Blog: What ‘Learner-Centered Education’ Means to Me

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Scott Stornetta, Ph.D., is a math teacher at Columbia High School and a member of the district’s Strategic Direction Committee. The following is a post excerpted from his blog that explains what he believes “learner-centered” education means. The term was a topic of some confusion and contention among speakers at recent community forums.

Stornetta pointed out to The Village Green that the materials the district distributed to the public on learner-centered eduction were not part of the committee’s deliberations and were added after the fact. “We never saw them, debated them, nor endorsed them, and thus they cannot be given the same weight as the documents which we committee members collectively crafted and agreed to stand behind,” Stornetta said.

He added, “Many very thoughtful people worked hard and worked together to create the strategic direction document…I am just hoping that our collective work can be viewed in its intended light, and I claim no priority over my fellow committee members.”

I was grateful to be invited to the strategic direction committee, though it was with some trepidation that I initially agreed to serve. Maplewood, after all, has a reputation for being a very liberal community. Yet culturally I identify as highly religious, and politically I place myself and my minimalist views of government far to the right of Republican. I wondered if I would find myself ostracized the first time I said something politically incorrect.

Thus it was a welcome surprise to discover in our three-day offsite meeting something quite different. Namely, we were in fact a diverse group of people, but all willing to listen; we had strong views but not shrill voices; and we were united in our commitment to consensus as the end-product of vibrant civic discourse.

The documents we created in our marathon sessions were not what any of us individually felt fully satisfied about, but which we collectively were willing to stand behind. For each of us, there had been key comprises we had to make, but I for one never felt cowered into caving on my fundamental beliefs. Our work wasn’t perfect, but we felt we had created a starting point, which, combined with community feedback, could provide direction.

It was with great surprise then, at the Tuesday public forum, that a large majority of the comments and questions revolved around just one of our word choices: learner-centered. While we certainly had expected scrutiny of the document we had created, I was astonished that of the hundreds of words we collectively crafted, these two had clearly taken on a significance I would have never anticipated.

It is with that in mind that I title my remarks “what learner-centered means to me.” The title makes it clear that I speak only on my own behalf. At the same time, it is my intent to convey the flavor of the give-and-take discussions which led to such a word choice.

To do that I would like to offer seven anecdotes, which I grant may sound like six too many.

The first concerns a student I met as a sophomore in precalculus. A week into the class it was clear that this student’s understanding of math went well beyond that of his peers, though the class was already designated as advanced honors level 5. Hoping to nip boredom in the bud, I invited him to proceed at his own pace through the book.

Imagine my surprise then, when three weeks later he announced that he had finished the textbook and was ready to move on. What was I to do? I administered the previous year’s final exam, and his score of 98 convinced me he had mastered by October the material we planned to cover through the following June.

And so, with the tacit approval of the department supervisor, he studied the next year’s material in the back of the classroom, and prepared for the BC Calculus exam (he got a 5). This afforded him the opportunity to spend his final two years of high school in programs at the other Columbia: Columbia University in New York City. This custom tailoring of schedule, I am convinced, provided him with the necessary ‘resume’ to gain admission to Harvard, his school of choice. What I learned from this experience was that learner-centered meant sometimes adjusting the rules for required seat time.

Read the rest of the blog here.

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