February 1, 2022

5 Moves for Learner-Centered Superintendents to Make in 2022

By Transcend

What, really, is learner-centered leadership? When a group of us gathered in April, 2021 in the Learner-Centered Leadership Lab (LCLL), a nine month action-learning experience for district leaders designed by Transcend and Lindsay Unified School District, we thought we knew: our job is to lead and manage districts to serve the needs of students. Isn’t that what any good superintendent does? Turns out, being truly learner-centered means a lot more than that.

We all operate inside an education system designed for the industrial era, one meant to educate students en masse. Our work, as the havoc of the past two years has underlined, is to lead that type of system into a new learner-centered paradigm, one where learning is customized, relevant, and, above all, equitable; where students are not treated as interchangeable widgets but rather seen for their whole selves; where they are nurtured and educated towards their own unique futures. 

Leadership Concepts

Industrial Era Represent learner’s interests with very little learner input
Learner-Centered Era Listen to learners (of all ages)
Industrial Era Make decisions to serve the system
Learner-Centered Era Make decisions to serve all learners
Industrial Era Be the Chief Director
Learner-Centered Era Be the Chief Learner
Industrial Era Further a culture of performance and compliance
Learner-Centered Era Cultivate a culture of learning and growth
Industrial Era Control and system of roles, rules, and hierarchies
Learner-Centered Era Empower and inspire others to become learner-centered leaders

In the Lab, through monthly problem-of-practice discussions and other reflection experiences, we grappled with how system leaders could shift paradigms. We became more self-aware and more committed to creating the space — through  vulnerability, learning, and intentionality  — to develop our concept of leadership. Below are our learnings, described as five key moves. (All quotations are anonymized ‘ahas’ from our cohort members.)

Move 1. Listen to learners (of all ages)

If we’re truly learner-centered, our work should be centered on asking kids what they want and need, not what we think they want and need.

All too often we lead adults in making decisions and taking actions we think are best for learners. A superintendent represents what students need to board members, government officials, teachers, building leaders, parents, staff, students.  And then the adults make it come to life through the priorities, resourcing, policies, staffing, etc. of the district.

But how do we really know what’s best for learners? How often do we actually talk to a wide variety of learners in our districts and hear about their hopes and dreams, joys and frustrations, problems and solutions? 

To become truly learner-centered leaders, we must carve out time to have conversations with young learners, and ideally bring them to decision-making tables so that we’re building with, not for them. As one of us wrote, “I believed I was student centered…But when it got down to it, I realized I didn’t have student voice in the process…I found intentionality around being learner-centered in [the Lab]. It makes me ask, where is learner voice? Did we talk to kids? It’s a tough shift to maintain, because it’s easier to not talk to kids, it’s hard and sometimes delays the process to talk to kids.”

This move of listening to learners (and bringing them to decision-making tables) applies equally to adult learners: “I and the cabinet can’t define what a good teacher is without involving the teachers.”

Move 2. Make decisions to serve ALL learners

“We have to ask, as a part of everyday work, how is this going to benefit the children? That has to be the defining question. Why is this important? What difference will this make for children? What’s the priority?… Everyone in my organization needs to know how their work ultimately impacts children, whether it’s hiring the right person or getting payroll out on time. I spend a lot of my time helping people understand how each person’s role ultimately impacts kids. Everything that we do has to be about kids.”

Our systems were designed for another time where structures err on the side of rigidity and hierarchy, and they serve to create efficiency for adults. To move to a learner-centered district, all our decisions and actions need to be in direct response to the unique needs of the students whom we serve, which means that we need to know what all learners need. “Each kid brings different experiences. It’s a fluid and dynamic system, there’s isn’t one way things are going to happen. Iteration is a big part of that… One prescriptive way isn’t going to work for every kid in the district. By being fluid and learning, I hope that the leaders under me will do the same. There are systems and structures in place, there’s the data metrics in place, and there’s the qualitative piece of getting feedback from families, every department should be doing that.”

Across our organizations, from Central Office departments to school sites and everything in between, we need to interrogate all our systems, structures, policies, and behaviors, so that we can be agile enough to meet the needs of all learners.

Move 3. Be the Chief Learner

“As the lead learner in a budding learner-centered environment, I’m responsible for creating the conditions, safeguards, and commitments, as well as modeling the behaviors that will enable people to show up in the way we desire.”

All too often leading is conflated with having the answers. Superintendents, in an industrial era system, are the lead experts. We are in the seat at the top of the hierarchy because we are expected to know and direct, not because we need to learn.  

However, over the course of our time together, we’ve come to understand that this model of leadership prevents us from taking the risks needed to transform systems. We pushed each other to be more curious, to lead with questions, to admit uncertainty, and take risks. 

One of the most important risks is being vulnerable and modeling vulnerability, both through sharing our own stories, and through seeking out our blindspots from those whom we lead. Through these behaviors, we are now actively working to redesign relationships that may have previously been based on leading through having the answers. In short, to be a learner-centered leader means not only to be continuously open to learning, but also to making our learning visible to others. One of us wrote about what meaningful learning looks like:

“When I’m asking questions with more vulnerability, asking for feedback or my misunderstanding. Where my learning or consciousness is challenged. When I’m in a setting where I feel safe enough to say I don’t understand this. When we can have tough dialogue or questioning around things. I want to feel good afterward. I want to feel like my thinking or perspective has changed. Probably not at the moment, but the next morning.”

Move 4. Cultivate a culture of learning and growth

“Learner-centered leaders intentionally tend to culture. Maintaining a focus on learning requires psychologically safe environments that allow for vulnerability. I’m finding vulnerability to be at the core of learning.”

As we learn to lead as Chief Learners, we are discovering the importance of creating an organization-wide culture of learning by supporting our teams to see themselves as learners. This move entails encouraging them to take the risks necessary for learning  —  so they may do the same for those they support and supervise. As one of us wrote, “I really liked the idea of framing culture building at the highest levels from a student learner-centered perspective. If we expect students to take risks, be honest, share their vulnerabilities, then the adults must be able to do so as well.”

Our role as superintendents is to intentionally build this culture that prioritizes growth over compliance, and thereby encourages people, whether adults or children, to reflect, admit mistakes and failures, and share learnings. This culture of learning enables the growth of people and ultimately the transformation of the system.

Move 5. Empower and inspire others to become learner-centered leaders

“You have to have a lot of people at the table, empowering others in the system to make decisions in real-time. It’s about empowerment, that’s the most important thing I do. Thinking about who else can take this on and lead it. That allows me to listen rather than lead.”

Traditional districts operate through defining roles, responsibilities, and hierarchies. The industrial model delineates units of learning, units of measuring learning, units of monitoring, units of responsibility for monitoring, and a hierarchical flow of decisions from the top down. How might we create a model that is responsive to the needs and dreams of learners? 

As with the industrial model, it has to be a collective effort. A superintendent is one person; we do the work through other people. Our job is to build their capacity so that they can lead the system towards learner-centered transformation. This includes our board, our direct reports, school-site leaders, and others. Our work is to engage them in learning, and, through that learning, the capacity to see and act on possibilities that they wouldn’t have seen before. As one of us said to a building leader in their district, “I can’t tell you what to do. I can support you and clear roadblocks for you, but you and the team know the students and the data and you need to figure out what to do.’”

Our Next Steps

As we move out of this nine-month experience and back into our daily lives, we continue to explore what has changed for us. For many of us, this space gave us the protected time and experiences to define, redefine, and refine our concept of leadership to embrace learner-centeredness.

Some of us have concluded that this is an experience we need to replicate within our districts for leaders more junior than us. If we truly want to create learner-centered organizations, if we truly want to build the bridge between our young people as learners and our adults as learners, we need to invest in designing and offering learning environments that serve our entire organizations. Our work as district leaders is to create transformational change, and this can only happen if the entire organization centers on learners and learning, both for young people and the adults who serve them.

Michael Cardona, Superintendent, San Marcos Consolidated ISD, Texas
Susana Cordova, Deputy Superintendent, Dallas Independent School District, Texas
Melissa Kim, Deputy Chancellor, DC Public Schools, District of Columbia 
Tom Rooney, Superintendent, Lindsay Unified School District, California
Paula Shannon, Deputy Superintendent, Tulsa Public Schools, Oklahoma
Anibal Soler, Superintendent, Schenectady City Schools, New York
Cory Steiner, Superintendent, Northern Cass School District, North Dakota
D’Andre Weaver, Superintendent, DeSoto Independent School District, Texas (during the LCLL), Chief Digital Equity Officer for Digital Promise (currently)


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