How might learner-centered systems promote relationships and teamwork?

By Devin Vodicka 

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on

Relationships are at the heart of leadership and learning.  The ways in which we interact with one another are foundational to any learning experience.  Listening to learners, demonstrating compassion, being responsive to their needs, and thoughtfully co-designing with and for learners to develop their capabilities are critical elements of learner-centered education.  

Strong relationships have also been linked with feelings of safety and security, considerations that are particularly important as we continue to adapt to the complex challenges of an ongoing global pandemic.    

And yet it is fair to say that the relationships we seek are often constrained by our systems.  

Our industrial-era educational systems promote isolation and compliance. Schools were designed like factories and oriented to mass-production.  In education, the most pervasive “system” that serves as an organizing principle for schools is the industrial-era assembly line.  

Assembly lines of the Industrial Revolution have had an enormous influence on our education systems. They are the heart of mass production, and they generate enormous efficiencies. In the industrial model of assembly-line production, workers specialize in very specific tasks. The unfinished material moves down the line at a uniform pace, and parts are added to eventually create a uniform, consistent finished product. Our industrial-era schools incorporate the same basic approach, where students move at a uniform pace down the line, progressing from one grade level or course to the next, and workers—in this case teachers—specialize in very specific content, which is added to eventually create a uniform, consistent finished product, in this case a graduate. 

Work in this type of mass-production system is also isolated.  Just as factory workers completed their tasks independently, teachers are asked to work in “self-contained” classrooms that constrain professional collaboration and teamwork.  It is ironic and unfortunate that we have continued to perpetuate isolating, fragmented systems that are misaligned from what we know about the benefits of relational, community-oriented benefits.  

“Systems have a profound influence on our behavior. Systems were designed by people, and systems can also change.”

Learner-Centered Leadership

How might our systems promote teamwork and develop the relationships that we know are so important in education? We must shift to collaborative systems and models that draw from insights in settings where systems have been successfully redesigned to achieve these aspirations. 

The first model to consider is the Toyota production system (TPS). Interestingly, while the TPS model is primarily known for its relentless focus on elimination of waste, most of the differences and benefits in this approach are due to its recognition that every person involved in production can drive improvement. This requires providing time and space for the workers to collaborate, reflect, and engage in mutual learning. In the assembly-line model, it also requires a willingness to stop production to bring workers together for that reflective practice. 

The second model is cellular manufacturing. In cellular manufacturing, instead of workers specializing on one task, they are organized into cross-functional teams and given the responsibility to bring a product all the way to completion. In these “cells,” each team is provided with an abundance of information, and they are account- able for outcomes instead of process. This provides for more owner- ship, more rapid learning, and also for customization that builds on the strengths of each team. 

In Learner-Centered Leadership I provide numerous examples of learning communities that have shifted to distributed systems, including Design 39 Campus, Calavera Hills Elementary School, and Vista High School’s Personal Learning Academy. These successes demonstrate that incorporating the principles of a more humane, learner-centered system produce breakthrough changes that are beneficial for our learners.  

Based on my research and experiences, I recommend that learner-centered leaders take action in the direction of these key shifts to learner-centered systems:

Industrial-System / Not Learner-Centered
Learner-Centered Systems
Focus on consistency and controlFocus on adaptability and flexibility
Homogeneous groups to promote efficiencyMixed groupings
The educator specializes in a specific functionCross-functional work is integral
Individual workTeamwork
Educators are given information on a “need to know” basisAccess to abundant information
Workers are told what to do, how to do it, and when it needs to be doneWorkers collaborate with team members to decide how to meet performance deadlines
Products must meet consistency specifications. Deviations from the norm are considered problems.Products must meet performance expectations of customers. Deviations from the norm (customization) are considered beneficial. 

These shifts represent important steps that can be taken by leaders to improve efficiency through incremental progress and also promote transformation. Empowerment of teams of workers, access to information, and valuing diverse inputs to inform learning are important ways to promote transformation of our systems. Not coincidentally, the notion of promoting collaboration and teams is highly congruent with the need to focus on relational trust, social networks, and social capital.  

 Unleashing the potential of a connected, inspired community then requires the learner-centered leader to shift systems to promote flexibility, provide access to information, support cross-functional teams, place trust in their teams, and establish a relentless focus on quality outcomes. 

The systems we create and implement influence the relationships that we need. Learner-centered leadership begins and ends with relational trust and connectedness. 

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

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