A Learner-Centered Culture Includes Educators, Too
By Amanda Avallone, Content Manager for Next Generation Learning Challenges
Ask an adult who is not an educator to describe a classroom, and you might still hear something like this: "A teacher is standing in front and lecturing to students seated neatly in rows. Everyone is on the same page of the textbook and doing the same exercises because there's a quiz tomorrow and everyone has to take it." For decades, this is what "school" looked like, and teacher training emphasized delivering a uniform curriculum with efficiency.
Today that "default" description is less and less true. Teachers in learner-centered, personalized settings serve as guides for students along pathways that address their individual needs, strengths, and goals for success in academics, career, and life. To prepare students to thrive in a changing world, educators promote collaborative projects, integrate authentic learning experiences that may occur outside the classroom, and, above all, foster learner independence and agency--student voice and choice.
Here's the challenge: most educators have never experienced next-generation learning themselves. Many who are drawn to more learner-centered models find themselves unprepared to teach this way. With no frame of reference for a transformed kind of teaching, they devote inordinate energy to learning "on the fly" and on their own.
Educators in the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) community, like Da Vinci Schools in Hawthorne, CA, are redefining educator professional learning to mirror the kind of learning they offer their students. At the same time, organizations like Jobs for the Future (JFF) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) are developing tools and frameworks to support this work nationwide.
In this edition of Friday Focus: Practitioner's Guide to Next Gen Learning, NGLC explores the new skills and mindsets educators need for personalized, student-centered learning to flourish. Specifically, we consider:
- What do the Competencies look like in action at Da Vinci Schools?
- How can schools, like Da Vinci, cultivate a learner-centered environment where educators can develop the Competencies?
New Ways of Teaching for New Ways of Learning
JFF and the Council of Chief State School Officers(CCSSO) collaborated to develop the Competencies, which were published in August of 2015. Unlike some traditional lists of educator performance standards, these are not intended for use as an observation checklist or evaluation tool. Rather, the Competencies are designed to serve as a first step in identifying the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that educators need to create and thrive in learner-centered, personalized environments. In other words, they are more descriptive of this new way of teaching than prescriptive. In addition, the Competencies can inspire school leaders to design systems of professional learning that support educators to pursue their own personalized learning pathways.
To reflect the full scope of what it means to be an educator in a learner-centered environment, the Competencies span four domains: Cognitive, Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Instructional. Within each domain are individual competencies and detailed "indicators," which describe what each competency might look like in a school or classroom. The interactive tool on JFF's website also houses resources, artifacts, and videos that illustrate the competencies.
To elucidate the competencies more vividly, however, we spoke to a school leader and three teachers from Da Vinci Schools to tell the stories of educators who are living these competencies every day. Though their schools predate the Competencies, when we unpack Da Vinci's innovative, personalized practices, we find abundant evidence of a learning environment where these skills and mindsets are flourishing.
Start with Trust
When you talk to anyone--adult or student--at Da Vinci, you are likely to hear phrases like "be curious," "take risks," and "fail forward." Every educator we spoke to shared stories about innovations they've implemented to support student learning. Noel Ingram, an English and Film teacher at Da Vinci Communications High School, responded to student motivation research by transforming the way she gave feedback on writing. Mary Chan, a UCLA college pathway coach at Da Vinci X, established restorative practices to build community and trust among students at her school. Donald Puathasnanon, a math and computer science teacher at DVC, created a peer mentoring program focused on leadership and executive function. "I wanted to empower kids, and I was given the power to do that in any way possible," he explains. "I've never been told 'no' about anything I wanted to do."
A hallmark of Da Vinci's approach to professional growth is the way it mirrors the learner-centered model that students experience. For example, the Competencies' Interpersonal Domain advocates for flexible, open classrooms where students feel safe to take risks. At Da Vinci, that sense of safety and freedom to innovate applies equally to the educators.
According to Kim Merritt, the founding director of Da Vinci X, the secret to creating a culture of continuous innovation and growth is trust. "We think about the students as unique individuals, and so are our teachers," she says. "Starting with the CEO and across the organization, this is our culture. There's flexibility to create and innovate. Trust your teachers. When you trust people, they get excited and thrive."
Mary compares the high level of trust and freedom to a playground, where leaders "know that we have the same vision and mindset. We have the space to take risks and be curious. 'Embrace the weird and explore the unknown together' is our program motto this year. We live that out every day."
To Noel, providing educators with a safe place to innovate is essential for creating a learner-centered culture: "It trickles down to the kids. I'm not sure we would see the same level of risk-taking in the classrooms if we did not feel free to take risks ourselves. We can say 'be inventive,' but no matter how many times you say it, if you feel you are always being judged as a teacher, kids will pick up on what's true."
Build Educator Agency
Similar to the ways students design, reflect, build, and iterate as part of Da Vinci's project-based learning model, the educators treat their practice as a work in progress being continually refined. Donald explains it this way: "Each thing we try shapes our process. Our leaders promote the idea that we are always crafting our teaching. Here at Da Vinci, we have a brilliant staff. We're really driven, and because of that we constantly try to improve."
This commitment to continuous growth is central to the Intrapersonal Domain of the Competencies. Included in this domain are habits of mind like self-reflection and improvement, persistence, and commitment to lifelong professional learning. In keeping with the way students are given choice and voice in their learning, educators at Da Vinci enjoy a high degree of agency. "Here, we set high expectations, but we have a lot of flexibility on how to reach them," says Kim. "We set up the structures and we offer the tools, but we let people drive the 'how.'"
One way Da Vinci educators exercise agency is through personalized goal-setting. At the start of each school year, teachers identify a goal and, using a Design Thinking approach, develop a plan of action for the year, including checkpoints, observations, and opportunities to receive feedback and iterate.
Kim makes it clear that the purpose of feedback is to improve practice, not evaluate. She contrasts this system of goal-setting, reflection, and growth conversations to more traditional models from her past: "I often felt like the goals were set organization-wide, but there were no personal goal setting moments or honest conversations about how I was growing. If we had a conversation, it was about what we were doing wrong."
Mary agrees: "It's nice to get feedback. When Kim and I debrief after a lesson, she gives me lots of support to reflect on practice so I can identify the gaps. I've never experienced a system like that. This kind of structure is more meaningful, and it allows me to think about where I can go next."
Da Vinci educators also feel empowered, to use Donald's words, to "shape what the school is about" in significant ways. Teachers cite numerous opportunities for shared leadership and decision-making around scheduling, school processes, and hiring, including for school leaders.
Supporting space for leadership roles is a component of the Interpersonal Domain of the Competencies. And, like many other aspects of a learner-centered environment, it begins with mindset. Explaining Da Vinci's thinking around distributed leadership, Kim says, "I am not better or even more knowledgeable. A leader is not special--we don't have the answer."
A sense of shared ownership of the program and shared responsibility for student learning cascades throughout the staff. Mary describes the effect this has on her teaching and relationships with students: "I feel I am a stakeholder in their education. It's refreshing to know that if I have a good idea, I can get support for it."
According to Noel, the mindset for sharing leadership comes through in the classrooms as well: "We frame the projects as 'we are learning together,' not 'I am the authority.' Our leaders are not this way either. Our professional development is never 'you are going to do this and this.'"
"Teach by Community"
These are the words Donald uses to describe Da Vinci's collaborative culture. "Collaboration is absolutely essential. Everybody observes everybody, and we all bounce off each other. I work on the 10th grade team with Noel. We know what each other are doing every day--it creates a holistic approach toward student learning."
Collaboration and forging strong relationships are vital to a learner-centered environment, so much so that they appear in the Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Instructional domains of the Competencies. At Da Vinci, whether educators are talking about c0-teaching, sharing materials, giving feedback on a project design, or just having one of the many conversations that begin with "how can we?" they all identify staff cohesiveness as one of Da Vinci's greatest assets.
Nearly every aspect of practice contributes to this idea of teaching by community. Even the goals described above, while personalized, are public. According to Kim, this openness provides "community support for the goals." Educators play an active role in each others' professional growth, for example through partnerships or as part of an observation-and-feedback team. "All teachers have goals," she reminds us. "Here, it's not a sign you are in trouble."
Though Da Vinci teachers report that informal conversations occur every day, they appreciate the weekly professional learning time reserved for collaboration. "It's dedicated time," says Noel, "and if you are going to ask teachers to come up with interdisciplinary projects, you really need to carve out space to actually collaborate and not with a long checklist of other to-do's."
Support Educators to Serve as Models
A striking feature of the Da Vinci educators we spoke to was their transparency about their own learning, including the struggles. For example, Noel journals with her students and shares her writing, errors and all. On one occasion, a student called her writing "awful." Her response? "I know. It's a first draft." According to Noel, "You can't stand there as an authority figure and never make any mistakes or never admit to them. It's not genuine. It's not showing what it takes to learn."
On the first day of each year, Donald shares a letter with students that describes his circuitous path to becoming their teacher, including dropping out of college. "I let them know it's OK to make mistakes. It's all about ending up where you belong."
Nowhere is the parallel between educators and students as learners more apparent than in the school-wide practice known as the "POL," or Presentation of Learning. For educators and students alike, the POL process encompasses evidence of learning, reflection, feedback, and refinement. For students in Da Vinci's project-based learning model, the POL is a demonstration of essential skills, knowledge, and habits of mind for the course. Noel likens it to a "mini-dissertation defense" before a panel of teachers.
For educators, it is the culmination of their personalized, competency-based work on their goals for the year. Donald, for example, delivered a POL to other Da Vinci schools and the Board of Directors on teaching students to self-monitor. The ways that the student and teacher POLs mirror one another is not lost on him. "The kids have their own presentations of learning, and we present on our teaching craft."
Through a culture of trust, agency, collaboration, and continuous growth, Da Vinci supports a personalized, learner-centered environment for students and educators alike. In so doing, they exemplify the educator Competencies JFF has identified as essential for next-generation learning. We hope that this and future examples can help illustrate the Competencies and uncover the myriad ways they can be enacted in practice.
Not surprisingly, Da Vinci's culture of collaboration extends to sharing artifacts...and credit. According to Kim, they originally "stole" and then adapted the teacher POL from the Workshop School in Philadelphia, another NGLC grantee. It is part of Da Vinci's mission to share, so feel free to adapt and use any of their resources below:
- Presentation of Learning (1-pager): Teacher-facing overview of the POL
- Student Guide to Presentations of Learning: Packet for students, including tasks, timeline, feedback form, and parent signature
- Project pitch feedback form: Form for colleague feedback before pitching a new project design to industry partners
- Class observation feedback form: Peer feedback form for class observations
- Slide deck on PBL: Overview of Da Vinci's Project-Based Learning model
- Slide deck for new teachers: Includes Da Vinci's "Signature Practices," including student-led conferences, exhibitions, and POLs
- Design Thinking for Educators (Version 2) by IDEO: Background on the Design Thinking process with tools and other resources specifically geared toward schools and educators.
- Critical Friends by Deborah Bambino: Description of Critical Friends Groups, a model for giving and receiving supportive, honest feedback about practice. Da Vinci's feedback forms and peer observation structures are based on this model.
The author gratefully acknowledges substantial contributions to this piece from Keesa McKoy, Communications Manager, Jobs for the Future, and Sarah Hatton, Senior Program Manager, Jobs for the Future.