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Learners Front and Center for Learner-Centered Design

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By Amanda Avallone, learning officer for Next Generation Learning Challenges

School design should always be student-centered. You are making a school for the students. You should always empower student voices, since they are the people who will be attending the school. Get their input and opinions. Trust students first. If there's no trust, there is nothing there to build on. —Taylor Dervishian, lead student designer, Resiliency Preparatory Academy, Fall River, Mass.

These words capture what Taylor, a senior at Resiliency Preparatory Academy, sees as paramount for any school design effort, but especially for schools that aim to implement a learner-centered model. Educators who have embraced next gen learning may perceive the logic in Taylor's way of thinking, but inviting students into the design process is new territory for many. What does this look like in practice?

For this edition of Friday Focus: Practitioner's Guide to Next Gen Learning, I spoke to Taylor Dervishian and Jan Doyle, two members of the school's "inner-circle design team" about their school redesign process and the key roles learners play in the work. Taylor is one of three high school students on this team of five, along with Ethan St. Laurent and Staecee Hernandez. Jan, RPA's director of guidance, and Principal Robert Correia are the two adult members of the design team. In particular, Jan and Taylor shared their thoughts on:

  • Why including learners is central to RPA's redesign process

  • How students are contributing to this work at RPA

  • What the experience of being a learning designer has meant to Taylor

Designing WithNot Just forLearners

To ensure partners are designing schools withnot just fortheir students, we urge them to intentionally include young people as authentic members of the school design team and create consistent opportunities for them to shape their own school experience. —Elina Alayeva, executive director of Springpoint

RPA is an alternative high school in the Fall River public schools in Fall River, Mass. One of two high schools in the district, it serves opportunity youth in grades 7-12 and students who have not found success in the mainstream school setting. In 2017, school leaders embarked on a journey to remake RPA in a way that was guided by a commitment to student-centered learning and positive youth development.

In February of 2018, a team from RPA participated in a School Design Institute organized by Mass IDEAS, a Massachusetts-based initiative of Next Generation Learning Challenges with funding from the Barr Foundation and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. According to Mass IDEAS program officer Liza Veto, following that weekend experience, RPA began to incorporate students into the redesign process in a significant way. Using grant funds provided by Mass IDEAS, for example, RPA planned a faculty retreat as a kickoff event for the redesign work. Students were involved directly in both the planning and execution of that retreat.

According to Liza, "RPA exemplifies Mass IDEAS' students at the center design principle by establishing students as equal design partners with adults. Students have so much to contribute to and learn from redesigning their own school, and RPA has created a design environment that encourages this."

However, creating a culture that supports such collaboration does not happen overnight. For instance, Taylor recalls that when Jan first invited her to join the design team, she "didn't understand the point." Now, she says, she knows that the "whole purpose of inviting students is to get a student perspective, and the whole point of the design is to make the school better for the students."

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One way the design team cultivates a student-centered mindset is by learning together. Jan describes how RPA's partnership with the nonprofit Springpoint has strengthened the relationships between adults and learners on the design team. As members of a Barr Foundation Engage New England cohort, the RPA team participates in monthly master classes offered by Springpoint. Working with each other and with the broader learning community, the team creates and receives feedback on design artifacts like the school's mission, instructional vision, and core values.

"It's been a unique journey," Jan says, "because we are learning the same things at the same time and developing the same skills at the same time. We are seeing the design pull together, unfolding month by month. We are creating artifacts that align with our learning and bringing them back to the school."

Students as Partners for Research and Professional Learning

The RPA design team prioritizes student voice, agency, and strong student-adult partnerships. Student designers have a significant role in the process of reimagining their school. They receive high school credit for their work and have dedicated time to support design activities. —Elina Alayeva

The first phase of RPA's redesign focused on research, Jan says, and "understanding the students we serve, what they want, what they need, the assets they bring." The research phase at RPA was broad and deep, extending beyond common measures like graduation rates to encompass interviews, focus groups, and surveys with learners, alumni, parents or guardians, and community members.

The student designers played a key leadership role in that work. For example, they facilitated focus groups, and Taylor created student portraits in order to better understand who it was they were designing the school for. She describes how she compiled the portraits, part of the RPA design team's "homework" for their master classes with Springpoint: "We looked at the population and chose individual students, two females and two males. I interviewed and wrote individual portraits for each of them."  

According to Taylor, most schools in their cohort tasked adults with conducting the student portrait research component. However, she found writing the student portraits to be one of the most meaningful activities in the work thus far. She explains, "It tells you what is going on in their lives inside and outside of schoolwhat their school life is like, family life. Student portraits provide insight for the teachers to know who they are teaching and who they will be with on a daily basis. We need to take that into consideration as we design."

Based on their research findings and in collaboration with partners and stakeholders, the RPA team is now exploring what Jan calls "big ideas and understandings," key instructional levers to incorporate as they design their model: competency-based education; interdisciplinary, community based projects; and experiential signature experiences; as well as programs that foster "everyone in the student body having a primary person, someone they can go to."

Learners on the team have also supported the design phase by observing and interacting with educators and learners from schools that have already implemented these levers. For example, Taylor, Jan, and the team have visited innovative schools in Boston and in Denver. They also  participated in a NGLC Learning Excursion to San Diego to learn how other schools have put these design elements into practice.

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Jan also values the student designers' support of adult professional learning at RPA. Not only do they "get the information out to other students," she says, "but the learners on the design team also facilitate professional development activities, sharing the practices they've observed at other schools, the results and implications of their research, and what they are learning in their master classes."

School Design as Real-World Learning

I was never really big on public speaking or getting up in front of people, but now I've been doing a lot of public speaking. I still get nervous, but I'm getting better at it every day, and it's boosted my confidence. —Taylor Dervishian

Taylor's contributions to RPA's redesign efforts have been substantial. However, she is also aware of the ways her experiences as a school designer have benefited her own learning. In addition to gaining the real-world skill of public speaking, for example, she points to learning how to work with many different types of personalities as a challenge she's encountered and worked through during the design process.

Although she describes the work of redesigning a school as "intense" and "mentally exhausting," the time she's spent as RPA's lead student designer has inspired her to rethink her goals for the future. "Being on the design team opened my eyes to career paths," she says. "I thought before of nursing and health fields, but I found out I really enjoy education. I've always wanted to work with kids and figure out ways to help them. By being a good teacher or a good person to talk to, I can make a difference."

The desire to make a difference in the lives of children and young adults is something Taylor and Jan have in common. According to Jan, "We drastically need to change how young people are learning and the experiences they are having both inside and outside of school. We need to tie those both together so that they have the skills and the knowledge and the confidence to be successful in their lives. Our students deserve that and crave it and need it."

Resources

  • This slide presentation accompanied the design team's professional learning experience to co-create Resiliency Preparatory Academy's mission and core values with staff.

  • A school-wide survey addressing students' lives both inside and outside of school was one source of data about learners and their needs that informed RPA's design phase.

  • RPA's student designers took an active role in collecting insights and feedback using tools like this staff focus group protocol.

  • Using Springpoint's student portrait template and interview questions, Taylor created in-depth portraits of four RPA students to inform the learner-centered redesign.

  • This presentation deck shares the results of RPA's research phase and the implications for the subsequent design phase.

  • The Mass IDEAS Design Principles place students at the center of school and learning redesign.

Photos, from top:

  • Ethan St. Laurent facilitates a student-led professional learning activity for staff to co-develop RPA's mission and core values. (Courtesy of Resiliency Preparatory Academy)

  • Design team members Jan, Taylor, Ethan, and Robert take a tour of Del Lago Academy in Escondido, Calif., as part of a learning excursion to innovative schools in and around San Diego. (Courtesy of Amanda Avallone)

  • Taylor, Jan, and Robert participate in a debriefing session after the design team's visit to innovative schools in Denver. (Courtesy of Resiliency Preparatory Academy)
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