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Mission & Motivation: the Learner-Driven Classroom

By Net Assets posted 01-30-2017 12:45 PM

Learner driven classroom

Leadership |

With commitment and resources, we can deliver on the independent school mission of honoring how each student learns.

Article by Brad Rathgeber, One Schoolhouse

From the January/February 2017 Net Assets

Brad Rathgeber
Brad Rathgeber
Executive Director, One Schoolhouse

I believe that every student learns differently.

Students learn at different paces. Students learn in different modalities. Students learn from different people.

Some students are introverts. Some are extroverts. Some learn through conversation. Some learn through reflection. Some learn through doing. Some learn through failure. Some learn from repetition. Most students learn in some combination of these ways.

As educators, we know this. Those of us in independent schools are lucky that we often have the resources, small classes and support to honor this understanding. And yet, even with these advantages, we can still get incredibly frustrated knowing that no matter how much we differentiate in our classrooms, it doesn’t seem to be “enough.” No matter how much we try project-based approaches, blended approaches, lecture approaches, discussion approaches — or whatever — it seems we can never reach some of our students. Is that because we are trying approaches from the wrong direction? Should we be approaching learning from the perspective of the student rather than the teacher?

That new classroom dynamic will fit with what we know about a changing world: one in which information is abundant, but using that information is not easy. The role of the teacher changes from purveyor of knowledge to coach of deep learning.

Students know how they learn best — or can be given tools to help figure this out. And yet, the classroom — even a highly differentiated one — is designed and led by the teacher. What if we changed this to a dynamic where the teacher designs the classroom, but the learning is driven by the students?

That new classroom dynamic will fit with what we know about a changing world: one in which information is abundant, but using that information — applying, analyzing and criticizing it, and experimenting, arguing, convincing and collaborating with, for and about it — is not easy. The role of the teacher changes from purveyor of knowledge to coach of deep learning.

This transition will not be easy for our students. Accustomed to a teacher-led classroom, some students (and their parents) will complain that we should “just tell them what they need to know.” Others will be confounded by choice or consumed by a desire to do everything, thinking they are cheating themselves if they do not go through every resource offered (even if they understand the concept well — “There must be something that I am missing out on”). A learner-driven dynamic is different for them.

Transitioning to a learner-driven classroom will not be easy for teachers, either. There is a worry about “losing control” over the learning process. There is also (an often-unspoken) worry about the value of oneself as an educator if one’s role is not that of content expert. A learner-driven dynamic is different for them, too.

Nor will this transition be easy for our buildings and campus infrastructure. Many classrooms are designed for teacher-led work: organized towards the front of a room, with limited space for group work.

The transition to a learner-driven school will take resources. Students and their parents will need to understand new approaches, just as the school will need to actively communicate to prospective families why this approach is effective. Faculty will need extensive professional development, and schools may need to rethink administrative structures to support faculty members in new dynamics (likely away from departmental models). Moreover, building designs and redesigns will need to accommodate and project for this new dynamic. For a school to become learner-driven, the business officer must be a leader in the effort — and must want to be a leader in the effort.

As independent schools, we promise (often in our mission statements) to develop a lifelong love of learning in students. We promise students and families that we know and value each child’s uniqueness. We have to ask ourselves the hard question of whether our current models for learning help us accomplish these promises. And, we have to be okay with the uncomfortable and messy answers that may come from asking this question.

Brad Rathgeber is executive director of One Schoolhouse, a nonprofit consortium that partners in innovation with independent schools. He is also a member of the NBOA Board of Directors. Contact him at
Mission & Motivation is a new department in which an independent school leader shares a core belief and/or source of guidance or inspiration. Interested in contributing? Please email In the subject line, type MISSION & MOTIVATION.

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