Evolving systems in a learner-centered paradigm

Devin Vodicka

During the course of my educational career there have been many well-intended reforms designed to meet a wider range of student needs.  As a new teacher who received my credential through the Los Angeles Unified School District Intern program, I received an extensive amount of training on language development and early literacy.  Soon thereafter I immersed myself in learning about differentiation.  When I became a school administrator we implemented school-wide programs like Response to Intervention (RtI) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).  We are now seeing an increase in the use of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS).  

At the risk of oversimplification, just within my career I have seen an evolution away from the “one size fits all” approach that felt more common in the early phases of the test-driven accountability era.  I should also make it clear that I have been an advocate for these reforms and that there has been value in the shift away from the rigidity of an overly standardized model. 

“One Size Fits All”Reform WaveRecent Reforms
Learning DesignScripted curricular programsDifferentiation
Variation by Product, Process, Content
Multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression
School SystemsRigid pacing guides
Academic and Behavioral, 3-tiers
Academic, Social Emotional, and Behavioral with 3-tiers

While I have been enthusiastic about these systems for learning design and school supports, recently I have had the opportunity to reflect and to consider the next phase of improvements.  As a result, I have come to the conclusion that what is needed is not another system, but a paradigm shift and a reimagination of how these systems can be implemented through a different lens.  

Systems and Paradigms

Here it may be helpful to clarify the distinction between a system and a paradigm.  A system is “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something – a function or a purpose.” RtI, PBIS, and MTSS are clearly “systems” organized to achieve something.  Differentiation and UDL are also systems focused on achieving learning.  

In contrast, a paradigm is a way of viewing a particular situation.  Thomas Kuhn popularized the term in his seminal text “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” which includes the description below, notably describing how a paradigm provides “model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners.” 

Kuhn gives the example of the Copernican revolution.  Prior to Copernicus, the dominant paradigm was that the sun revolved around the earth.  Over time, that paradigm was challenged by data and information that made it harder to maintain that perspective.  In spite of the new information, the natural tendency was to dismiss or disregard these “anomalies” until eventually it became apparent that a different view, the one where we understood that our planet revolved around the sun, became the dominant paradigm.  

I have argued that the current dominant paradigm has been in crisis even before the COVID-19 global pandemic.  I believe that we are on the verge of a model revolution that will lead to a paradigm change, creating a new “normal” that will expand and improve learning opportunities for all students.  Education Reimagined has described how the current paradigm is built on assembly line and factory models, focused on efficiency of the system, oriented to standardization, and organized around a knowledge-based outcome framework.  In contrast, a learner-centered paradigm is built on network models, adapting to the unique needs of each learner with an expanded view of success that includes knowledge, skills and dispositions. 

Connecting Systems and Paradigms

With an understanding of the difference between systems and paradigms, we can imagine what our existing would look like through the lens of a learner-centered paradigm.  In a recent article, Katie Martin and I provided an example of how this approach can be applied to better understand how UDL can be implemented to promote learner-centered elements such as agency, personalization, competency-based learning, socially-embedded, and open-walled experiences.  

Source: Getting Smart 

This is where things get exciting for me.  The opportunity, as I see it, is not to add new systems, but to reframe the basic problems that we are trying to solve by looking through the lens of a new paradigm – a learner-centered paradigm – that can actually accelerate the change to a new and better “normal.”  For me, the key reframe is to begin with an expanded set of outcomes, which I have been referring to as the Impact Framework, as a first step to reconsider alignment of systems with this broader definition of success. 

In addition to systems such as UDL and MTSS, staffing, schedules, personnel evaluations, and many other considerations can and must be reimagined with a learner-centered paradigm if we are serious about developing not only knowledge, but also the skills and dispositions that they need now and in the future.  Iterating and improving these systems within the current paradigm will not be sufficient if we want all students to thrive as lifelong learners.  Now is the time to evolve our systems in a learner-centered paradigm.  

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

Use #LCLeadership to share your ideas

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