Reflections on an Emerging Student-Centered Learning Ecosystem (Part I)

By Dr. Tim Kubik & Meghan Lawson

Reflection is a normal part of any planning process or design cycle. It’s also central to student learning. Typically, problem solvers reflect by evaluating how well a plan was executed to solve a problem, while designers reflect on what the end-user did with a prototype. For both, reflection is part of a process where the goal is to get closer and closer to an end in mind, and the focus is often on the gaps between the planned solution or ideal prototype.

But what happens if we focus on assets identified by reflection rather than gaps? This alternative, known as appreciative inquiry, may include dreams in the process, but they’re separate from the destination at which the process arrives. Dreams aren’t ends in mind, but visions about how to use assets.

Meghan Lawson and I had a chance to engage in a process like this from June 2021 to June 2022 at West Clermont Local School District (WCLSD). In this blog series, we’ll use Project ARC’s “Five Stages of Assessment” to evaluate where assets led to dreams and dreams to destiny for those who did the dreaming and implementation. We hope our contrasting perspectives and syntheses will empower you to consider shifting your instructional leadership and classroom focus to a more asset-based approach.

Part I: Challenge and Purpose

Meghan’s Perspective

Many districts have something they call a “Portrait of a Graduate ” or their “Graduate Profile. These plans and graphics represent the skills and attributes communities want their students to master when they graduate from high school. West Clermont is very proud of our locally grown Portrait of a Graduate. Informed by staff, students, parents, and members of our community, our portrait feels deeply rooted in the values of our local community. I’m proud to work in a community that is not solely focused on academic measures of success. Certainly, academics are important and at the core of the business of school. However, if we remain solely focused on remote academic subjects, we leave our students woefully unprepared for life beyond graduation. 

In West Clermont, we choose to be focused on deep student learning in the K-12 environment and success beyond the stage at graduation. Making this world a better place will require the best of all of us, including our students. Often, what’s easy to measure is what gets the attention. This happens in schools too. But being easy to measure doesn’t make something important. West Clermont recognizes that what it will take to be successful in the modern workforce is the ability to be really good at one thing: learning how to learn. If you know how to learn, have a strong sense of self, and feel connected to the world around you, there is very little you cannot do.

This is what our Portrait of a Graduate is truly all about: helping our students create the lives they desire. While many districts have portraits, very few of us can say we are living out our north star. Because this work is daunting and overwhelming. It can be paralyzing to think about how deeply this work matters. But the key is to simply start. Somewhere. With what you have. Where you can. With the willing. And that’s what we did.

The best way I can describe our journey together is through a moonshot thinking metaphor. The idea is that we can do hard things and solve complex challenges without knowing exactly where we are going or how to do it. We can solve complex challenges when we are willing to try, learn, and try again – especially when we do so as a community of practice.

West Clermont has been trying to understand how to make Our Portrait of a Graduate a reality. We know how to teach students how to read, write, and think mathematically. What becomes more complex is supporting our students in other competencies critical to success beyond graduation. Competencies such as turning ideas into action and resilience. Often these kinds of competencies require students to read, write, and think but then apply, tinker, work together, fail and try again. Cultivating classroom environments where the teacher facilitates deeper learning experiences that foster this type of learning application can be scary and feel messy. But we knew we needed to try. 

When John F. Kennedy said we would put a man on the moon, he didn’t know how we were going to do it, he just knew the direction we were going to go and that we would continue to persevere until we figured it out. That’s exactly what this group of roughly thirty K-12 willing educators did in West Clermont. We didn’t know exactly how we would do it. We didn’t prescribe the steps. We just knew we were going to figure it out alongside our knowledgeable guide, Dr. Tim Kubik. We had our eyes on our north star, our Portrait of a Graduate. We had our guide. We had each other. And we had our students and community partners. With space and time, we tried some things, reflected, learned some things, and were able to walk away with some informed decisions about what to do next school year.

It’s not simple and yet it was that simple.

Tim’s Perspective

I’d known West Clermont Superintendent Natasha Adams and Assistant Superintendent Mike Overbey since both were principals. We’d worked together as part of the High AIMS Consortium, and they reached out to Project ARC back in 2018 when they took on the leadership of WCLSD. They had big dreams that would take the first mill and bond in over ten years! Natasha and Mike were working on that with the local Chamber of Commerce, but the main goal was to transform learning in the district. We’d start with the middle school, and then expand out in both directions,

The work with the middle school faculty began in the summer and fall of 2018. It was there that I reconnected with Meghan, who was coaching for Hamilton County ESC to redesign the 6th-grade experience. We’d gotten acquainted through High AIMS, but never worked together directly. Now, we were two coaches with two different challenges, trying to help the district make learning real to students, teachers, and community partners. It all went pretty well until COVID hit in 2020.

For many, COVID was a problem to be solved, but in the end, it proved to be an asset in two ways. Our work did come to a halt. However, the mill and bond went to the voters that spring, at a time when families were deeply appreciative of what teachers were doing to keep schools running. It passed! Beyond that, COVID hit at just the right time to pause, reflect, and add Meghan to the West Clermont Team as Secondary Director of Teaching and Learning. We found ourselves in a new relationship as client and coach, challenged to build a new purpose for the work in order to expand it.

West Clermont had a new Portrait of a Graduate and strong support from their community partners. The leadership team had learned a lot about their students’ assets from the pandemic and focused on those as an opportunity to dream even bigger. Rather than roll out the work to the high school and elementary schools, Meghan and Elementary Director of Teaching and Learning Amy Storer were tasked with identifying and recruiting teachers for a fellowship in Student-Centered Learning Ecosystems to begin in January of 2022. They set up a schedule for the work but asked me to facilitate it. By focusing on teachers as assets, rather than gaps to be trained in a new way of thinking, the stage was set for the inquiry necessary to launch the fellowship. 

Synthesis

While the Portrait of a Graduate was developed by a team of WCLSD educators using a more defined process with Batelle for Kids, upon reflection, neither one of us knew what exactly we were being asked to do. That’s a “gap” for many people, but what we had in common was that we were both tired of being told “no,” and had the grassroots organizing background to move forward from a “yes, and” framework. As Meghan put it, if we stop asking questions we’re not going to have what it takes to tackle Moonshots as they arise, nothing is going to change. 

Achieving the Portrait of a Graduate felt like a moonshot. That’s the big gap–it’s a beautiful graphic but what do you do with it? Many districts get stuck there. Meghan made the first move, putting together a calendar of tightly defined dates but these were loose in terms of what needed to be done on each date. Our long-term working relationship made it easier to imagine an end goal that was less focused on defined steps toward a product and more focused on learning through an engaging experience with a community partner.

WCLSD leadership was able to cross this gap because of their assets and their ability to recognize that teachers and students want more, even when there are shortages in staffing and resources. When we don’t recognize that, disengagement results. Disengaged teachers lead to disengaged classrooms. The best way to do that is to engage teachers in their own work. Choosing to care about things that feel too big allows teachers (and students) to engage. There are lots of names for this: courage, boldness, daring, but we settled on curiosity. Curiosity is the attribute that engages people just enough to be courageous, bold, and daring. In a way that seems the exact opposite of planning to execute and executing your plan, it was curiosity that drew us into the inquiry necessary to appreciate the challenge and purpose.

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