Empower Learners to Shape Their Own 'School' Day — In and Out of Classrooms
Our fundamental approach to public education in America today has been more or less the same in the nearly 400 years since the first public school was established in Boston. Despite tremendous growth and change — the rise of charter schools and the proliferation of technology-enhanced learning are just two recent examples — the ideology and practice of public education has continuously centered on schools. Particulars aside, the idea of school as the sole place and time where young people learn dominates our collective understanding of what public education is and can do.
Despite its prominence, this school-centered approach precludes the opportunity to explore new, relevant, and engaging approaches to learning, which are already being conceptualized and implemented in select communities across the country. These are transformative re-imaginations of where, how, and when teaching and learning take place, showcasing what is possible if we bring these educational opportunities into the mainstream. To elevate and catalyze these exciting new alternatives, we must re-consider the prominence and scope of the outsized role that school traditionally plays in public education — and make way for expansive educational experiences that are learner-centered rather than institutionally oriented.
In this system, students and families are empowered to select the mix of learning opportunities, programs, and services that best suit their individual needs and interests.
Expanding the learning environment beyond school also provides an opportunity to re-think how we understand the “school day,” a construct that is as entrenched as public education itself. When education transcends schools, the very term, as it is traditionally understood (e.g., 8 AM to 3 PM, or a variation thereof), becomes something of a misnomer because time spent at school and in a classroom is no longer the organizing principle for how learning is structured.
Instead, we might more productively think of it as a “learning day,” during which students have opportunities to engage in guided learning at the public library, build relationships with mentors, develop valuable workforce skills at an internship with a local business, and benefit from the learning experiences school provides. This enables students who may benefit from a mix of learning opportunities — such as subject-specific tutoring or arts enrichment — to earn educational credits outside of school without having to duplicate those credits (and spend twice the time) at school, thereby tailoring the educational experience to their needs and interests.
Iowa BIG provides a vision for the learning day, redesigning where, what, and when students learn. It provides opportunities to develop a comprehensive academic, 21st century skillset without the inflexible structures of a traditional high school educational experience. Students can choose how to schedule their non-school opportunities — a combination of seminars, project meetings, and personal work time — alongside in-school learning and activities.
Iowa BIG gives us a glimpse into what is possible when we reimagine the role and centrality of school in public education. It represents a step toward embracing this more expansive ecosystem of learning options, where community-based and technology-driven resources, organizations, institutions, businesses, and learning programs are no longer viewed as supplemental or optional sources of learning enrichment. Instead, they are viewed as integral to public education and as important as school-based learning.
Re-centering the education system to prioritize the needs of learners, rather than those of institutions, raises the concern among some that the new approach leaves students and families to fend for themselves when presented with an expanded array of educational choices. In fact, with the assistance of knowledgeable educators, it unlocks greater agency and more options for learners. For example, at the Learner Advocate Network here at ReSchool Colorado, educators remain an essential dimension of the learner-centered experience.
Instead of focusing on solely school-based options, such as which classes to take to be ready for admission to college, ReSchool’s advocates (who are former teachers) build the capacity of learners and their families to navigate the education landscape, such as uncovering educational goals, interests, and challenges and using this information to inform important decisions about learning, such as where to go to school and to assess what is going well at school and where school is falling short. While school continues to be an area of focus for families, support from their advocate to access resources and navigate the landscape of learning that occurs outside of school and during the summer is often their greatest need. In this way, educators truly guide students as they blaze their own new paths both in and out of the classroom.
Many learners are already driving their education, evident at innovative programs like Iowa BIG, Remake Learning, and CommunityShare; via families whose learners benefit from summer and afterschool learning opportunities, or through individualized tutoring to supplemental athletics and enrichment programs. But, for these opportunities to become more mainstream and more evenly distributed, our public education system must embrace and catalyze approaches that put learners at the center — and tap the resources of their communities to ensure that learning is happening everywhere for children — in and out of school.
Amy Anderson is the former Associate Commissioner of the Colorado Department of Education and the executive director of ReSchool Colorado, an initiative that is laying the groundwork for a new education system. Tony Lewis is the chair of the Board of Directors at ReSchool Colorado and leads education innovation work at the Colorado-based Donnell-Kay Foundation.