To Improve Learning, First Seek to Understand the Learners

According to a Gallup Education poll, students that strongly agree that they “feel excited about the future” and that their school is “committed to building the strengths of each student” are 30 times more to show signs of engagement in the classroom compared to those that disagree with those statements. Ensuring students feel valued and understand their purpose for learning is foundational to their success in school and in life. 

To delve into this issue of engagement and the fact that less than 40% of their students were meeting the requirements to be eligible for college, a group of high school teachers interviewed their students to better understand the challenges in their context. They were genuinely surprised and saddened as they came to a blatant realization: A significant percentage of their students are disconnected from their own academic experience and its implications on their futures.  One teacher’s reflection highlighted the group’s realization that, “So many students fall through the cracks. I want to find a way to reach each student, and to help them see the joy in learning.” This is a common desire among educators as most would agree that this is a large part of why we chose this career path.

Although these teachers were committed to helping their students to be successful in school, they hadn’t understood the implications of the larger system that had become a barrier to learning in their classrooms.   When teachers listened to students describe their lack of agency in their education and their own success post high school, they began to see the challenges through a different lens. Their desire to empower students was evident throughout the process as ideas for mentoring programs to connect with adults on campus, connecting students to the world of work, advisory classes, and creating digital portfolios to highlight the learning process emerged.  This different lens allowed these committed educators to envision new solutions to address a need on campus.  There was a sense of hope that they could help change the course of their students’ future, which rekindled their passion for teaching and learning.

Leadership is about


Empathizing with their students enabled these teachers to see the root of the problems they were trying to solve. They  began to understand that to make any real change in how students learn, they needed to allow for their interests and goals to drive learning.  To do this, however, students have to understand their strengths, see their place in school and the world, and be empowered to figure out where they are going.  This example highlights a larger challenge that we are facing today in our current system that continues to perpetuate existing gaps in the skills that are required for life, the world of work, and citizenship.

In their book, Most Likely to Succeed, Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith paint a bleak picture of  what is at stake if we don’t dramatically change our education system.

“Our country may continue to stumble from education reform to education reform like a drunken sailor.  In the process, we’ll continue churning out millions of students each year with no real skills and no fighting chance in life. We’ll prioritize measuring irrelevant things and drill innovation and creativity out of our youth. A small number of our most talented will  will escape the damage of school and go on to create successful companies and unimaginable wealth.  Our wealthiest parents will continue to get kids into top colleges, arrange the “right” internships, and–despite education’s failings– help their advantaged kids pull ahead.  The rest will plod through enervating school years, leave with abysmal career prospects, and have citizenship skills no better than mob psychology.  As the ranks of chronically unemployed youth swell, the rift between the unrelenting rich and the disenfranchised rest will rip our society apart.  We will fail as a country, not because other nations defeated us but because we defeated ourselves.”

Most teachers I have worked with desire to build relationships with students and help them find and develop their unique talents, and to see the joy in learning, but many feel this is at odds with expectations to move through structured curriculum and the emphasis on GPAs.  This tension exists in many classrooms and creates a barrier to powerful learning. We need to create an educational system that not only casts a vision for developing students who flourish in the rapidly changing world, but that also empowers them to develop the skills, dispositions, and mindsets that are critical to their success.

There is wide agreement that we need to rethink the outdated factory model of education. The push for authentic, personalized learning isn’t new.  Many have advocated for learner-centered, constructivist approaches in education but these models have too often been the outliers rather than the norm.    Increasing access to content and the ability to network and share ideas, not only allows for deeper learning, it demands that educational institutions are reimagined to cultivate learners that thrive in our rapidly changing world.

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