Igniting a passion for learning

Learner-centered environments empower students to take risks
By: and | Issue: January, 2019
January 3, 2019

What if education could be better—for students and for educators? Katie Martin says it can be, when educators replace traditional teaching models with a collaborative, creative environment that empowers learners to explore and take risks in the pursuit of growth. Martin leads Partnerships-West at AltSchool, a growing community of districts and schools that is building a comprehensive platform for learning that puts students at the center. In her book Learner-Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion and Unleash Genius (Impress, 2018), Martin shows how to shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered models of education that enable all students to reach their potential. “When we tell kids to complete an assignment, we get compliance,” Martin says. “When we empower learners to explore and learn how to make an impact on the world, we inspire problem-solvers and innovators.”

You were conventionally trained like most teachers. What opened your eyes to learner-centered innovation?

I definitely went to school in a traditional way. But my mom was a teacher and was always very innovative in her classroom, so I saw what she was doing, which was different from what I was experiencing as a kid in my own school. Later, my teacher credential program was in an innovative, interdisciplinary middle school program, so early on as an educator, I had a different learning experience from most teachers. When I enrolled in the program I was actively looking for something that was a little different than the traditional model: What would I have liked school to be? I didn’t want someone telling me all the answers. I wanted to think on my own. I tried as a teacher to create as many of those experiences as possible. How could I get more out of the kids than me being the one who tells them all the answers?

They don’t include this in teaching colleges, do they?

No, not really. What I say often in the book is that teachers create what they experience. Most of our educators have gone through their own education very traditionally, and that’s what they know to create. So their own learning experiences aren’t modeling the type of learning we want to see in the classroom. It’s very difficult to shift their own practice.

I did a teacher workshop recently and gave the group an exercise. I said, “As a group, figure out a question you have about the impact of technology in our world.” The teachers thought about questions they had, and together they researched, they looked up articles online, they found some books, they used their own prior knowledge, and they made a presentation about what they learned in a half-hour.

Later they said, “Oh my gosh, you didn’t just tell us everything we needed to know, and there wasn’t just one way to do this. We could do this more in our classrooms.” They had to experience it first to understand what was possible for their kids.

Is this approach more work for the teacher?

In some ways, the upfront planning can be more intensive, and you have to take time to understand and know your kids. In a learner-centered classroom, the teacher is being thoughtful about the questions and the desired outcome, but they haven’t necessarily spent all their time pulling together all the resources that every kid needs to go through. They’re turning that over to the students.

What we need to do is bring the learners into the process so they’re the ones doing the work. They’re the ones thinking through and helping each other solve problems and learn things together.

Something happens around fifth or sixth grade—kids lose their enthusiasm for learning. You write about your own daughter, asking, “What will we miss out on if the ‘what if’ questions subside, and she begins to settle for what is?”

I see how interesting and thoughtful she is, and the way she thinks. If that gets squashed, I do wonder what we’ll miss out on. What’s going to happen when she’s out of school? We have a lot of really complex problems in our world, and if we’re not developing skills and confidence in our learners in school, we can’t expect that they’re going to be ready to solve problems when they’re out of school.

With districts and schools pressured to show results, how does this type of learning help them meet state standards?

This is the crux of the challenge, right? Yes, the standards are what matters, and if we say they don’t, that’s irresponsible. We’re held accountable to standards. Besides, I think we have an assumption that people only care about the test and the accountability.

I was in Chicago at a school district recently, and I met with groups of teachers and parents. The teachers told me, “Our parents care about the scores. They only care about their kids’ reading levels, and that prevents us from doing things that are meaningful and engaging.”

Then, meeting with the parents, I said, “The teachers think that you only care about test scores and you only care about the grades your kids get.”

And they said, “No, we want our kids to be problem-solvers. We want our kids to be creative. We want them to be happy and self-sufficient. We don’t want them living in our basement.”

But then I asked, “OK, what does that look like? What do you ask the teachers and kids about?” You can probably guess: “How did you do on your test? What grade did you get? Did you behave today?”

For someone who is inspired by the examples in your book, how do they begin to transform learning?

For me, it always comes back to the learners. You have to ask, “What do we want them to know and do?” That’s the starting point. We want kids who are self-sufficient, who have integrity, who can solve problems, who can communicate well. How do we work backward from there? What things do we need to keep doing that are actually working? What things do we need to stop doing? Reflective questions can help us better understand and start making tweaks, piece by piece. And getting buy-in to try some things out is a really helpful place to start.

But how do you get that buy-in? If you have five teachers in grade 4, and three of them take a learning-centered approach and the other two teach conventionally, doesn’t that send a mixed message? Shouldn’t they all be on the same page?

Should they? Yes. Will they ever be? I don’t know, but I think we can start opening up doors. I love getting teachers in each other’s classrooms—not to be “deficit minded,” but to see what is actually working well.

So you get those five teachers and say, “Let’s walk around classrooms and do a scavenger hunt for all the things that are promoting effective collaboration.” Promote what is working. That opens up people’s minds much more than walking around and pointing out what they’re doing wrong.

Teachers are so isolated—they’re in their classroom with their kids and don’t often see what’s going on in each other’s classrooms. Until they actually get in and see the learning and see what’s happening, it’s hard to know how to translate that to their own practice.

What do you want readers to take away from your book?

If we are going to create schools and learning environments that are focused on learning and learners, we have to model that ourselves. You can’t stand up in a staff meeting and tell people to do things differently for kids if you’re not willing to look at your own practice and think about how you can model the learning experiences for the educators.

Administrators shouldn’t have to and can’t do this alone. They should not be expected to have all the answers. It takes a community; it takes more than what we’ve traditionally done. We need to work together to redefine what’s possible in our schools. DA