forums, which I had begun on my own. We sat together and reflected on the conversations, asking ourselves what we had heard from the students about when they had felt engaged and inspired with their learning. The students mentioned that they had outside interests they wanted to connect to their learning. They wanted to have more choice and have the ability to move at their own rate. They wanted to engage in complex, real-world problem solving. They wanted to use digital resources (like the smart phones in their pockets) to expand their opportunities and their access to the world they were engaged in beyond school. What we were hearing is that they wanted learning to be personal. One student said it in a powerful way: “I don’t want school to happen to me. I want to drive my own learning.”

This led us to develop and implement a “blueprint” that I would characterize as a whole-child, learner-centered approach. In addition to plans around family and community engagement, social and emotional systems of support, and high-quality adaptive core curriculum, we had two strategies expressly devoted to personalized learning environments and personalized learning pathways.

I had no idea at the time that this commitment to a balanced, individualized learning model would create glimpses into the future of teaching and learning. We were just trying to listen and be responsive to our kids. As it turns out, that responsiveness to our learners is at the heart of a movement that holds the potential to be the new model of postindustrial education. We are now at the cusp of a potential transformation from mass production in schools to mass personalization.

Follow #LCLeadership and check out Learner-Centered Leadership

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