So You Designed a Profile of a Graduate, Now What?

Your district, with community input and participation, has recently completed your Profile of a Graduate, (sometimes also known as a Graduate Profile or Learner Profile) now what? The ‘now what’ question is essential. If this is not acted upon, then it will join other missed opportunities like mission statements that collect dust. The act of creating a shared vision for graduates serves as a starting point to define a learner-centered system. This is the North Star and sets the future aspiration for the work ahead.

The first step is to co-author a shared vision for graduates with your community stakeholders. From there, we recommend the following considerations as a way to make your vision a reality.  

Review and share out the Profile of a Graduate (POG) with the community at large and share that you will be setting a course to achieve this goal.

  • Share that you will update them on growth and next steps.
  • Plan on stakeholder events as ways to share and gather information and feedback.
  • Work with a communications team or department to make the POG accessible and on the website.
  • Share in the ownership of this work and enlist a team approach with distributive leadership.

Change Management. The learning culture of an organization has always been extremely important, but it is more critical than ever for our communities and districts. This work is at the forefront to build readiness for change and is a continuous process to revisit as opportunities for growth arise.

  • Driving from your collective commitment to understanding change, design intentional feedback loops and transparent pathways for stakeholders to learn, engage, and co-design.
  • Be clear and transparent with leadership teams to lead with their values, and to actively use these values and outcomes to make decisions, and create the conditions in which they can succeed.
  • Setting the culture for change and growth is essential. Lead with mindset and dispositions toward transformation and lay the groundwork for the path ahead. See toolkit for teachers.

Define success metrics that align with desired outcomes in your profile of a graduate. Review, revise, refine your data collection. Define an aligned assessment platform that supports growth and deeper learning. This will lead to cleaner data collection protocols.

  • Create student, educator, and community surveys that gather input on experiences aligned with your POG.
  • Create expectations for student learning exhibitions and demonstrations of learning to show their growth in the desired outcomes. This is true for all learners.
  • Ensure that the report cards or other reporting mechanisms include metrics that align with your POG in addition to grades or standards reporting. This may require you to seek out other learning management tools to meet this need.
  • Set goals and track leading measures such as student progress, school attendance, discipline referrals, and enrollment.
  • Design aligned performance assessments that will help build an assessment model.

Use your POG as a north star to guide your strategic plan. Your POG needs to be visible and used to guide your strategic priorities and what is no longer needed.

Design or revise your learning model. Is there a clear vision for what learning experiences students should be engaged in that align with your desired outcomes? Do your resources, guides and schedules reflect the learning that you aspire to see in all classrooms? Where is the learning model meeting the need and where is it falling short? Instructional models are most effective when this is co-created or codesigned with a mix of stakeholders.

  • Refine your teaching and learning model. After instructional needs have been determined, align these with professional learning, coaching, and evaluation.
  • Codesign opportunities to help educators create experiences aligned with your learning model. This will be an iterative process as related needs are revealed when refining instructional practices.
  • Review effective strategies in place, highlight them and support teachers to use them.
  • Build off of strengths and strong instructional practices already in place.
  • Review induction and evaluation to make space for educators to try new strategies and evolve their practices.

This is the North Star and sets the future aspiration for the work ahead.

Rebecca Midles and Katie Martin

Create transparent look fors across learning levels. These can be referred to as progressions, or rubrics – essentially competencies – that help guide a system to vertically plan for the acquisition of desired knowledge, skills, and mindsets to be supported for learners across the system. Representation of learning needs from across the system should be at the heart of this work.

  • Make the profile accessible and clear for grade levels or grade bands.
  • Use co-designed look fors to highlight what is work and aspirations, not just checklist
  • Reflective questions on process alongside look fors invite teachers to self-reflect and assess their strengths and their needs for professional learning.
  • Empower students to self-assess and capture evidence of their learning, growth, and next steps.

Build a professional learning system that aligns with your desired outcomes to validate what is working and support new areas of growth and expectations. This is most effective with representation from educators who are fluent in working with learners of varying levels and backgrounds.

  • Engage with teachers to design educator competencies that support the learning model that will help achieve the graduate profile.
  • Create personalized learning pathways with and for teachers to understand where they are and learn based on their needs, context, and goals. Consider micro-credentialing teachers as they develop competency in desired areas.
  • Consider hiring instructional coaches that are either trained or will be trained to coach, advise and support educators.
  • Ensure professional learning time that is consistent and agile to respond to the needs of the system as it grows. This requires additional time that is embedded into the system for teachers to meet, share, collaborate and grow their practice.
  • The system could invest in learning communities across their system for leaders, related providers, paraprofessionals, and other related staff members that serve student learning.

Demonstrate and highlight examples. You may be able to go see aligned instructional practices in action that are outside of your district, and we recommend this! As soon as you can set up local examples, do. These opportunities will support understanding and professional growth.

  • Set up opportunities for peers to observe one another. These classrooms can be referred to as demonstration classrooms or sites, that are simply demonstrating where they are in the journey to meeting a shared vision for graduates.
  • Give careful consideration to framing observations and practices for professional growth. Not all observations provide examples where everything is aligned.
  • Treasure systems and teachers who are open to sharing their practices, receiving feedback, and collaborating. This commitment is how networks are started.

Celebrate and share learning to scale at each step of the journey

As we work with systems leaders to align their aspirations of what we really want school to be with daily practices, it can be also overwhelming to think about so many things that need to shift. As you continue to grow and evolve, it is critical that you make time to acknowledge what’s working and build from where you are. When you are meeting with students, families, or colleagues, try to identify progress, growth, and positives for your team and others so we can all learn and grow along with you.

Need more? Or did you start the process and have since found your team needing additional support? Getting Smart and Learner Centered Collaborative have worked together to support several districts in creating, updating, and implementing their POG. We’d love to support your team as you start your journey. Email Jessica to learn more.


The #NewPathways campaign will serve as a road map to the new architecture for American High Schools, where every learner, regardless of zip code, is on a pathway to productive and sustainable citizenship, high wage employment and economic mobility. Interested in telling your future of high school story? Email Editor.


How The International School of Prague Inspires, Engages & Empowers Learners

Good schools inspire, engage, and empower learning–and the International School of Prague is a great example. A couple of virtual visits brought to life a coherent learning model around this mission. 

Director of Learning R&D, Teresa Belisle, an international educator with experience in France, Thailand Mexico, as well as her home state of Minnesota, explained the three elements of the mission: 

  • Inspire learners to lead healthy, fulfilling, and purposeful lives, preparing them to adapt and contribute responsibly to our changing world.
  • Engage a diverse community in an authentic global education, within a nurturing student-centered environment.
  • Empower learners to think critically and creatively, work cooperatively and independently, listen and communicate effectively, and act with compassion, integrity, respect and intercultural understanding.

Belisle said the last few years of work have focused on nurturing student curiosity, building community, and working on coherence. “The way we approached strategy forced greater system coherence across the sections and helped us become more agile,” said Belisle.   

Respected innovator Dr. Chip Kimball, former superintendent of Lake Washington School District and Singapore American School (see case study and podcast), took over leadership at ISP in July. 


After a few months of community dialog, the ISP leadership team adopted an updated learner profile focused on developing curious, competent, compassionate changemakers. Faculty teams are bringing the updated learning goals to life across the curriculum. 

Seven beautiful design principles guide the work at ISP.

In support of these design principles and to improve K-12 coherence, the leadership team and faculty recently decided to become a contemporary International Baccalaureate continuum school by adopting the Primary Years Programme and Middle Years Programme in support of the long established Diploma Programme in high school.  

ISP is hiring an PYP Coordinator, an MYP Coordinator, and an MYP Projects and Advisory Coordinator. Learn more and apply here

ISP Backstory

Established shortly after World War II by the US Embassy, the 900 student P-12 English medium school is located just northwest of downtown Prague and next to Divoká Šárka, a nature reserve where ISP students explore, hike and ride bicycles. 

International School of Prague campus

Board members most appreciate the intentionally diverse student body with learners of 60 nationalities. They also appreciate a culture of care, thoughtful guidance and rigorous academics.  

To develop change makers, ISP teachers help students apply their learning in diverse and challenging contexts. In a recent example, ISP staff and students supported Happy Caravan – two schools established to support Syrian refugee children in Greece. For their support of Happy Caravan, ISP was recognized with the International Impact Award.

Learn more about ISP in the 2021-22 Annual Report. It is great example of a progressive international school that engages diverse learners in work that matters. Its coherent learning framework is one that any school could learn from.  


Empower Online Learners: Top 10 Pro Tips for Project Design and Delivery

As we start a new school year, many of us have been thrust back into a digital space. And while it’s not ideal, it’s what we’ve got.

The question for us as we return shouldn’t be: ‘How many days until things ‘return’ to normal?’ But instead: ‘How do we best engage and empower our remote learners?’

Hybrid Learning IS the new normal. Many courageous educators have already experienced great success. And they are using meaningful, student-centered project-based experiences as their favorite weapon of choice. After working with 100+ teachers to design and develop these projects in a digital space, here are my top 10 tips for you in running yours:

Pro Tip #1: Stop Delivering Whole-Class Lessons Online: Make synchronous time for group presentations and check-ins

Simply put, we can’t engage an entire class the way we can F2F. Students have limited attention spans when staring at a screen. It’s far more effective to re-configure our online schedule to allow for ACTIVE learning experiences. We can conduct short group check-ins. Run feedback sessions for project work. Or do what Sara Lev did to gather ideas for her ‘Space Podcast’ project; follow students on tours of their home learning spaces to discover her class’ shared interests.

Pro Tip #2: Use Collaborative Tools for Group Work

Many teachers avoid group projects online because they feel they are too hard to manage. And while it is certainly more challenging, with the right project management tool, things are a lot easier. Alison Yang of KIS International used a digital Trello board for groups to post project work, divide tasks, track progress, and offer other group’s feedback on their CoVid-19 support projects. There was even a space for her to pose provocative questions to help propel each group forward. If you are a more advanced PBL teacher, you can turn over project management completely to students through Spinndle, an incredible project management system from Jacqueline Robillard and her team.

Pro Tip #3: Use Simple Digital Tools for Co-Creation

Keeping things as simple as possible for creation in the digital space will help ensure better results from students. Use platforms and tools students are already familiar with. If you are a G Suite school, keep things consolidated in that platform. If Microsoft- use Teams, and their suite of Apps. You can create BEAUTIFUL co-created products using simple tools. Alexa Lepp, a 5th-grade teacher used a simple Google Slidedeck to help students co-construct a class digital cookbook of recipes and family stories; Rob Livingston Shaw used SoundTrap to help students co-create soundtracks online for socially distanced spaces in his ‘Music for Spaces’ project.

Pro Tip #4: Co-Create Learning Experiences/Projects with other Teachers

Let’s face it, online teaching and learning can be pretty lonely and overwhelming. Sharing a project-based experience with another teacher helps things feel more connected and manageable. Make generating project ideas simple by using a collaborative padlet for co-creation. Here is a sample padlet of project ideas around CoVid-19 generated by groups of teachers according to subject. Feel free to add an idea of your own!

Pro Tip #5: Provide Hyperlinked Digital Study Guides/ Design Briefs

Many educators wrongfully assume that projects are not planned and that students magically become self-directed from the minute it is introduced. Projects require the same milestones and scaffolds as any other learning experience. Help lower the anxiety of your online learners by providing digital, hyperlinked study guides. Include the major project challenge, essential inquiry question, major deliverables, and a rough overview of due dates. Here is a sample study guide for an intergenerational playground project run by Alfie Chung of The Polytechnic University of Hong Kong.

Tip #6: Use ONE central online LMS

Imagine receiving 10+ emails daily from 10+ teachers, all with their own sets of expectations and requirements for the day. It’s no wonder several students don’t show up for online class meetings! Make things easier on students by using one LMS. A central LMS for all handouts, messages, updates, workflow, etc. in tandem with your digital study guides will ensure students don’t feel overwhelmed and stay caught up.

Pro Tip #7: Exhibit Work Regularly and Dynamically!

Several teachers begrudge the quality of work they are receiving from their remote learners. And while this may be due to online fatigue, a lot of it has to do with the fact that they simply don’t care. Make remote project work more meaningful by providing students a real, authentic audience to exhibit their work publicly to. You can do what McCall Elementary did in their ‘Black History Month’ project exhibitions, and set up Google Breakout Rooms for classroom presentations, or do what Mount Vernon High School did in their Performing Arts Project Showcase, and create a dynamic Virtual Museum!

Tip #8: Hold Optional ‘Project Co-Working’ Online Sessions

In the same way, several businesses prefer to work in dynamic, shared office space, many of our remote learners will elevate their engagement when working regularly alongside classmates. Hold opt-in project work sessions for students to work on their projects and share their work. Put on some light music in a mixed playlist that students co-curate, and hold fun ‘brain breaks’ for physical activities.

Pro Tip #9: Zoom in Project Experts

Imagine how exciting it would be for students if, during your space exploration project, they had the chance to chat with real NASA astronauts. Or in their class novel project, they got to Facetime with J.K. Rowling! That’s what Sarah Youngren, a 6th-grade Humanities Teacher plans to do to better engage and empower her students in developing their short stories. You can use experts for inspiration on student ideas, and/or use them as mentors to help critique and offer feedback on student work.

Pro Tip #10: Do the Project First!

Have you completed the projects you are asking students to do first? Doing projects first will allow you to predict the same pitfalls, frustrations, triumphs, and tribulations your students will undergo in project completion. It will also add an extra layer of credibility and trust between you and your class. For example, if you are asking students to publish their stories, try publishing something yourself first. If you are strapped for time, complete your own project alongside your students. Model the metacognitive process you go through when coming up with ideas, setting due dates, considering revisions, etc.

Where to Go from Here?

Which tip did you most resonate with? Got any tips of your own? Let me know and I will be sure to add them! And if you are looking for a simple step-by-step guide to designing, implementing, and assessing your PBL experience in the remote space, here is a simple course I created to help you get started. You can also get insights from fellow innovative practitioners in our ‘Transform Thru True PBL’ Facebook Community.

For more, see:


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Building a Capstone Program: Rooting Education in the Growing Capacities of Youth

By: Aaron Schorn

I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe that they represent dawning capacities. Accordingly, the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator. – John Dewey, January 1897

The energy in the Zoom room changed. Human connection and goosebumps filled the space. During her virtual 2020 Senior Capstone Showcase presentation, Hawaiʻi Preparatory Academy (HPA) Senior Ivanni spoke about the power of partnering with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist based on ʻOahu. Her Capstone project was focused on climate change’s impact on the forced feminization of sea turtles due to warming water temperatures. The NOAA scientist unmuted, turned her video on, and spoke about the joy and privilege it was to work with Ivanni. She viewed Ivanni as a colleague, not a student. Ivanni’s Capstone product was taking her field research and turning it into a video series and website that would act as a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for future students to carry on her field and lab work. Then the magic occurred, the NOAA scientist proclaimed that she and her team would be using those SOP’s in the future.  The Capstone Senior had now become a coworker and educator to the NOAA scientist.

Tears were flowing (many of us ugly crying), from parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, teachers, coaches, and friends who were on the Zoom call. Many of the people (in those weird virtual boxes we all found ourselves in for so long) had not spoken to Lucia in over a year. During her virtual 2021 Senior Capstone Showcase presentation, Lucia waxed poetic on her Capstone product, which centered around translating her Spanish grandfather’s poetry and creating videos inspired by them. This was a personal story, it was authentic, and it had purpose. That false wall between education and the real world was torn down. Lucia had broadened our learning community and demonstrated the power of Capstones and student agency driven learning. She displayed her dawning and resplendent capacities to a room full of people who mattered to her.

What is a Capstone Program?

At HPA, Capstones are year-long sustained inquiry, interdisciplinary projects that serve as a culminating academic and intellectual experience for students. We built a Capstone program to act as a performance space, a showcase of our students’ learned skills and capacities. We built something that would allow us to transparently see if skills were being learned. We built a Final for what it means to be an HPA student. Our goal was to create a shared culture of authenticity, entrepreneurship, confidence, and storytelling.

Per HPA’s website:

Capstone courses are distinguished by the extent to which they are driven by student interest, engagement and design. The capstone program is one form of personalized learning that our students experience at HPA.  

Capstones are driven by constructivist pedagogy including:

  • Personalized learning
  • Student-centered learning
  • Project-based/inquiry-based learning
  • Co-constructed curriculum

Some Capstone Tips and Learning Lessons 

When building our Senior Capstone program I was obsessed with backward designing the learning targets needed for a student. For us those were:

1. Ideation (Ideate)

2. Research (Research)

3. Project Management (Manage project)

4. Product Development (Develop product)

5. Presentation (Present)

6. Impact (Personal and External)

These form our rubrics, the structure of the year, the software we choose (UNRULR), and how we tell the stories of our product development, process, and project management. They also allow us to strengthen a curricular identity. I can now partner with department heads to build these learning targets into their courses in Grades 9-12.

Embrace Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke (By doing one learns). Embrace a liquid scientific method. Constantly have them build, measure, and learn. From the beginning of their Capstone journey to when they head off to the next stage of their life journey, have students (and faculty for good measure) constantly get their ideas out into the world, challenging their assumptions, partnering with external industry mentors and subject matter experts, each time iterating to the next version, the next idea. Essentially, make it real, get them out of the school building David Dunbar style, whether that be physically or through the interwebs. To do this, I took the work of Steve Blank and Bob Dorf in Lean Startup methodology and combined them with brilliant Hawaiian cultural practitioners/PBL educators (shoutout to Pualani Lincoln and NĀ KĀLAI WAʻA) to ensure our schema and curriculum were representative of Hawaiʻi and its people.

To learn more about Capstones and to join a community of Capstone educators I highly recommend the National Capstone Consortium.

My call to action to schools and other places of learning is to provide the vital opportunity of Capstones to your students K-12 and well beyond. My biggest goal as an educator is to co-design environments that create a sense of belonging, confidence, and relevance in its learners.

For more, see:


Aaron Schorn is the K-12 Capstone Coordinator at Hawai’i Preparatory Academy and Program Director at the Nalukai Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @aaronschorn.

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Education is Equity Work: New Resource and Customizable Toolkit to Help

By: Rebecca E. Wolfe

Ask my son to write a paragraph on a favorite topic, and he’ll shut his door, hammer out a page in minutes and gamely take feedback – but only if you demand to see itConversely, my daughter will flop on the floor, ask for help, stare at the computer, type the bare minimum over several hours, ask you to read every new word that’s added but cry if you suggest a change. 

It doesn’t take an expert educator to know that each learner needs a trusting relationship with someone who understands how to get each writer to produce their best work. Trying to coach them to write in the same way is a recipe for failure. As every parent or good educator knows, education at its heart is an equity proposition – meeting each learner where they are and helping them become the best version of themselves.  

But equity at any kind of scale is not possible unless educators and schools have road maps and tools to build sustainable and equitable student-centered learning environments. The revised edition of Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Environments and new customizable toolkit is one such resource.  

When the first Educator Competencies  was released in 2015, the idea of student-centered teaching and learning was just a few years into gaining attention in a handful of schools, districts and a scattering of fledgling innovation networks. Today, intentional and comprehensive personalized, learner-centered approaches have been documented in hundreds of schools, personalized learning appears in 39 states’ Elementary and Secondary Success Act plans and at least four states have made it the focus of their education reform efforts.

Doing things differently in education is no longer optional, as teachers during the past eighteen months have had to find new ways to connect with students and engage not just their minds but their hearts. In the meantime, the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the health and economic well-being of immigrants, people of color and communities where families earn incomes below the poverty line threw into high profile our society’s endemic inequities. 

With this goal to better understand how to better center a critical focus on equity – we engaged with more than 60 new and diverse stakeholders for the 2020 edition of the Educator Competencies. 

This new version of the Educator Competencies aims to expressly and concretely enable educators to come to terms with and remedy the ways in which America’s schools have negatively impacted Black students, as well as children from other marginalized groups. Because of this, we’ve included an explicit discussion and definition of equity in the document, added scannable icons to pick out the competencies that directly address equity and created a companion tool, “Centering Equity,” to be used alongside the primary publication.

As a nation, we are getting clearer and braver about exposing the ways current educational systems are designed to produce inequitable and even racist outcomesAs a parent myself, I wanted to make sure this version of the competencies stood firmly as a tool to celebrate learners’ assets and point towards a more just education system.

Are you using the competencies or want to connect with others on how they’re using them? Explore the map.

For more, see:


This post was originally published at KnowledgeWorks.org.

Rebecca E. Wolfe oversees the research, impact and improvement efforts that reinforce KnowledgeWorks’ program and policy initiatives and advance the field of personalized, competency-based learning. 

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Think Global, Act Local: How to Embed SDGs in your school and Community

On September 23rd, 2019, Greta Thunberg gave a speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit that would send chills down the spines of anyone bold enough to hear it.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”[27] “You are failing us,” Thunberg stated. “But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” (Source)

Greta brought the voices of an increasingly disillusioned band of Gen Z activists (who make up 26% of the world’s population) to the doorstep of older generations at the world’s largest collective forum. Schooling would have to wait. Climate change was now the most pressing issue. Greta reminded all of us that climate change cannot be solved with watered-down proposals, abstract rhetoric, and empty talk; but only through taking immediate action as if our very existence depended on it. Greta’s plea was for all of us.

As innovative school leaders and educators, how will we take action? We’ve already been provided a helpful blueprint:

In 2015, the United Nations established 17 lofty goals for sustainable development to help reverse the damage done by climate change. Goals include more sustainable cities; an elimination of poverty; healthier waterways; and affordable and clean energy (pictured to the left). Each lofty goal includes concrete and specific sub-targets to help reach them. Courageous schools have already taken the first steps.

Through meaningful, real-world projects, these schools are providing time for students to take action on each goal within the context of their own curriculum and communities. This article will explore 8 models from 8 innovative schools and programs leading the charge. As we explore each model, consider which aspects might work in your school’s context.

The ‘ChangeMaker’ Passion Project Model: Addressing SDGs through student-led passion projects at The Green School of Bali

Imagine students coming up with the concept for a personal passion project around a community need, partnering on it with local NGOs, working through several iterations with the help of a mentor, and exhibiting their work in a public community-facing exhibition.

This is the grade 8 ‘ChangeMaker Quest Program’ The Green School of Bali uses to help students address SDGs and discover passions. In the program, each year 8 student is matched with an adult mentor and provided regular time in the schedule to develop their idea. For example, one student, after learning about how human footsteps can generate renewable energy, saw the potential for its use on the stairs within the school. After meeting with his mentor, they worked together to create a prototype for the ‘electro stairs:’ an invention to capture motion and convert it to energy every time a student took a step. Ustay’s mentor helped him create project goals, generate tasks, investigate and conduct research, and plan out the project calendar. Learn more about Ustay’s invention here.

Questions for Reflection/Implications for Action:

  • How might you build in time to help students connect their passions to a greater purpose?
  • How can you transition from the role of a teacher into one of a mentor? What structures might help students explore their passions through SDG-related goals?

The ‘Experiential Learning’ Week Model: Addressing SDGs through Meaningful Experiential Weeks at Yew Chung and Yew Wah Schools in Hong Kong

Imagine your entire school going off the traditional timetable for a week to address deep questions around sustainability on a local level. This is what learning looks like during ‘experiential learning week’ at Yew Chung International School in Hong Kong. Here are some of the questions:

  • How can we get involved in promoting sustainable tourism in Hong Kong?
  • How can we create and market more sustainable fashion?
  • How can we gamify sustainability to increase environmental awareness in Hong Kong?

Each deep and meaningful sustainability question was coupled with a relevant project to anchor it. In the sustainable tourism project, students created tours with the most minimal carbon footprint and advertised via a website to incoming HK tourists. In the sustainable fashion project, students created a fashion show of upcycled old clothes and apparel to make sustainability more ‘trendy.’ In the gamification project, students created ‘choose your own adventure games’ around important ecological sites in Hong Kong, and delivered them via student-designed apps.

Questions for Reflection/Implications for Action:

  • How might you use deep and meaningful questions around SDGs to empower your students to take action?
  • Where is there existing flexibility in your yearly schedule? How might you use this time to offer deeper learning experiences?

The ‘Enrichment’ or ‘After School Program’ Model: Developing Citizenship and Social Responsibility through community-driven and student-generated projects at The Medford Center

Imagine your students working with older and younger peers to address issues of equity and environmental awareness within the community. Imagine these students sharing their findings and projects with both the community and the 2,000 plus students engaging in similar projects across the entire district. Imagine how big their IMPACT footprint would be then.

This is the work being done at the Medford Center for Citizenship and Social Responsibility. The Center started with a modest grant as an after-school program for civic-minded students and now has grown into a district-wide program integrated into the core fabric of each Medford School’s mission. Each Medford campus has a program coordinator who helps mentor students, secure funding, and connects projects to the wider community. Projects are clearly making a mark. After seeing the damage and destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, two high school students in Connecticut took it upon themselves to gather needed goods/ supplies, rent a U-Haul Truck, and drive them 1,800 miles to the church they coordinated as the ‘point of contact.’ Projects of this magnitude aren’t just reserved for High School Seniors. After learning about Medford, Massachusetts’ troubling history with slavery, two third graders wanted to do something to remember forgotten slaves. After careful primary and secondary research, they picked a site, erected a beautiful marker, and even held a ceremony for the community to pay tribute to these forgotten men and women. Explore more Medford Projects here.

Questions for Reflection/Implications for Action:

  • How might you build in time for community projects in your existing timetable?
  • What NGOs, B Corps, and charitable organizations are within walking distance of your school? How might you partner students with them to make an impact?

The ‘Pilot Program’ Model: Using TIDES (Technology, Innovation, Design, Enterprise, and Sustainability) to address SDGs and develop global citizens

Imagine a cross-curricular, collaborative, and community-linked four-year program for students to develop the autonomy and aptitude required to change the world.

This is the TIDES program developed for year 7-10 students by Kim Flintoff, TIDES Coordinator at Peter Carnley Anglican Community School in Western Australia.. Each year aligns to a trans-disciplinary SDG theme. In year 7, students learn the design thinking process and use STEM to address a school-related need. In year 8, students expand their green footprint to address issues within the local community. In year 9, they move deeper into the ‘adult world’ through the STEM4Innovation initiative, where they partner with public and private health providers, and other community organizations to develop solutions ranging from the obesity crisis, to pandemic prevention and awareness. And finally, in year 10, students synthesize insights and skills gained from past projects into the ‘Balance the Planet Program,’ where after choosing an SDG area of focus, they develop and design relevant solutions with a variety of stakeholders. Rather than document the experience through written exams and cumbersome paperwork, students curate portfolios to capture evidence of their work to share with future employers, universities, training institutions, and to forge new business partnerships.

Questions for Reflection/Implications for Action:

  • How might you connect learning for students as they pass through each grade level?
  • How might you use the SDGs as the starting point for trans-disciplinary projects and learning goals?
  • How can backward design ensure learning targets are aligned?

The ‘Lab School’ Model: A circular mini-village living lab to learn about sustainability through building a zero-carbon campus

Imagine being given a one-acre plot of land in which to build a zero-carbon footprint mini-village. Imagine also working side by side with students to build eco tiny houses, set up water-efficient aquaponics systems, create food forests, set up forest fire warning systems, set up solar arrays, and even feed guests with on-site grown bio foods.

This is the work already started by ‘Starbase 18’ in Portugal, a circular mini-village for students to experience carbon neutral sustainable living. Learning modules are designed to help students explore each concept including, ‘How to Coop with innovations and change,’ ‘Sustainability in your Profession,’ and ‘Agile Craftsmanship.’ Nearby schools are able to dip in and out of ‘Starbase 18’ or participate in longer residencies and internships. Their mission is to help create the blueprint for how other schools might set up their ‘Rural Living Labs.’

Questions for Reflection/Implications for Action:

  • Do you have an experiential site for your school? How might you develop it into a ‘rural living lab?’
  • How can immersing students in sustainable practices help develop more sustainably-minded global citizens?

The ‘Advisory/Service Learning’ Model: Addressing SDGs through mixed grade-level advisories and connection to local NGOs at The American International School

When CoVid 19 sank its teeth in this past year, The American International School of Hong Kong had a choice to make regarding its yearly service-learning trips; cancel them, or re-imagine them on a local level. Given their strong commitment to developing thoughtful, global citizens, they chose the latter. Using the SDGs as a guiding framework, they empowered their year 11 students to partner with relevant local NGOs and community organizations to co-develop meaningful, three-day service-learning programs to address each goal. For example, one group worked with an NGO called ‘Rooftop Republic’ to learn about the values of urban gardening and how they could create a community garden at the school. In addition to the co-development of the service-learning program, these new student leaders also developed advertising videos, campaigns, and meeting frameworks to pitch each program to their grade 9-12 peers during Advisory.

Unfortunately, because of tighter restrictions around CoVid-19, the 3-day programs have been put on hold until next year.

And while the programs have been put on hold through this student leadership model, students have already shown greater engagement with service learning and developed a stronger connection to their community and personal passions/interests.

Questions for Reflection/Implications for Action:

  • How might you use the SDGs to empower your students as leaders? How might you support students in developing community partnerships?
  • How might a model like this work into your existing mixed grade Advisory program?

The ‘Empathy to Impact Model’: Supporting SDGs through trans-disciplinary courses in the IDEATE Program at Beijing City International School

Imagine your students spending half of every school day diving deeper into SDGs through trans-disciplinary courses that uncover the underlying people, systems, and complexities driving them on a global scale. This is what the Beijing City International School has accomplished through its innovative ‘IDEATE’ program. A hybrid diploma program for year 11 and 12 students, the IDEATE program runs cross-curricular courses like ‘Global Issues,’ and ‘Systems and Scientific Thinking.’ Each course contains modules to help students better understand the people and dynamics at play. For example, in the Global Issues course, students explore the power of ethics, systematic inequalities, the concept of global oneness, donut economics, and true cost. Through exploration of each sub-topic, students develop EMPATHY and understanding of global issues, as well as providing provocation for the personal IMPACT projects they might take up to help address it.

For example, one student is addressing issues of inequality by exploring Asian hate crimes in the united states and creating a rap music video to help eradicate it. His big question: ‘What would happen if the world was exempt from racism?’

Another student is addressing fragile family relations by exploring how photography can change attitudes through an online photography exhibition. Her big question: ‘What if I conducted a photography exhibition that could change the attitudes young people have towards their family?’

Each personal project lasts 1-2 years and is accompanied by a mentor who meets with the student 2-3 times a week, and helps support the development of their project through the ‘Empathy to Impact’ framework.

For more on the ‘Empathy to Impact’ framework and other frameworks to support SDG delivery, check out “Inspire Citizens.”

Questions for Reflection/Implications for Action:

  • What trans-disciplinary courses might you develop out of the SDGs?
  • How might you help students uncover the complexities of each global issue through a similar framework?
  • How can you support student project ideas through mentorship?

The ‘Academy’ Model: Addressing SDGs through school-wide ‘Micro-Academies’ tied to specific goals

There is a phrase in the business world for ideas that are so audacious, so bold, and so visionary that you cannot help but get excited envisioning the possibilities if they are fulfilled. These ‘BHAGS’ (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) can easily be applied to the world of school.

Here’s a ‘BHAG’ related to the SDGs to get excited about: A comprehensive, trans-disciplinary, 4-year ‘academy/ studio’ program for students built entirely around making their communities and planet a better place to live. Students would spend one full year in each academy listed in the white space to the left. Within each academy, students would complete 3-4 deep and meaningful projects to explore relevant concepts and connect to the global SDGs. For example, in the ‘well-being academy’, students would explore the impact of urban farms on well-being by planting and cultivating their own community gardens. In the ‘equity/ society’ academy, students would work with local lawmakers to introduce and undo unjust and discriminatory legislation. Each academy would be run by a team of trans-disciplinary ‘guides’ who could mentor students through the projects, build partnerships, and infuse their subject-specific curriculum. Finally, academies would not be isolated by grade level, but instead, allow for mixed-age groupings to allow for student leadership and co-development.

Questions for Reflection/Implications for Action:

  • What is a ‘BHAG’ (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) related to the SDGs that might work in your context?
  • Most standards and curriculum documents are written as guides, rather than ‘prescriptions.’ How might you organize your academic curriculum around this framework?  

Where’s the Starting Point?

The models above are in no way meant to be prescriptive. We all have unique contexts, communities, cultures, and learners to serve. A four-year, interconnected and trans-disciplinary program like ‘TIDES’ may not be feasible in places with tight restrictions around timetabling, curriculum, and mandated minutes. However, an ‘experiential learning week’ like the one introduced by Yew Chung might be feasible.

The starting point for the integration of SDGs is aligning a few stakeholders within your school to a common vision.

Once you find a few like-minded people; generate momentum first within your classrooms, electives, or after-school programs; build clear curricular links and design a few SDG-related learning experiences; exhibit student work publicly; and watch as the rest of your school begs to get on board.

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The 5 Steps of Design Thinking Help Drive School Improvements

By: Ben Owens

Can you be an educator and not be committed to continuous improvement? Probably not. Whether it’s improving a lesson, a school policy, or a 5-year strategic plan, educators constantly work to better meet the needs of their students. Unfortunately, despite good intentions, too many of these improvements fall short of intended results. While reasons vary, a big one is a failure to use a systemic process to drive such improvement efforts.

To be clear, this is not a problem unique to education. Having spent a career in engineering before becoming a teacher, I saw too many cases of “solutionitus,” where colleagues would rush to make changes without following a methodical problem solving process.

The good news is that there are numerous improvement tools that are equally applicable in and out of education. These include Plan, Do, Study, Act; Engineering Design, and 5-Why. One of the most powerful, however, is Design Thinking.

Design Thinking forces us to understand and define a problem from the perspective of the user. From there, it allows you to conceptualize human-centered solutions, develop workable prototypes, and then test for effectiveness. Rinse, repeat.

One of the most accepted Design Thinking models is that of the Stanford d.school, and its five steps of empathy, define, ideate, prototype, and test. I will briefly highlight each step, including  examples of how they can be applied in an education context.

“Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible.” This quote, by Jared Spool, a design expert and educator, makes sense if you have ever experienced a bad design – something that is almost always caused by a failure to empathize with the ultimate user. Parents who struggle to find the information they need on a district’s new LMS is an unfortunate example where the system’s designers did not adequately consider the user perspective.

An empathy map is a great tool to help a design team use observations, surveys, focus groups, etc. to understand what the user is saying, thinking, feeling, and doing relative to the problem at hand. Ryan Schultz, a Blended Learning Coordinator at the Poudre School District’s Futures Lab (CO), used this process as part of his efforts to set up his hybrid classroom. By actually sitting with a student at his desk, Schultz could quickly see how the room’s plexiglass dividers were not allowing students to see the information they needed. This empathy focus led to physical improvements that enhanced the student learning experience.

A student view before applying a redesign, by Ryan Schultz, Poudre School District (CO) Teacher.

The design team’s next step is to analyze and synthesize the empathy data to define the problem from the point of view of the user. This definition should not be so broad that it’s impossible to solve, but also not so narrow that it limits innovation. One useful template that can help is a “How Might We” statement: How might we (action-oriented experience) for (our primary user) so that (desired outcome).

Diana Siliezar-Shields, a Science Curriculum Leader at Barrington Public Schools (RI) worked with her colleagues Laura Donegan and Kara West to co-design an Environmental Impact Project that emphasized the importance of problem definition. The project gave the students significant voice and choice in terms of the topic and the presentation method, but as this example shows, they also had to define the problem per the intended audience and defend that definition with evidence.

The time invested in the Empathy and Define steps allows the team to “go slow so we can go fast.” These steps provide the foundation for the ideation stage (aka brainstorming) and prevent the team from jumping straight to solutions for problems that don’t exist.

We have all been part of brainstorming sessions, but doing them well requires establishing some basic norms, such as these from IDEO U. One often overlooked norm is “quantity over quality,” where you want to encourage prolific, “out of the box” thinking and not filter ideas before they see the light of day. One Stone, a student-led school in Boise ID, takes this seriously, stressing that the best ideas come after the 50th idea!

After the divergent thinking of ideation comes prototyping where the team uses convergent thinking with analysis, synthesis, and the prioritization of big ideas based on potential benefit and feasibility. This leads to one or more prototypes, or what is sometimes called the “minimum viable product (MVP)” for your potential solution. Simply put, it’s a scaled-back version of the ultimate solution that is relatively easy to try out with users.

Peter McFarland, another Science Curriculum Leader at Barrington, uses prototyping as an integral part of his Earthquake Proof Building Project. Students assume roles of architects, engineers, and managers to develop prototypes that are tested and refined opposite design constraints. With the testing, they are also moving into the fifth and final stage of the process.

Testing is where the design team validates that their solution(s) indeed address user needs and solve the defined problem. Authentic improvement, therefore, is  validated via user feedback. But even if not successful, the feedback allows the team to better empathize with users, refine the problem definition, and generate better solutions. It’s this iterative nature of Design Thinking that helps move it from being just a tool to a mindset that can drive a culture of continuous improvement.

Andrew Harris, the CEO of the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies in Elizabeth City, NC points to Design Thinking in this manner by highlighting how in the early days of the pandemic, the school was able to quickly pivot to continue its environment of high quality Project Based Learning, even in a remote setting. “It was our culture of continuous improvement and design thinking that created the agility for us to respond in that manner,” Harris said.

And while each of the above examples highlight how Design Thinking can be effectively applied in a classroom or school context, it’s worth noting that its power also extends well into the realm of systemic and policy issues as well. For example, Liberatory Design and Equity Centered Community Design are two excellent resources that explicitly leverage the Design Thinking framework toward the critical issue of equity. In fact, these were resources that helped inform a design sprint that Adam Haigler (co-founder of Open Way Learning) and I recently had the privilege of conducting with members of the North Carolina Board of Education regarding their Equity & While Child Strategic Plan.

Adam Haigler facilitating the prototype phase of a Design Sprint with the NC Board of Ed, by Ben Owens.

Given the amount of time and energy educators and education stakeholders spend on continuous improvement, it only makes sense that we find ways to improve how we improve. Design Thinking is such a way. How can you use a Design Thinking mindset to drive more meaningful innovation and continuous improvement for your students?

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An Answer to Innovative Education “Beyond the Forest”

By: Matt Piercy

Transylvania: Literally “beyond the forest,” from Medieval Latin, from trans “beyond” (see trans-) + sylva (see sylvan). So-called in reference to the wooded mountains that surround it.  (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Though the world increasingly becomes more interconnected and technologically dependent, are we ultimately leading more purposeful lives?  Andreia Mitrea, edupreneur and CEO of Colina Learning Center (CLC), is committed to the design of an educational model to do exactly this. Wholeheartedly believing that the best learning for children happens when surrounded by thriving adults, Mitrea is targeting how to “make the most of your one great-tiny beautiful life.”

The pandemic highlighted many needs, amongst these, the importance of stronger intergenerational connections. We are beginning to see intergenerational career centers popping up, however at CLC, their integrated approach supersedes a binary notion of simply career and connection. The objectives go far wider, deeper, and longer; inclusive of body, mind, heart, and spirit.

In the Heart of Transylvania

CLC is located in northwestern Romania, in the city of Cluj-Napoca; the largest city in Transylvania. This burgeoning hub of IT and academic universities and institutions is equal distance between Bucharest and Budapest. Less than a six-hour drive. Dating back to the second century, Cluj was a Roman settlement. The city has since arrived on the international contemporary art stage and its opulent Baroque architecture, Bohemian cafes, and 30,000-strong student population all attest to being the perfect petri dish for a new design of education.

Set apart not only for its abundance of opportunity, Cluj is a city of openness and purity. Openness because in a survey of the European Commission published in the Eurostat Yearbook Statistics 2014, Cluj recorded 91% of its locals having a positive perspective concerning foreigners coming to make the city their home. And purity, because according to research published by the French magazine “We Demain,” Cluj ranked first for air quality among 100 large cities in the European Union.

Furthermore, CLC’s location allows for children and adults to be immersed in nature through hands-on learning. Their vision of a sustainable campus has many green features already in place. For example, gardens for learning and growing food on campus, a recycling center, solar energy, and is part of one of the first zero-waste communities in Romania. Further, a network of bicycling and walking trails attest to the community’s interest in minimizing its carbon footprint.  “Our learners will learn to be always aware of their impact on the planet and our environment.”

Gothic St. Michaels Church / Cluj-Napoca, Photo by Emilia Morariu on Unsplash
Outskirts of Cluj-Napoca / Barajul Drăgan-Floroiu, Photo by Paul Mocan on Unsplash

Shaping a Better Society

Many schools are beginning to give credence to the importance of place-based education and sustainability. However, how many are committed 100% to develop an integrated adult-child curriculum and that is experientially based? CLC aims to be the first school in the world to do this. Kept at the epicenter is a focus on maintaining or in some cases creating, learning cultures throughout every home.

Traditionally schools are steeped in compliance and knowledge; in that order. Break students and fill them with facts. Romanian schools were not spared. If anything, the country’s communist past set the roots of pacifism even deeper. Mitrea, the learning and impact enthusiast behind CLC, does not mince words. With no pretense, nor claims of how CLC is the panacea she concedes,

“We don’t believe we are for everyone. We are for dynamic, enlightened families who want to thrive in a connected world. The families of innovators and early adopters. The ones who are ok with bringing the future by actively co-creating it with us.”  And it sounds like an initial group of families is already in place, fully behind the mission and ready to co-create. “We actually call them ‘Founding Fathers and Mothers,’” said Mitrea. Big dreams but with small steps, as she likes to say.  In the initial pilot year, the focus is on developing a learning model for children and adults; both of equal importance.  This is because, at Colina, learning is not something that happens only at school. Instead, the undertaking is to support every member in the community on their own personal journey. One where learning has no endpoint.

Cluj has experienced remarkable growth in the IT sector during the last decade. According to Culture Trip, the city has more IT engineers per capita than the USA, China, India, or Russia. Cluj IT, founded in 2012, reports that Cluj “is on its way to becoming a major digital hub in Eastern Europe, as a city driven by innovation in which creativity, professionalism, resources, and opportunities come together for the ultimate goal: shaping a better society.” This is perfectly in line with an undertaking of making “the most of your one great-tiny beautiful life.”

As the world of work allows for greater autonomy, employees/learners will require more complex problem solving and intellectual tasks. As well as a need to continually be re-tooling, in effect to always be learning. So it is only sensible for schools to make a shift and design for a more integrated, social, and experientially-based approach. Where community, connection, sustainability, and purpose are all at the bedrock.

Firmly fixed in a belief that learning should make a difference now, not later; CLC students will learn experientially through highly personalized projects. Monday, September 6th is the official opening of CLC. Like all new schools, CLC will follow a similar process of accreditation and is registered to be accredited through New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC); an organization recognized by the Romanian Ministry of Education. New York State Learning Standards will be integrated into CLC’s customized Expeditionary Learning Methodology of education.

But “Exactly How?” Remains The Elephant in the Room

Project Censored, “The News That Didn’t Make the News” reported, “The definition of ‘smart cities’ is evolving to support cities being truly smart – with an integration of healthy technology, community-based institutions, and nature-based design.” So clearly, it is more than an Education 2.0 or a 5G smart city approach. CLC gets this!

For CLC, it is not about an educational “scheme.” Because it is not about scheming! It is about life and thriving. About “being truly smart.” Not simply about encouraging interaction between people at all ends of the lifespan, but intentionally building this into the design and then allowing for it to be organic. What if the internet’s underwater cables were not the only invisible force driving our connectivity? They are not. Mysterious, dynamic, and connected pathways similarly connect plants. Kate Kellaway elaborates upon this in a recent Guardian article titled, “Secrets of a Tree Whisperer: ‘They get along, they listen – they’re attuned.’” Might our communities endeavor to become more like the forests, diverse but also connected?  “Mycorrhizal networks,” of learners, organically connected across all ages and walks of life. Families and schools actively co-creating as one.

The optimism embedded in CLC’s vision is evident in their plan to scale to multiple locations. However, a realistic approach is to focus on today and establishing a fully integrated curriculum for children and adults.” This will take some time. “We are opening only for early ages, Preschool and Early Primary and we anticipate around 20 to 30 students initially. We will have exponential development later,” says a confident Mitrea.

As could be expected of this IT and start-up-rich city, a myriad of resources is available in Cluj. Driven by innovation and creativity, CLC is in a perfect position to let learners and life ultimately be the curriculum.

A look at Colina Learning Center’s temporary campus

For more, see:


Matt Piercy works at the International School Bangkok. You can follow him on Twitter @mpiercy35.   

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Nalukai Academy: Harvesting Hawai’i’s Next Generation of Leaders

Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike.

In the Native Hawaiian language, this means, “by doing, one learns” and is the stepping stone that empowers students (or “founders” as they are titled) at the Nalukai Academy Program on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi.

For Aaron Schorn, Nalukai’s Program Director, camp is the best two weeks out of the year. It is where a cohort of roughly 30 high school students from all the Hawaiian islands come together to build new skills of team development, entrepreneurship, leadership, intensive technology, and design in a culturally focused space. And it’s free.

“We are a social and cultural entrepreneurship organization,” said Schorn. “This is real, this is authentic and there is a purpose behind it. Every skill you learn, mentor you meet, skill you have — the reason is rooted in you. We build these capacities and mindsets and turn them into iterative realities.”

And that just scratches the surface of the Nalukai Startup Academy, a program that is not just another tech or entrepreneur program for students, explained Schorn.  It’s a place where the diverse youth of Hawaiʻi create their own waves of innovation through 21st-century skill-building but more significantly, space to mold intrinsic characteristics as a team and as an individual while rooted in Hawaiian culture.

An ever-increasing percentage of the cohort is of Hawaiian descent, shared Schorn. “You have to get the students to realize the power of their culture and their backgrounds. The program is rooted in group cohort culture and facilitating belonging.”

From the moment founders step into camp, a sense of community and culture is embraced. Students socialize in groups, create product teams, meet with staff, and collaborate with Hawaiʻi and global industry leaders and cultural practitioners who will assist their projects from ideation to execution. Nalukai’s program curriculum includes 5 areas of interest:

  • Digital storytelling – branding & marketing, content creation, web design
  • Leadership – project management, collaboration, team dynamics
  • Entrepreneurship – networking, investor pitches, business plan development
  • Design thinking –  prototyping, mind-mapping, iteration
  • Technology – coding, web development, digital business tools

By the end of the intensive two-week camp, each team will be ready to showcase their startup work through a formal ho’ike (showcase, presentation, celebration).

How does Nalukai ensure innovative project success for their learners? They bring the community in. How do they challenge the reach and scope of what learning communities are? Schorn summarizes it best,

“When school is rooted in the relationship between student and mentor, that’s when it is successful. We don’t have our alumni as interns, we have them be key leaders and stakeholders in the organization. We need to actualize the ideas and strategies of the youth.” He continued “Nalukai is all about working on teams. From the coder, the writer, to the cultural practitioner. We are redefining the relationship between the adult and the learner; the mentor and the mentee.”

Whether the goal is to move off of the islands or stay in Hawaiʻi, Nalukai Academy is the connecting force that will allow Hawaiʻi’s next generation of leaders to have an impact and create better futures for their community.

“How do you teach someone to get their ideas out into the world?” Schorn emphasized. For Nalukai, one thing is certain; this academy strives to answer this question each year when the program sees its new set of Hawaiʻi future leaders through its camp doors.

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Are You Putting Learners First? Here are 8 Ways to Check Yourself

By: Rebecca Midles and Laura Hilger

For as long as there have been schools, there has been the knowledge that schools need to change. This tension often exists at the intersection of power and equity. To combat this tension, numerous new terms, new ideologies and reframings have been created — but perhaps none are as promising as learner-centered design.

When systems say they are learner-centered this means that the system is designed for and by learners. As educators, we have signed up to put learners first, a commitment that varies across the globe within different educational systems. Oftentimes, this dedication to being learner-centered is a defining characteristic of educators who are considered to be professionals and artists of their craft.

If we are really here to do the work of serving every learner, where they are, in real-time so that they become agents for their own learning who are prepared for life after high school, it’s necessary that we make a shift to students-centered practices that ground in anti-oppressive practices, inclusivity and cultural responsiveness.

Student-Centered Learning, sometimes referred to as the aforementioned learner-centered education, encompasses the idea that instruction should be shifted to focus on each and every student’s needs. This focus on students typically means disrupting traditional constraints like seat time, grade bands, state accountability, and many of the relics of education’s past that reinforce systems of power, marginalization, bias and inequitable interventions. This approach also invites radically different systems and structures at the fullest level of implementation.

Unfortunately, all too often, well-intentioned student-centered models, policies, projects and even magnet schools develop such a mission, only to veer off the path and become adult-centered before they are able to truly and deeply embed the student-centered culture and components. It can be hidden well, although often inadvertently, and in order to make needed shifts, it’s important we call out what practices can contribute to adult-centered, and student-centered learning. We have identified eight signs that educators and edleaders can look for to reflect on the ways learners are at the center of learning and whenever possible, driving the learning.

Innovative Use of Time

When looking at the daily schedule, consider how the innovative use of time and scheduling aligns to and nourishes the vision you have for your learning community, how it grows learner agency, cultivates learner readiness, and enables procedural efficiency with flexibility.

The traditional school calendar that was influenced long ago by the agrarian summer break and national holidays has not changed for the majority of our school systems. The challenge of bus schedules is still often cited when learning teams are trying to design creative use of time and move away from a universal start and end time in order to find more “flex” time. In some cases, students are having to move across campus to get to classes and often may not even choose an elective because of the distance traveled in a designated passing time. There have been attempts and some success with rethinking in-service days, instructional prep time, and interim learning sessions between semesters, but for the most part, this structure can be a significant obstacle to being more systematically set up to be learner-centered.

Guiding Questions for Innovative use of Time

  • Why is there a need to change our master schedule?
  • What is the purpose of a master schedule and how can these goals be met in other ways?
  • How might you design schedules that better align to your learner-centered shared vision?
  • What are the current barriers that your community faces when looking at changing the schedule, and which one(s) can you begin to dismantle?

Possible Look Fors

  • Personalized time in the schedule to focus on their learning needs
  • Offers extended learning time (exploratory, intensive, intercession, Interims) for learners to grow in fields of their choice. Options supported by equitable access (transportation, etc.)
  • A consistent dedicated time for advisory to mentor and support personalized learning needs and goals
  • A transparent and systemic procedure for schedule changes to support learner readiness so that when a learner is ready for the next level or course (depending on what is best for the learner) they do not have to wait for a quarter or semester break
  • Embedded professional learning time

Flexible Grouping of Learners

Flexible grouping aligns to learner needs and context which supports flexible pacing, leading to a system that allows learners to advance upon mastery rather than seat time or age. When cohorts of learners are based on age over strategic learner readiness, you are less likely to have personalized learning at a deep level for each and every learner. Learners deserve academic content that is appropriately challenging with support they need and teachers that are prepared for those levels – versus the artificial push and pull of getting everyone to the same spot.

Often, the grouping of learners can be directed by the teacher’s schedule and their content area with the additional layers of class sizes or timing of course offerings. Offerings such as electives, AP or math classes can be lynchpins for designing learning options and often create obstacles for personalized learning. In addition, labeling learners by permanently sorting or tracking results in an inequitable system that is based on privilege, access, and convenience. Alternatively, flexible grouping gives educators and learners the freedom to move based on learner needs by content, context, or social-emotional priorities.

In the landscape of needed equitable structures, when a freshman class requires prerequisites, a system needs to review whether all middle schools provide this opportunity. If not, is the sorting outcome worth the change? Is the prerequisite more about the adults or the learners, and if learners – for all learners or just a few? Many systems address this with pre-assessments or one-to-one meetings to share expectations, but why not reconsider the onramp by reviewing the final outcomes that are intended with this class? If it is to access higher rigor earlier, why not imbed that in all courses, all the time, by implementing a more personalized learning approach within the content and context?

Guiding Questions

  • Where might you begin using learner needs to drive group formations?
  • When students show readiness for the next level of rigor that is beyond a grade-level content – what is the process? Consequently, when learners need more scaffolding to reach what is being presented, what are the supports?
  • How do you build a system that is anti-tracking, and adjusts groupings based on needs in real-time?
  • How could you provide or increase equitable access to rigorous coursework?

Possible Looks Fors

  • At the classroom level, learner groups are fluid
  • At the classroom level, depending on the learning requirement, learner groups are based on readiness, learner choice, context, engagement, and/or how the content is represented in alignment with learner needs/interests
  • As needed, learners move to different groups upon demonstration of learning
  • At the systems level, scheduling processes support flexibility and what is best for learners within that context (i.e., moving the learner now vs. waiting until the quarter or semester)
  • Learner needs drive the groupings

Sequence and Documentation of Learning

An inclusive process was used to design the systemic, aligned, accessible, and essentialized learning continuum that is culturally responsive, non-biased and anti-racist, and shows what all learners need to know and be able to do. The learning continuum drives all teaching, learning, and curricular resource decision-making.

When a system has a canon or a third-grade curriculum, the concept of this structure can often be intended for the adults that deliver the instruction and the provided resources. Personalized systems have aligned essential learning goals that show what all learners need to know and be able to do and provide options and flexibility for resource selection and context. The look fors or learning goal indicators are common but the process may vary.

Guiding Questions

  • Are standards/competencies embedded in your curriculum?
  • To what degree have you essentialized your standards/competencies, and aligned them as a system?
  • Which content areas need systemic alignment attention now?
  • How will you put together a team or create collaborative involvement opportunities for your community to co-create the learning continuum?
  • Does unit testing happen as students need it, or on Friday before the weekend? What are the gathered points of evidence to show either a learner or the group of learners are ready for a summative assessment?

Possible Look Fors

  • A systemic, aligned PK-12 continuum of learning standards and/or competencies has been prioritized for both academic and SEL/non-academic expectations
  • All levels of the learning community were involved in the design of the learning continuum
  • At the classroom level, educators and learners use these standards or competencies to drive teaching and learning
  • The continuum is accessible by all, for all levels of learning so that everyone can see what is required from one level to the next
  • Curricular resources that are being used are aligned to the learning continuum; resources are allocated based on the learning continuum

Assessment Literacy and Practices

Educators work together to design quality common measurement tools aligned to the learning continuum such as rubrics to enable both educators and learners to provide feedback on the learning, growing assessment capable learners. These assessments are transparent and accessible to the entire learning community. Based on readiness, a variety of types of aligned assessments are provided for learners over multiple opportunities, grounded in learner choice. Over time, learners are part of the assessment design process, leading how they will show what they’ve learned.

Guiding Questions

  • To what degree are assessments aligned to the standards/competencies required for learning?
  • To what degree are we using common assessment tools as a PLC or content team?
  • How are we using assessments with our learners?

Possible Look Fors

  • Common assessment tools such as rubrics are aligned to the learning continuum and being actively used at the classroom level
  • Feedback is aligned to the assessment
  • The assessment is not a secret; instead, it is accessible and used throughout the learning experience
  • A variety of formative assessment opportunities takes place through the learning journey
  • Learners have choices in how they demonstrate their learning
  • Learners are aware of the rubric, can speak about the rubric, and are using it to drive assessment practices such as self-assessments and peer assessments
  • As ready, learners can use the rubric to design how they are going to demonstrate their learning

Grading Practices (or Recording and Reporting)

The systemic grading practices focus on showing what has been learned aligned to the learning continuum rather than cumulative letter grades, seat time, or non-academic behaviors such as penalization for late assignments. The concept of grading is about what a learner earned, not what was given.

For time-based traditional systems, the final learning mark/grade for quarters/semesters can be an average of scores, and not all averaged scores are created equal. A grading process may be a mixed percentage of assignments, formative assessments (like quizzes) and summative assessments (like tests, projects, presentations) mixed in with either behavior, effort or extra work. Because educators tend to work in subjective silos with grading practices, this leads to a variety of grading methods resulting in inequitable outcomes. In addition, these individual scores can be based on a random collection of marks and different pedagogical approaches, approaches that may or may not allow retakes, or shared learning criteria, and thus can make it difficult for learners to have agency within this structure.

Some learning systems have moved toward inviting learners to revisit marks on their work to improve, grow and ultimately earn proficiency for a learning outcome. Others look at separating the habits of a learner or work ethic separate from the content learning. In a personalized learning system, the grades should not be a surprise or a feeling of wait and see. In this same vein, a grade is a point in time about where a learner is and therefore, the grade is not static.

Guiding Questions

  • What is our data telling us about our learners’ progress and how does that relate to how we report out on learning and goals?
  • How might we make our grading practices more equitable?
  • Are learners aware of learning outcomes and expectations?
  • What are the routes for learners to refine or revisit their learning?

Possible Look Fors

  • The system reports out on the progress of the learning using the standards/competencies
  • Non-academic learning such as SEL, if assessed, is assessed separately from academic learning
  • The system has a strategic plan or goal for moving away from letter grades and a first step might be that zeros and Fs are no longer used

Instructional Framework

Changing how learning is reported does not directly change the way learning happens. A shared vision of learning requires teachers and related stakeholders to come together to define what they want for their graduates and learners. This vision has to be for all learners, with thoughtful inclusion as the driver.  If the framework is not about the needs of all learners then it is not learner-centered and continues the practice of education for some or most but not all learners.

An instructional framework is about the learning design that supports this vision – the strategies, the assessment practices, the data that is collected, and how learning is supported, nurtured and captured. At the district level, it becomes the essential driver for professional learning and resource allocation.

A systemic instructional framework grounded in what the community believes about teaching and learning drives professional learning opportunities and modes and provides a common language for educators to discuss where they are in their professional practice and what they need to do in order to improve. How this framework translates into a classroom can and should have learners at the center of that work helping to co-design the environment.

Guiding Questions

  • What is an instructional framework?
  • Why is an instructional framework important?
  • Where is our learning community at with designing and/or using an instructional framework, and what might be some next steps?
  • What teaching strategies support the teaching and learning vision?
  • How does a teacher know what they are doing well and what support they need?

Possible Look Fors

  • The framework and educator readiness drives our professional learning opportunities, feedback, and continuous improvement
  • Educators can speak about the instructional framework
  • The use of the framework across different campuses, classrooms, and PLCs is evident

Learning Culture

The culture is designed with the learners to cultivate belonging. Learners are part of the decision-making, community agreement development, shared accountability processes, goal setting, and celebrations. The learning ecosystem depends on their leadership, their commitment and their needs.

The role of student leadership within a learner-centered community is collaborative in nature and their roles entail active involvement in decision making, brainstorming solutions and creating community agreements. Leadership in this context is more than a label and creates space for codesign, mutual accountability and active responsive structures. This can also transfer to the concept of ranking learners with titles and honors; some systems have completely done away with the titles of valedictorian and salutatorian or have settled with a Latin honor distinction which makes space for recognition for groups of learners.

Another key component of every learning culture is discipline. Originally meant to convey learning, it is often an inequitable gotcha game, and counterintuitive to a system dedicated to learning. Because certain types of learner behavior are expected, a learner-centered system ensures that this is not only being taught but celebrated. Alternatively, when social-emotional learning is referred to as a soft skill it implies that it is not as important as academic learning and can be either an add-on or supplementary. If a system teaches learning behaviors, then the growth in this area should be shared alongside academic learning–if it is not, then it is truly a soft attempt and supplementary over primary in design.

Guiding Questions

  • To what degree do we have active community agreements?
  • How do we hold ourselves and each other accountable for our learning culture?
  • How do we celebrate our learning culture?
  • What is our goal-setting process for our culture?

Possible Look Fors

  • Behavior expectations and developing a culture of belonging are taught
  • Learner created community agreements drive behavior expectations
  • Discipline processes/protocols are systemic and aligned to the community agreements (Restorative Justice, Circles, Peer mentors, etc.)
  • Learners help nourish the community by making decisions for both problem-solving and celebrating
  • Goal setting structures are explicitly taught and are active at all levels of the organization

Flexible Use of Space

The learning environment is set up so that learners have agency over their learning space to decide where they will learn best for that particular context. The learning community then dedicates resources to get creative with its use of space, which includes expanding learning opportunities beyond the classroom walls as well as online learning options. Off-campus learning requires intentionality towards growing authentic community and business partnerships that are dedicated to learners.

Guiding Questions

  • In what ways do learners get to choose where they will learn? Why is this important?
  • Where is your district at with extending learning beyond the traditional classroom walls?
  • What is possible with offering rich learning experiences outside of the classroom?
  • How equitable are your extended learning opportunities?
  • How are you leveraging community partnerships?

Possible Look Fors

  • Innovative school structure and use of space
  • Collaborative spaces
  • Learner choice with where to learn
  • Access to rigorous and meaningful extended learning opportunities
  • Relationships with engaged community and business partnerships

Collaboratively, the learning community intentionally develops agency at all levels of the organization so that each and every learner graduates choice ready. Our educator’s promise to learners is that they leave our system with agency. Our charge then, is that each and every educator becomes a change agent for equitable student-centered learning systems that grow this promise of agency.

Where will you get started?

For more, see:


Laura Hilger is the Director of Teaching and Learning at KnowledgeWorks. She has spent her entire career devoted to learning communities and systemic change, working as a classroom teacher, a dean of students and an assistant principal, as well as an instructional coach in nine states. 

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