10 Characteristics of Learner Centered Experiences  

Education Reimagined defines the paradigm shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered as shifting how we see learners and their critical role in their own learning now, and throughout their lives. The critical shift is that “Learners are seen and known as wondrous, curious individuals with vast capabilities and limitless potential. This paradigm recognizes that learning is a lifelong pursuit and that our natural excitement and eagerness to discover and learn should be fostered throughout our lives, particularly in our earliest years.” When we focus on learners, connect to their interests, needs, and goals, we can create experiences that ignite curiosity, develop passion, and unleash genius.  As I work with diverse educators and talk with students, there are common characteristics that always surface when people share powerful learning experiences. They often share experiences that are: personal, allow learners to exert agency, have goals and accountability, they are inquiry-based, collaborative, authentic, allow for productive struggle, provide and use models, ensure time for critique and revision as well as reflection.

As I think about some of the most impactful learning experiences in my own life, they align with the same characteristics that I hear from others. One of the most recent and definitely impactful learning experiences was the opportunity to participate in a TEDx event and do a talk along with some amazing friends and educators. My experience encompassed diverse opportunities for growth and empowered me to grow and learn significantly. Reflecting on my own learning and what others share with me regularly makes me think about the how we learn in schools and how critical it is to create the conditions that support learner-centered experiences in diverse classrooms.

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Personal 

In an effort to create more purpose and autonomy in schools, there is an increased focus on personalized learning.  This is a good thing but it can also be overwhelming for those who are responsible for the outcomes to allow learners (educators and students) to learn in ways that meet their needs. Too often for the sake of “convenience” we standardize learning experiences that rarely meet the needs for all.  Instead, personal learning connects to learner’s beliefs, strengths, experiences, and passions to start from where the learner is and move forward from the towards the desired learning goals.

As I reflected on this and connected it to the TedX experience, I realized that what made it personal is that I got to choose the content and had the autonomy to organize the talk in a way that made sense to me. What is also important to note is that nobody else spent time making this a personalized learning experience for me. The goals were the same for all of us- 8 minutes to share your idea worth spreading. The difference was in the flexibility and resources to learn in ways that met our unique goals and needs. I had access to resources on public speaking to watch at my own pace and set milestones to reach along the way that directly related to developing and delivering the talks.

Agency

To support my learning I had access to an online course with a variety of modules. If there was a course that I wasn’t interested in or was not helpful at the moment, I skipped it and found additional resources that best helped me to meet my overall goal, not micromanaged to complete each and every task. Everything I learned was purposeful and related to growing my own expertise and confidence to be at my personal best and I was held accountable by an authentic task.

What these experiences have continuously taught me is that we can’t control the learners and simultaneously expect them to be motivated without opportunities to exert agency in the learning process. Agency comes from the power to act and requires learners to have the ability to make decisions and take ownership of their own behaviors in the process.  To close this gap in how we want to learn in schools will require changing how we design learning experiences for educators.  

Goals + Accountability

From the time we finalized the speaker list to the event date, we had four weeks to prepare our talks and it was intense!  We backwards mapped our plan from the date of the even and created a plan and strategic goals to be ready in time. I had weekly check-ins with coaches and assignments each week that were directly related to crafting the speech.   At the end of the four weeks, I was accountable for delivering an 8-minute talk and my own level of accountability to bring my personal best far exceeded any external measures that anyone else could have placed on me.

We often prioritize what we are held accountable and for this very reason accountability systems are set in place to check homework, take attendance and make sure that you taught the curriculum.  This is where the accountability gets a bad rap. Often times because it is easier to measure, we hold people accountable for standardized tests, grades, and other data that is easy to capture yet often fail to set goals and hold others accountable for developing the skills that we say we actually care about like creative thinking, complex thinking and problem solving, communication, and innovation.

Inquiry-based

 Inevitably, when learners are posing questions and seeking answers, they are more invested than if they are being told what to think or do.  In my case it was, ‘What makes a great talk?’ and ‘How can I best organize and share my ideas?’ I was motivated read, watch, listen to a lot of different speakers to organize my ideas and develop the talk and the slides.  When challenges are presented or learners can find their own to solve, they are often more intrinsically motivated to seek answers to questions that they are genuinely interested in figuring out.

Collaboration

Although I was the only one on stage, this was far from an individual endeavor.  I had to work with many people along the way that was critical to the process. I called on different individuals based on their strengths throughout the process.  And at times, when I wasn’t ready I had a team that pulled me along and made sure that I was pushed to do my best. The face to face collaboration was important but I wasn’t limited by that as I could reach out to others in my network and learn from diverse individuals. Creating opportunities for learners to build on the strengths of others and work together allows for new and better ideas to emerge.  When we are exposed to diverse ideas and perspectives, we grow in our own practice and impact others as well.

Authentic

My excitement and anxiety about the event was fueled by the public accountability of my performance in front of people I really admire. Also, the fact that it was being recorded for anyone to see took it up a notch too. Having this experience reinforced the importance of creating opportunities for students to share their work beyond the classroom. Connecting students with experts, peers and other learners allow for a different level of accountability and authentic feedback than one gets from simply handing something into a teacher for a grade. Experiences, where learners get to solve a challenge that is meaningful and relevant to their context, can empower learners to take action and do something that matters to them and others.

Critique + Revision

Over course of the four weeks, I had many, many iterations of my talk.  The first ones were bad. Really bad. Thankfully, nobody was grading my first drafts and I had multiple opportunities for critique and revision.  I had to push myself to practice in front of my peers, knowing it was far from perfect.  Feedback, by nature, will unearth some things that need to improve and is not always easy to hear. But if we don’t create conditions where feedback is part of the process, how can we expect real growth in our learning?

With each version that I shared it with my friends and family and coaches, it got better (never perfect). Instead of expecting the first draft to be the best, we need to realize that with time, clarity, critique and revision, we are capable of much more than we realize. When we raise our expectations and create the conditions to achieve those expectations, people will often go above and beyond. It is important to deliberately create the conditions where learners feel valued and can openly share challenges to grow and improve as a critical part of the learning process.  

Productive Struggle

Creating an environment where learners are encouraged to take risks in pursuit of learning and growth rather than perfection is absolutely foundational to shifting practices. I know a lot of people have done these talks or some version of them and it’s not a big deal. I also had people tell me that is it would be their worst nightmare. It definitely was a step out of my comfort zone but within reach and I am thankful for the opportunity to push myself.  This reminded me of one of my students in 7th grade who had just moved from the Philippines and his English was not very strong yet.  I had assigned each student do a presentation and he wouldn’t do it. I could have tried to force him or I could have failed him but instead, I asked if he would be willing to share his presentation with me and a friend.  He thought about it and agreed.  This was the right amount of struggle for him and a safe learning environment, whereas the for the others it was in front of the class and in other venues.  The learning task has to be within the right zone and allow for a productive struggle or some learners will shut down if they feel it is too far out of reach, even if you threaten them with a failing grade.  This also means that the right task or product will likely be different based on the learners in the class.

Models

While I was preparing for my talk I watched a lot of TED Talks. They helped me see how great speakers put their stories together, how to craft their slide deck, and how they connect with their audience. Each time I watched, I had a different focus depending on where I was as a learner. Models are so powerful in the learning process but so often in school, we have this fear of copying or cheating.  There is a lot of talk about creating rather than consuming but to create something better, I relied on models to inspire new ideas, build off of and stimulate my own thinking and creativity. No matter how much I loved Brene Brown or Simon Sinek’s talk, I couldn’t copy them but they did inspire me in a lot of ways. If an assignment has only one right answer or final product, maybe there are some opportunities for it to be revised.

Reflection

Reflection is often the forgotten part of the learning process, in a fast moving world, taking time to pause and reflect can easily get cut when we lack time but it is often the most valuable part of the learning process. I videotaped myself and although this was painful and I hated every minute of watching it, it helped me see what I looked like and sounded like and reflect on where I could improve. Taking in what I had learned from others, the feedback I received and figuring out how to make the changes in my own way, was critical to my growth.

I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on the 10 characteristics.  What am I missing?  What could be revised?

14 Replies to “10 Characteristics of Learner Centered Experiences  ”

  1. Katie, I particularly liked the “productive struggle” commentary which included your example of the kid who agreed to give a presentation in front of a few people instead of a group. That solution struck an important balance between devising an easy task and an impossible one. It reminds me how hard it is to know– for each individual student– the ideal activity which strikes a balance between those two extremes. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for sharing your connections. I always appreciate your insights.

  2. Katie, I love how you connect these characteristics to your TEDx talk (which was awesome by the way) as well as classroom examples. Your examples show how powerful all of these characteristics are in order to create better learning experiences for all. When broken down like this, I feel like shifting to learner centered is much more manageable and not nearly as overwhelming!

    1. Thanks, Annick! Happy to hear it makes it feel more manageable:)

  3. Hi Katie,
    It’s an amazing post. I’m glad to find out that there’re a lot of teachers taking part in Educational changes and improvements around the world. Thanks for sharing your ideas. What do you think if I write an adaptation of your text for Spanish speakers for my website. Don’t you think it’s a good idea?

    1. Hi Javier, I love that idea as long as you credit this post. Thanks.

  4. Wow… I love this post! I reread “Productive Struggle” because it immediately went to my heart. That is such an important characteristic! Breaking it down for Ts is just as important as for Ss… thank you!

  5. Great information! I am a school librarian and used these characteristics in self-evaluating my role. As it turns out, the weakest for me (authentic) happens to be my goal for this school year. Wonderful info.

    1. I love that you used it to evaluate yourself! Thanks for sharing.

  6. […] 10 Characteristics of Learner Centered Experiences   – Katie Martin […]

  7. […] 10 Characteristics of Learner Centered Experiences (Katie Martin Blog) Education reimagined defines the paradigm shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered as shifting how we see learners and their critical role in their own learning now, and throughout their lives. The critical shift is that “Learners are seen and known as wondrous, curious individuals with vast capabilities and limitless potential. […]

  8. kia ora (greetings) Katie

    I always enjoy your writing – well done. The work we have done with schools over the last ten years has taught us that learner agency requires two sets of capabilities and these are:

    1. That learners need to be competent with an understanding of their identity, thinking and questioning, being able to manage self and that they can collaborate with their peers and educators effectively.

    2. The second aspect that needs to be in place is that learners need to have clarity surrounding the Learning Process. The need to know how to apply that process to a range of different levels of understanding. An inquiry is often suggested but very rarely defined.

    The 200 page PDF resource ‘The Future of Learning’ can be downloaded from here http://bit.ly/2xDlxXg or from http://www.MarkTreadwell.com at no charge. This resource outlines these two issues and many others. All the best with your work.

    Mark Treadwell

    1. Thanks, Mark!

  9. […] 10 Characteristics of Learner Centered Experiences   – KATIE MARTIN. Education Reimagined defines the paradigm shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered as shifting how we see learners and their critical role in their own learning now, and throughout their lives. […]

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