From One-Size-Fits-All Education to Learning Ecosystems: Our Call-to-Action for States

Today, I had a conversation with Kelly Young from Education Reimagined, who expressed new interest in learning ecosystems, as she put it, “post-COVID”.

It reminded me that the vision for learner ecosystems that we published in 2020 is more relevant than ever. I thought the conversation was worth reflecting on and sharing. Our research from 2020 offers timely policy recommendations for states seeking to transform education, beginning with the shift from one-size-fits-all learning toward learner-centered, competency-based learning ecosystems. With the unprecedented influx of $123B in federal funding coming to states and local education systems, it is critical that investments are made in what is most needed for reimagining our education systems and not tweaking what we currently have.

Katherine Casey and I co-authored a book on enabling systems change for educational and economic pathways about how to create and scale learning ecosystems. We made a clear call-to-action for a learner promise for prosperous futures.

Dr. Casey wrote: “Now is the time to turn the unrealized hope of public education into an actualized promise: that every learner will have access and support to pursue a certified pathway toward a meaningful, chosen career that will build social and economic capital over the course of their lives.”

We believe states could let go of the notion that education should be a linear, time-bound sequence of learning that occurs only within formal education institutions. Rather, K-12 education can be reimagined as a “learning ecosystem.” A more aligned, coherent ecosystem would be an equitable, dynamic, and responsive system in which learners can customize their learning experiences.

Leapfrogging to learner ecosystems was the topic of the Aurora Institute 2020 keynote by Rebecca Winthrop at The Brookings Institution, who has been researching (for decades) best practices for how education systems around the globe are making important shifts to learner ecosystems and re-examining the very purpose of public education. Dr. Winthrop described approaches for harnessing innovation to rapidly accelerate educational progress through ecosystems. For such leapfrogging to work, she said leaders must employ the following strategies: student-centered teaching and learning, individualized recognition of learning, diverse people and places, and results-oriented technology and data (i.e., using a comprehensive learner record). Winthrop’s work at Brookings is an inspiration to us and we’ve been diving in deep on how state policymakers can advance this from a vision to reality.

In case you missed it, here are some highlights from the research we’ve done at the Aurora Institute on learning ecosystems over the past three years. We assert, “In learning ecosystems, learning is organized around individuals rather than institutions as learners chart their own experiences flexibly and fluidly across a variety of settings and providers.”

This work calls for action. Here, for the sake of brevity, I will name eight immediate action steps for state policy leaders (there are 14 policy recommendations published in our book):

  1. We call for a coalition of states to create learning ecosystems locally and regionally to realize the vision of the “learner promise” and guarantee the development of educational and economic pathways at scale.
  2. State governors make a public commitment to learning ecosystems and competency-based pathways: a call to action, an appeal to hearts and minds, and an accountable guarantee that all learners and families in the state have regional and local learning ecosystems that provide new opportunities to align and create educational and economic prosperity pathways over a lifetime. For example, Alabama’s working on a lifelong, continuous learning ecosystem.
  3. States enact the necessary and essential policies to create conditions for learning ecosystems and pathways at scale, including the enabling of anywhere, anytime learning; development of new credentialing and assessment policies; alignment of funding, resources, and incentives across K-12, postsecondary, and workforce; and investments that support learner-centered pathways through varied learning experiences that result in demonstrating mastery to earn credentials. For example, New Mexico is working on innovating a new graduation pathway with a capstone graduate project in communities.
  4. Develop statewide, universal qualification frameworks, recognitions of learning, and competency systems aligned to certified pathways. These frameworks define requirements for advancement at multiple milestones along a learner’s trajectory, from secondary to postsecondary to advanced and continuing education. By providing a universal and flexible system for certifying learning no matter when or where it happens, these systems enable learners to advance along pathways that cross between school-, work-, and community-based learning.
  5. States fund the development of learning ecosystems and/or expansion of robust, high-quality pathways programs: K-12 learner-centered pathways; work-based learning such as paid internships and certified pre-apprenticeships; postsecondary pathway programs and partnerships; and others. This may involve funding and technical support for internships, dual enrollment, and institutional redesign.
  6. Create and certify statewide competency-based pathways for a diverse set of careers that are viable and important to the state, regional, and local economy and culture. Certification means that pathways are recognized and supported by institutions across the state, and that completing pathway requirements ensures access to subsequent education and employment opportunities. Contrary to popular conceptions of vocational or career pathways, these include but are not limited to careers in the trades as well as across the sciences, teaching, law, arts, and more.
  7. States create or re-create professional systems that prepare educators or certified assessors of knowledge, competencies, and skills to validate and recognize learning that happens inside or outside of school, to enable micro-credentialing and credentialing in a universal pathways system. This may include new programs, new systems of licensure, new crediting concepts, and robust opportunities for embedded learning and professional mastery.
  8. State governors and legislatures set the table to investigate how to authorize and oversee implementation, recognize learning that happens anywhere, anytime, rethink credentialing (and micro-credentialing) at the state level and also activate community-based, local wisdom to ensure representation and drive essential change at local levels. Governing bodies at all levels are representative not only of multiple sectors — K-12, postsecondary, workforce, and community — but also of the cultural and racial diversity of the communities they represent.

New systems of education to support the learner promise through competency-based approaches will begin to expand into networks of learning spaces and hubs – across programs, schools, and institutions.

We must invest in building the infrastructure, culture, curriculum redesign, and competency-based assessments for future-focused learning ecosystems. To do this will require creating new policies that enable them and that drive transformational change toward aligned, lifelong learning ecosystems with personalized and competency-based pathways. This also means disrupting the conditions holding the problems in place. It’s time to create breakthrough policies and practices to ensure high-quality learning for all, helping each and every child achieve their full potential for human flourishing. We hope you will join us in this equity-focused mission and vision of transforming education systems.

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