The Danger of ‘Student-Centered’ (25/365)

Photo by Vladimir Kramer on Unsplash

Raise your hand if you’ve said or heard the term “student-centered” in relation to whatever system you’re working in?

Okay. That looks like everyone. Now, let’s stop doing that.

Unfeeling monster that I am, I cringe each time I hear the term student-centered. Lest you start thinking me beyond salvation, give me a chance to explain.

It has to do with the Law of Unintended Consequences. If we claim we want our educational systems to be student-centered, it behooves us to then ask, “What is the worst consequence of our best idea?

Student-centered systems (or worse, student-centered philosophies) will inevitably justify inhumane, uncaring, or incompassionate practices toward non-student members of the system. You’ve been in this faculty meeting. Adults’ negative feelings or alternative points of view are shut down by the gentle but firm reminder, “We are a student-centered school.” No one wants to raise their hand and appear anti-student, so they remain quiet and passive. Or, at least they do so outwardly.

Repeated over the course of several months or years, this anti-adult or myopic view of who our educational organizations must consider as being in their care starts to burn out some of its most caring members because they begin to resent the lack of a reciprocity of care and valuing of well being. When these people leave, they may be easy to write off by leadership as not being able to hack it in a truly student-centered environment. Even if this is the true cause of teachers’ resignations, it is cause for great concern.

Student-centered organizations are naturally incentivized to be harmful to teachers and, in turn, to students. The cumulative effect of being repeatedly asked to set aside one’s own legitimate self-interests and care in exchange for an other is likely to be some level of quiet resentment of the other.

Then What?
To argue against student-centered and suggest nothing in its place could be akin to saying, “Do what feels right” in schools. That’s also not an argument I’m interested in supporting.

Instead of student-centered, let us make decisions based on whether a given choice is learning-centered. More specifically, let us decide matters based on the answer to the question, “All things considered, which choice or action is most likely to improve the learning in this space?”

Asking some variation of this question when considering shifting teaching loads, revising a schedule, adopting new resources, implementing new systems of student or teacher assessment, planning professional development – you get the idea. Asking it in any situation and realizing “all things considered” includes adults and children inside and outside the school is more likely to lead to a decision that is more sustainable than the “Is it student-centered?” question is likely to surface.

Such an inclusive approach to shifting within a system is also more likely to invite input and conversation along the way. An administrator can sit at their desk and more easily make the student-centered decision on her own. To make the learning-centered decision, she is more likely to recognize the factors unknown to her. These realizations are the likely to lead her to seek opinions and input from those who know what she does not.

An example.

I have always been uncoupled in my work as an educator. Single and without kids of my own, I’ve consistently been on my school or district’s go-to team for activities outside the school day. Back to school nights, open houses, coaching, chaperoning – you know the stuff. I and my other single, childless friends have always been not asked, but expected to fill these roles. While I’m always happy to pitch in and help, it’s not always in my best interest. In some of the more frantic times of the year, the rapid fire of these requests becomes deleterious to my ability to perform regular, day-to-day tasks. You know, teaching and stuff.

Having the singles perform these roles is easier for the system and gets the bodies a system needs in the room. (You know, for the kids.) It is a student-centered way of thinking that fails to take into account how repeated asks of a specific group of adults might adversely effect students and learning later.

A learning-centered approach would recognize these constraints and invite input and conversation for how to more equitably meet the needs of all people in the system in service of learning. At the least, it would make room for concerns to be raised. At the most, it might uncover other ways systems aren’t working and re-evaluate approaches to such events.

A final word on the use of student-centered touched on only lightly above. That is the use of the term to incite guilt in those voicing opposition to a view or action. Those who do so are using the term as shorthand for “If you don’t like this idea, you’re probably against kids.” Not only is this mean, it is choosing what is easiest over what is right. Learning is messy work and it is difficult work requiring many voices and uncomfortable conversations. Making choices because they are easy and can be couched in language when we fear or prefer to avoid the messiness builds systems on ideas unworthy of the public good with which we have been entrusted.

How Not to Build the Systems You Hate

framing hammer collection 2007

Quite a bit, I get to work with schools and districts as they work to think through their strategic plans. Visions and mission statements are set. They are quickly complemented by action items and assignments of responsibility. An excitement, a fervor start to pass over those assembled. This is it! They are finally moving!

And then I stop things.

Anyone who has begun this work has done so because the status quo is no longer acceptable. They have become frustrated because so much of what is being done is justified by the way the system has operated in the past. They’ve always done it that way. Over and over again, folks are upset by the sturdiness of the system. Banging and clawing at it, they’ve gotten me in the room after a prolonged fight.

So, I ask, “Where is the timeline for review?”


We are in the room because of frustration over a lack of reconsideration of priorities. There has been no institutional process for reflecting on whether things are going well. More often than not, the newly proposed system (no matter how forward-thinking) is equally devoid of review.

As much as they may recognize the need for student reflection, for professional pause to consider their practice, they have not thought to include it in their new plans for their schools and districts.

It’s possible they see their new mission, vision, and the lot as perfect. I don’t think that’s it. More likely, they are excited by he possibility of change. The immediate future overrides the later possible.

And that’s why I stop things.

Without planning a process for review, they have doomed themselves to repeat the past. They have cemented the status quo. Without intending to, they have built a structure against which future members of the community will hit their heads.

They have made the arbitrary.

That’s the key for anyone building something new. You are creating something of value to you with deep theoretical roots planted in the soil of today.

This is how the systems you’re fighting against were begun.

Build something better.

This doesn’t mean anticipating the future. As anyone with a platform and technological megaphone will tell you, we can’t anticipate the future. Instead, it means anticipating the future will need something else – something specific to the time.

In any system, the arbitrary is the most unfair. It is the thing to which people point and say, “Well, it’s always been that way.” It is the immovable that most needs moving.

So, we stop things and look at the system they have designed and start asking where it makes sense for future community members to be called upon to examine the status quo for cracks in the foundation.

What makes sense today will be the status quo of tomorrow. It will come replete with the seemingly arbitrary trapping of “we’ve always done it this way”, and that is reason enough to guard against it.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

I’m Counting on Someone Else to Take Care of That

For the last 11 years or so, my life, the people, and the conversations that have comprised that life have been largely focused on education. Few are the folks I call friends who cannot hang in a conversation about education, school, learning, and the like.

I decided a little over a decade ago that this field, this ecosystem, would be the thing on which I focused my attention, my days and nights. I’ve had the opportunity to approach the conversation from various vantage points throughout the last few years. From a classroom, to a school, to a district, to a national perspective.

Talking with family over the recent holidays, someone asked how I could resist working in other fields outside of education. “Why not work on affordable housing or civic infrastructure,” they’d asked. The crux of it was a question as to how I could ignore these other problems and focus solely on improving one system.

It’s a good question, and I’d be lying if I claimed to not have wrestled with it pretty regularly.

Here’s the answer I keep coming back to, “This is the thing I’m trying to work on, and I am best at working on that if I have faith other smart, dedicated, curious people are working on the other problems I care about.”

This isn’t a claim of being especially talented at the work I show up to do each day. I do my best, and hope it’s good enough.

It’s really more a statement of faith that there are folks who have shown up to do work to solve the other problems I care about as well – climate change, institutional poverty, civic infrastructure, voter rights. The list goes on.

Sometimes, there’s a feeling that not making something my life’s work is the same thing as not making something a thing I care about in my life. The answer for this is the informal focus I try to throw on the stuff that’s not my day-to-day. I’m working on being a Jack of all trades and master of one.

And whether it’s well-placed or not, I’ve gotta believe that other people show up to their jobs each day with the same feeling and approach. Believing otherwise would be to invite a feeling that it’s all too much. I can’t be all the changes I wish to see in the world. Instead, I have to try to be one of those changes and hope everyone else read that quote as a charge to do something else.

Instead of a Teachers’ Declaration of Independence…

Dunlap Broadside [Declaration of Independence]


“No life is a waste,” the Blue Man said. “The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we’re alone.” 
― Mitch Albom

I was thinking yesterday about declarations. Specifically, those of independence. The urge was strong to write here about the need for a Teachers’ Declaration of Independence. It would be a bold document staking our claim and our beliefs in the sanctity and sovereignty of our classrooms and schools.

“These are places of learning,” it would shout in some in a powerful font, “and they will not incur invasions by outside influences or sayers of nay.” It would be a beauty to behold, and also, it would not be true.

We do not need a Teachers’ Declaration of Independence. We are not independent operators. Watching the sometimes evolving, sometime devolving situation in Philadelphia’s public schools, seeing the requirements placed on teachers exiting the university system, and watching as schools attempt to provide the best productivity possible under current and proposed FCC e-rate regulations all point to the idea that what happens in our schools and our classrooms is independent of nothing.

The above factors and myriad more are constantly raining down on all schools and teachers no matter their constitutions or pedagogies. We are interdependent on so many systems that to state otherwise would be a foolhardy foolhardy fallacy.

Instead, perhaps today is the perfect opportunity to wonder about what happens after the bounce of independence, when we look around and realize that we are enmeshed in the lives and workings of those around us.

When I work with schools and districts, this is a sentiment I try to engender first. “I will say some things, give some examples that you will like, and would love to try in your setting. Your gut, though, will have a ‘yeah but’ moment. You will think, ‘Yeah, that’s great, but here’s why it won’t work where I am…'”

The key to these moments is realizing we are interdependent operators and to shift the thinking to, “Yeah, that sounds great, and here’s how I would approach it given the nuances of where I work.”

This is interdependent thinking, and it opens the doors to what we see and understand as possible. It also moves toward building a way of thinking about students and co-workers that realizes the interdependent systems at play in their lives.

In my English classroom, students would come in for what I thought was going to be a great lesson, the looks on their faces and the words in their mouths would sometimes tell me that their thoughts were elsewhere. A physics project was bearing down on them and they were stressed and worried about meeting deadlines and understanding material.

By seeing things interdependently, I adjusted my plans. Would 20 minutes to discuss and work through physics be helpful to their abilities to focus on what we were doing in our classroom? Invariably, yes.

It was an approach that alleviated stress, helped pave the way for success elsewhere and set up our relationship as one that was responsive to needs and caring about how they were operating in the system we called school.

This is to say nothing about how what students left when they walked through the school’s doors was interdependently linked to whatever we asked, challenged, or hoped of them in our 8 hours together.

A declaration of independence is a beautiful thing. It allows for the understanding of individuals as individuals. A declaration of interdependence helps to frame one individual as connected to the individuals around him and to larger networks of individuals a state, a country, a world away. Surely, there’s room in the world for such thinking.

144/365 In a Rush to Help, Perhaps We’re Missing the Opportunity to Serve

It’s rush week in Boulder as I’m guessing it is or recently was on college campuses around the U.S.

Given the recent floods, this means the flood relief stations are filled with fraternity and soroity members and potential members.

I’m sorry, did I say flood relief stations? I meant Starbucks and beer pong tournaments.

To be clear, I have no beef with the Helenic system or any of its offshoot. One of my sisters joined a sorority when she was in undergrad, and I have no doubts her sisters were a support mechanism when life got difficult.

Still, I cannot shake the coincidence and lack of overlap of these two events.

Curious, I’ve started looking at the webpages of local chapters and their national organizations. Though I haven’t reviewed them all, I’ve yet to find a fraternity or soroity that doesn’t profess a committment to philanthropy. Taken together, they provide a laundry list of charitable causes and events, many connected to national non-profits.

I wonder, though, what it might be like if these brothers and sisters replaced this year’s rush events and said, instead, to their potential pledges, “We are doing away with the pomp and circumstance this year. Our community and its neighbors are in need, and we are about family and service. We are about pulling together in times of need.” Instead of some of the events I’ve seen around Boulder, what if these organizations carpooled to those areas most affected by the recent floods and said, “You have all the time we can spare.”

I can think of no greater test of the mettle of those hoping to join, and no greater example of the kinds of organizations they hope to attend.

Of course, this is no different than those systems with which I’m most familiar.

A student arrives at school, is tested in a subject, say reading, and found wanting. The school moves to act in the ways they’ve planned in the flowchart of approved interventions. “This kid needs to read,” they say, “We will follow our plan to help the reading occur.”

Perhaps, though, there are more immediate needs than can be accounted for in the standard interventions. Perhaps this child has a home in which he barely sleeps through the night. Perhaps it is not that he cannot read, but that he cannot focus because of the hunger he carries with him as he falls asleep at night and that greets him when he wakes in the morning.

These interventions, like the honorable and planned philanthropy of the fraternities and sororities, are not the problem.

The problem is seeing the needs you are meeting as the only needs that matter. While this may be true to you, it is often furthest from the truth from those you seek to serve.

Improvisation is not only best, it is necessary as well.

140/365 In Improving Teaching & Learning, it Turns Out We Need to Do all the Work

Children working, playing, and learning on art projects, writing, and a laptop computer

As is my wont, I’ve been having a (figurative) conversation with Jim Knight as I work my way through his Unmistakable Impact. Like many before him, Knight has narrowed down the qualities of the best schools to a list of 5:

The professional learning occurring in Impact Schools is built around the following five concepts: humanity, focus, leverage, simplicity, and precision.

Five is an interesting number. It avoids the vague simplicity of 3 without taking on the complexity of a list of 7, 11, or some other prime number.

And I don’t disagree with him. In that list of 5, there’s not a concept with which I disagree, and I’d imagine that’s by design. Keeping the list safe keeps the book marketable.

Not long after we’ve encountered the 5 concepts behind impact schools, though, Knight introduces the 7 principles of the “partnership approach”:

(1) equality, (2) choice, (3) voice, (4) reflection, (5) dialogue, (6) praxis, and (7) reciprocity.

He goes on to say, “These principles represent the theory that underlies professional learning in Impact Schools.”

This brings the list to an almost unwieldy 12. Twelve! Here Knight runs the risk of losing the leaders of education organizations. The book is no longer presenting a silver bullet like so many that have come before it. Knight begins to present a more complex picture of what must be done to create quality learning spaces and teams functioning in such a way that supports that quality.

This is, beyond all of the citations of other sources and vignettes, what I am appreciating as I work through Knight’s book. As he attempts to offer guidance and strategies for improving schools, he adds to the complexity of the work.

It isn’t just five or seven things that need be done to improve the lives and learning of students and teachers. The list is potentially infinite.

As I come to each list of qualities schools must have to make an unmistakable impact, I picture the principal or district leader who’s picked this up as the tome to lead their organization for the next year angrily crossing out the list from the last chapter and saying to themselves, “OH! These are the things we should be doing. Got it.”

If anything, I’d say Knight doesn’t go far enough in highlighting the importance of paying attention to all of the qualities he’s listed. At. The. Same. Time.

As I consider the systems and procedures he lays out, I realize they create a balance and that each is important (if fairly innocuous on the ground-breaking scale of ideas).

From that initial list of five, it is not difficult to imagine the type of leader who decides to make focus, leverage, and precision the watch words of their school while leaving out or downplaying humanity and simplicity. The opposite is true as well. I’ve met many school and district leaders who are all about the people and streamlining.

If we are to improve teaching and learning, we cannot cherry pick the pieces of the system we wish to improve. We cannot simply change the things that are cheapest, easiest, or most urgent.

We must see the whole board. We must lean in to the hard work, and we must accept the complexity of meeting the needs of a system composed of people who walk into our buildings with equally complex lives.

If doing that takes a list of 5, 7 or 12, then so be it. Let us make sure that we honor each one and not only those that fit our style or our comfort zones.

Image via intrepid teacher on flickr

131/365 Trust the Start

My new job has me thinking quite a bit about the flow of systems. For the majority of my career, I’ve been at one end of the educational system – in the classroom – working directly with students and other teachers to make learning and formal education better.

Now, I find myself somewhere in the middle of the system. I’m not in charge of anything, per se, at either end of the system. I support teachers and students and I support the leadership of the district. Sometimes (not often) that support looks drastically different.

I’ve found myself realizing and hoping for a specific string of trust to be enacted and embodied by the district.

It starts like this – Trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students’ growth and learning.

From there, direct interactions should be set up in such a way to give them support they need to do what they feel they need to do to help kids. This would be at the principal level. From there, outside the schools, intermediate district personnel should move to support principals based on the assumption that they trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students’ growth and learning.

If I believe that’s what principals believe, I’m going to be better at my job.

The same assumption is what I hope for those to whom I report. As I move through schools, help teachers and administrators learn and consider new practices, I hope that those in charge of me assume that I trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students growth and learning.

I want others to assume it in the system, and I want those others to assume that I believe it as well.

If we all operate from this believe, if we all trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students’ growth and learning, a foundation is established on which we can build, improve and design pathways to even greater capacity.

Assuming teachers are doing all they can is not assuming that they are doing the absolute best, it is assuming that they are doing their absolute best in the moment, and that it can always be augmented.

If I work with a group of teachers to build capacity around some new tool or practice, approaching our time together from the assumption that they are doing all they can will result in conversations much more replete with respect, listening, and care than conversations based on the assumption they are slacking, skating, or faking their way through the school year.

I want the best for anyone who endeavors to add to the learning, understanding, and choices of students. The best way I can think of to support and work alongside these folks is to trust they are doing the best they can and move from there.

Things I Know 224 of 365: Ownership matters

And I would argue the second greatest force in the universe is ownership.

– Chris Chocola

“He needs to get buy-in,” someone in class said today as we discussed a case study of a school where those in charge were failing to get all teachers swimming in the same pedagogical direction.

From there, the room was flooded with off-hand mentions of “buy-in.”

Some agreed, some advocated the opposite of buy-in and argued the use of administrative power instead.

I sat thinking for a while.

By the time I raised my hand, class was running short on time and many other voices needed heeding.

What I wanted to say was this:

If buy-in is your goal, if it is what you are shooting for as you advocate change, you are working toward something less shimmering, less amazing than what you imagine when you put your dreams to bed.

What I wanted to reference, as my access was sleeping in my bag, was the idea of ownership vs. buy-in.

I’m not certain when, but a few years ago, I started noticing buy-in as a main descriptor in conversations around project formation. Whether it was planning professional development or building units of study for students, people were worrying about buy-in.

“I like this project. I’m just worried about how I can create buy-in with my kids.”

“This is a great approach, and I’d love to take it to my faculty, I’m just not sure how I can get buy-in with my teachers.”

It came up so often that it started to permeate my thinking.

“A bunch of people are talking about ‘buy-in,’” my brain kept saying.

Enter ownership.

I honestly can’t remember who it was, that pointed out to me a distinction that has doused my thinking in intellectual kerosine ever since.

When making change, when starting the new, when shifting thinking; it is ownership toward which we should work, not buy-in.

Henri Lipmanowitz, former chairman of Merck International and board president of the Plexus Institute, draws a line between “buy-in” and “ownership.”

“Your implementation will inevitably be a pale imitation of what it could have been had you been an ‘owner’ instead of a ‘buyer-in’…” Lipmanowitz writes.

I have trouble disagreeing.

When thinking about larger educational policy or thinking about the workings of my classroom, ownership means more than buy-in.

If the system is working, we work toward ownership.

If ownership is established, I do not need to become a salesman.

If ownership is established, I do not need to worry about customer relations down the road.

If ownership is established, I am not in an idea alone.

If ownership is established, it will take more time.

For the latter, Lipmanowitz has a counter argument. To those who argue the involvement of all players at the inception will take time, he responds, “People that are affected will inevitably be involved.”

The difficulty for the classroom and for the shaping of policy or systemic norms is the paradigmatic norm of time allotment as incremental.

I’ll design the unit.

I’ll take time to show it to my peers.

I’ll explain it to the students.

I’ll teach it.

They’ll have questions.

I’ll answer them.

We’ll struggle as they work to buy my vision.

We’ll get to the learning…

Lipmanowitz’s believe (and mine) is based around the assumption that spending the chronological capital at the outset to insure ownership will smooth the road later on.

“In complex situations,” writes Lipmanowitz of the concept of ownership, “it is the only one that is likely to generate superior results. It requires giving people space and time for self-discovery.”

That’s tough.

That’s worth it.

Things I Know 187 of 365: Be nice and we’ll work hard

Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping him up.

– Jesse Jackson

A friend recently planted himself firmly behind the idea that effective teachers are the most important factors in student success. In the same breath he said he wasn’t one of those guys to praise teachers and call them the salt of the earth. He works to support kids, he said, not teachers.

It doesn’t work like that.

The two aren’t separate.

If we want healthy schools, places of learning enlivened by vibrant and curious people dedicated to being the best versions of themselves, the systems must support and value all members of those systems.

My morning cup of coffee is better when my barista and the coffee bean farmers in the fields are treated with decency and respect.

I cannot be surprised by a reticence to praise and support teachers when the rhetoric of education paints them so largely as deficient, lazy, undereducated hacks.

Who would dare praise teachers?

Sure, you praise the teacher you know, the cousin or friend of the family who is going into the classroom. They are great. But teachers, in the general sense? No thank you.

Tell teachers the majority are performing poorly and you can’t be surprised when students are performing poorly. I wonder sometimes how many teachers are doing worse right now because they’ve read or heard the rhetoric of education leaders bemoaning the poor quality of teachers.

My friend told me he’d visited a number of classrooms on a single day, to check up on good teaching. Of the 50+ classrooms he visited, not a one held good teaching. Not a one held a teacher at the time. His evaluation was based on whether standards were posted and other measures of the classroom walkthrough. Choosing not to challenge the evaluation, I asked a question I’ve asked here before.

“So, you can name at least 50 bad teachers. Can you name 20 good ones?”

He liked the question and thought I was making his point for him.

I was not.

My point was something else. Too many people are doing well for there to be fewer than 20 effective teachers for every 50 or 60 ineffective teachers.

“All students can learn,” is a popular bumper sticker of regressive education reformers. Pronounced as though a new idea that, once realized, solves so much.

I don’t disagree with it. I question the next ten words.

So long as we’re putting out truisms and bumper stickers to rally behind, let me try one. Let me try one that, coupled with the idea that all students can learn, would mean a sadly revolutionary way of thinking in education.

All teachers can teach.

And, yes, I’ve got my next ten words.

Things I Know 179 of 365: Not all systems need disrupting

We’re flying in a Lockheed Eagle Series L-1011. Came off the line twenty months ago. Carries a Sim-5 transponder tracking system. And you’re telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?

– Richard Schiff as Toby Zigler in The West Wing

I think the man across the aisle from me wants our plane to crash. Just before takeoff, when the flight attendants were announcing the need to power down all electronic devices, I saw him select a playlist on his iPhone and slip the phone into his pocket.

A few hours into our flight and he’s still sitting across from me, still listening to his music…and we’re still in the air.

My phone is off, in my pocket.

It will stay there because I have been told that is where it should be.

Thirty minutes later, we’re still in the air, and guy-across-from-me is still listening to music on his phone.

It strikes me as counter to my nature that I don’t follow the evidence and have my phone out during the takeoff and touchdown.

I admit it seems highly unlikely that my phone, my Kindle or my iPod would take down this 757. If that were the case, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to have them on the plane in the first place.

But I don’t know.

And that’s the key.

I don’t understand the system. Aviation, engineering, electronics – all these are outside the areas of my expertise.

In this system, I have an amazing amount at stake. I am thoroughly invested and committed to its success.

Entire sub-systems and interactions are beyond my understanding. Thus, I keep my mouth shut. If I decided to study aeronautics, become familiar with everything involved in the process of moving a plane from one side of the country to another, then would I have a space to speak up.

When my life and the lives of others are on the line, it’s probably best not to disrupt a system I do not understand.