Categories: News

Planning a Learner-Centered Education Environment

Posted on

Written by Beatriz Arnillas.

Beatriz Arnillas has a combination of degrees and professional experience in the fields of Education, Adult Learning, Visual Arts and Technology. As the Director of IT – Education Technology in the Houston Independent School District (April 2012 – 2017), Beatriz was one of the key leaders in the design and implementation of Houston’s “PowerUp” initiative.

Six good conversations to have with colleagues and peers

The questions discussed in this blog are:

  • Why are we planning/talking about learner-centered instruction or personalization?
  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • How will we accomplish it?

There are many kinds of schools and districts. For districts that have large numbers of students reading below grade level, a high percentage of dropouts, or where the graduates are not prepared to succeed in college or career choices, the need to ask these questions is obvious. Those are the schools for which traditional models are not working so well anymore, so we must reconsider what learning experiences might best match the needs of our population(s). There are also other schools or districts where teachers and parents might say that the schools are doing a good job, so why would there be a need to change? This is a valid question. It is possible that those schools that are proving successful learning environments might not need to redesign their models. This blog is for those educators, schools and districts who think that we must change our approaches to teaching and learning, if we are to better prepare students for careers, college, work and life in this century.

1.     Start with the end in mind

A good number of schools have drafted a “21st-Century Graduate Profile”. These typically say we want our graduates to be flexible, adaptable life-long learners who can discern valid from false data, connected, collaborative, critical and digital citizens and a few other characteristics, give or take. The reasons are that the world has changed dramatically and students will need these important skills if they are to succeed in this new, brave global society.  The Graduate Profile is a great place to start when we think of the challenges that are specific to our districts, schools and population, and they should help us select the models that make most sense to implement authentic and useful learning environments.

For example, we might decide that our students need to learn to search for content and determine its validity by analyzing the sources. We might also decide that our schools will require a combination of independent work and group work, combined with facilitated learning. We might make a list of learning skills, such as research capacity and meta-cognition.  A couple of words of caution: We cannot say we want our students to be independent and critical thinkers and then submit them to a tightly-monitored, highly-structured learning environment. Where would they get their self-regulation skills? Second: If we want a student-centered environment (meaning flexible, adaptable, customizable and responsive to student needs and interests), then we should provide PD for teachers that also follow this model. Start with the graduate profile and involve all stakeholders in the conversation. In addition to your typical stakeholders, such as school leaders and teachers; include parents, students, local colleges, members of the business community and the community at large.  After agreeing to a graduate profile, define the teacher skills, knowledge and attitudes required to facilitate a learning environment that promotes the behaviors, skills and knowledge you want to nurture for your graduates.  Once you know the kind of teachers you want to recruit and retain, think about the profile of your school leaders.

2.     Define a high level instructional transformation path

How will your ideal learning environment look when the transformation process is mature? When we tell our teachers to deliver student-centered learning, many of them don’t know what we mean in practice. After all, they most likely have never experienced a student-centered environment. I know I didn’t when I first started this conversation.  Many of us use Barbara Bray & Kathleen McClaskey’s model, displayed below:

Another challenge is that we make extensive use of buzzwords. The tricky thing about buzzwords is that we all use them loosely, before knowing whether we “mean” the same things. It is a good idea to create a “glossary of 21st-Century Learning Terms” for your school or district. Work with school leaders and teachers on what you mean by “personalized”, “active”, “problem-based” (as opposed to “project-based”), student-centered, etc. Also, you might define Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and how your school intends to address it.

3.     Articulate your 21st-Century Learning Leadership, Governance and Management Model

Collaboration IS the secret sauce. That is, close collaboration between central office departments and schools. Look at the “T-PACK” Model graphic displayed below. How many people in our districts have all the knowledge and skills required for learner-centered, technology-enabled instruction? You got it! Central office departments and schools must collaborate closely to redesign decision-making and support processes together. This will ensure that we have all the talent, skills and knowledge required for the tasks around the table. Redesigning procurement processes is one of them, but not the only one! The teams will also have to collaborate in all the district processes we used to perform in silos.

In the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the Curriculum, Instructional Technology, Ed Tech, IT Infrastructure/Operations, School Leadership and Communications departments collaborate daily to select academic and non-academic products, technology systems, programs to support/develop teachers, empower students and keep all stakeholders informed of progress. The days when each department decided things in isolation are over.  It is really very simple: We need the expert opinions of all these teams to make wise decisions in this time of tremendous change. You might be asking yourself, what to do when these teams cannot reach consensus? Ah, that is when you escalate the issue to the C-suite. You guessed: the chiefs had better understand that they are in this together. We will either succeed or we will fail together. Students, schools, parents and communities don’t really care which department are providing what supports, but they all agree that they want an excellent education for their students.

4.     Build a flexible roadmap that affords customized school design

Just like we now require teachers to be flexible and customize learning to address different students’ needs, school leaders and central office administrators need to provide a flexible framework so each school can decide which learner-centered model best fits their school demographic profile and culture. Luckily for us other folks have already done quite a bit of work in this area. Consult with the Clayton Christensen Institute “Blended Learning” models, read a little about flex models, visit some schools that have successfully implemented innovative and engaging models, and help your schools decide what makes sense for them. In Houston, schools are very different from each other. Some are magnets but accept any student who wants to register (if too many register, the decision is made through a raffle), in other schools, students must qualify, others are comprehensive neighborhood schools, and yet others are charters. Whether they are award-winning schools, or schools that need improvement, each of them has designed a model that fits their students’ needs, and teachers and students are moving the needle! Education is increasingly learner-centered and scores are improving.

Some Flex Models:

Besides flex models, schools might select other strategies to address the needs of 21st-century learners, such as problem/project-based or inquiry-based learning. These are models that promote student engagement and make use of active and authentic experiences.

Another thing schools should discuss is their digital learning resources strategy. We have all heard the mantra “it is not about the technology…” But technology enables student-centered instruction at scale, and amplifies teachers’ capacity. This conversation should be about the things and context that your teachers, students and parents need to have in place, to provide multiple options for diverse learners and to promote flexible learning environments without increasing process complexity (such as hundreds of login IDs and passwords, or data spread across 20 platforms). Resources are limited, so schools have to “retire” some practices to adopt new ones. Here are some categories to consider, to determine your strategy:

Digital Resources Strategic Decisions to Consider:

These can be created in-house by curriculum experts and teacher-leaders, procured, or they can be open educational resources. There is a wide variety of high quality open resources, but it takes time to curate them, and some of the links change or disappear over time, so ask yourself if it is necessary to hire an OER curation service or adopt teacher collaboration sites.

Keep your stakeholders involved and informed. If you expect publishers to provide digital content packaged in open standard formats, let them know in advance and explain which formats. Suppliers will be more responsive if you explain the “why.” You might explain that your teachers and students need to have all the learning resources in one platform. Another “why” might be that a particular standard enables UDL, differentiation or personalization. If your need for open standards is a non-negotiable condition for purchase, write the condition in the RFP or adoption proclamation announcement. Suppliers need to know before they sign a contract or make a commitment to deliver their content in a particular format. Houston ISD made digital content interoperability a non-negotiable condition for content purchases and provided suppliers with a specific and reasonable time-frame to deliver materials in IMS Global Open Standards formats.

5.     Articulate a Change Management Model

Change is scary: it takes time, effort and intention. Give your schools and teachers choice and voice to define the growth-rate expectations, so all stakeholders have time to adjust and evolve.  The “Diffusion of Technology” model is widely used and it can help you generate conversations.

The Diffusion of Technology Model:

According to this model, leaders should focus on the “early majority” group. Innovators and early adopters will evolve without your help, but of course you should extend support when they request it. The “early majority” are the people who are willing to consider change/adoption, as long as you provide authentic (hands-on, collaborative) development, peer work opportunities and support. The “late majority” will follow once the “early majority” does something that proves successful and/or engaging.


In HISD, each school made a simple adoption plan defined in a table like this, where school leaders and teachers decided what learning processes they would modify, how many teachers would implement the changes and by when. In other words: Achievable and observable steps. Schools made a plan like this one for Year One, Year Two and Year Three.


Don’t forget to communicate all the time and with all your stakeholders. Who needs to be informed of what and how often? Your Communications plan is a critical aspect of this process. Invite your communications folks to classrooms and schools  – record, celebrate and publish small wins. Don’t forget to keep your local media informed of all the positive steps and outcomes. Give them news so they don’t go hunting for news.

6.     Don’t stop growing! Achieving Ed Tech maturity

Each instructional group by grade level and discipline area, and each teacher should decide which pathway is best for their discipline or age-group. There are several useful models to help teachers “visualize” what technology adoption maturity looks like. The most commonly known are ISTE’s SAMR and the University of South Florida “Technology Integration Matrix” (or TIM).

The TIM site provides useful videos that demonstrate the differences between one and the next developmental level, making it easy for teachers to collaborate as they modify their lessons and the learning process evolves.

A useful model to inform the learning evolution by supporting deeper learning, authentic learning and meta-cognition, is the Redesigned Bloom’s Taxonomy. (Additional resources here.)

Are we there yet?  I know this is a handful, but any good teacher knows that we are never finished tweaking, improving, modifying. The important thing is to get started and share with others what you learn in the process. We look forward to hearing from you!