Fueling a Vision of Student-Centered, Personalized Learning through Student Voice

What if every student were asked these two questions on a regular basis?

What do you want to learn about?

What do you want to do?

High school senior Jemar Lee (who attends Iowa BIG) says that if those two questions were asked of all students, the problem of student disengagement would have been solved long ago. He also stresses the importance of student-teacher relationships for authentic engagement.

Jemar was the morning keynote for EdVisions’ pre-Super Bowl week EdExpo 2018 in Minneapolis. The event attracted leaders, educators and innovators committed to transforming schools by personalizing learning and creating opportunities for deeper, more relevant learning.

A student-centered approach is at the heart of EdVisions’ ongoing work and was evident throughout the Expo, which included school visits, workshops and a message from Curtis Johnson, who co-authored Disrupting Class with HBS professor Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn.


The non-profit EdVisions — initially established as part of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s initiative and also part of Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning Network — has long been an influencer in school development, going back to one of the first and most innovative project-based learning high school models in the world, Minnesota’s New Country School.

The EdVisions mission is to help create and transform schools, with a vision of doing so by bringing together public and private partners to create student-centered teaching and learning environments.

Dr. Lisa Snyder, who is highly regarded for her innovative work as superintendent (of one of Minnesota’s largest school districts, Lakeville Schools) recently took the helm of EdVisions and will be an awesome expert and advocate for teacher and student empowerment for quality learning.

Lisa and her team at EdVisions provide support for school transformation and new school development through coaching, workshops, conferences, access to research and a variety of instructional and assessment tools. It’s an awesome team that includes past EdVisions director Doug Thomas, along with Dr. Steven Rippe, Dr. Ron Newell, and Krissy Wright working on PD.

Student Voice

Student voice goes far beyond lip-service for EdVisions. It is integral to their school design, ongoing work and to events such as the EdExpo. In addition to Jemar’s advocacy for student engagement, there was a student panel both at the event and at each of the school visits.

Jemar, who has benefitted from Iowa BIG’s commitment to equipping learners to be makers, designers, storytellers, and social entrepreneurs, is a firm believer that education needs to be restructured for the benefit of all learners, to make sure they enjoy learning and fully succeed. He believes, “changing the structure of education won’t be easy, but we can do it!”

School Visits

I had a chance to visit the High School for Recording Arts, full of student voice (literally and figuratively!) and competency-based, project-based learning in action. The school is student-driven, demonstrates cultural responsiveness, and boasts state-of-the-art music production and recording studios that prepare students for post-secondary and career options with real job skills. I had heard a lot about HSRA from Executive Director Tony Simmons and was thrilled to see it in action.

Others went to the teacher-powered and innovation award winning Avalon School that emphasizes project-based learning, student ownership of their learning, authentic assessments, and creating a democratic school community as areas of particular strength.

Districts were present as well, including Eric Schneider, Associate Superintendent in Minnetonka Public Schools; Dr. Teri Staloch from Prior Lake Savage Area Schools (who supports Minnesota Center for Advanced Professional Studies, a project-based learning opportunity for juniors and seniors who work with corporate partners in a viable career pathway like healthcare and global business); and Jay Haugen, Farmington Superintendent who also serves on the EdVisions’ board.

Disrupting Class

Ten years after the release of the landmark book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Education Will Change the Way the World Learns book, the message holds true today. The expo closed with co-author Curtis Johnson carrying the torch for a personalized, student-centered approach. He reflected, “If we really think that we can get by with lining up little children in rows and telling them what they ‘should know’ and then asking them to regurgitate it, we are kidding ourselves.”

Curt also spoke about the critical role of the teacher-student relationship and how personalization will get more precise with the impact of AI and machine learning. I am grateful to serve on the EdEvolving board with Curt and continue to learn from his clarity of thought that is coupled with breadth of experience as a college president, author, think-tank lead and relentless advocate for all kids.

Learn (and Do) More

If you are interested in creating learner-centered environments, be sure to check out what EdVisions has been working on. Their Ed°Essentials articulate core elements of a small learning community, self-directed project-based learning, authentic assessment and teacher ownership. Their Ed°Research includes a comprehensive evaluation plan that encapsulates a wide variety of data from proven models. The Hope Survey, is a tool that helps measure SEL by assessing the school climate and culture from the students’ viewpoint. For more on EdVisions, check out their video.

My challenge to myself – and to all of us – today is to ask a handful of kids those two important questions: What do you want to learn? What do you want to do?

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