Asking Big Questions

By Rebecca Wolfe
November 8, 2019

Driving home from grocery shopping the other day, my seven-year-old released a long, dramatic sigh and proceeded to tell me that, “Sometimes my head is just so tired by the end of the day because it’s spent all day thinking and asking questions. Like…What is a dream when you dream it? Can you stand flat in space? and Is red the complementary color of purple?” She comes by it honestly, because I spend a lot of my day asking questions.  

As the Research Collaborative moves deeper into our next cycle of field-advancing research, we are committed to asking big questions about our workIn particular, we are asking questions about how to democratize research. We’re seeking concrete ways to sustain the kinds of conversations and communication that will not only help answer big research questions but do so in a way that consistently seeks to do “research with,” not “research on” students, educators, and community membersThrough the work of the Research Collaborative and on our new Impact and Improvement team at KnowledgeWorks, we’re putting ideas both big and small into motion to make sure our question asking, answer-seeking, and knowledge dissemination is owned by and in the hands of the people most impacted by the research 

For example, we’re walking alongside our terrific Distinguished Fellows and engaging our partners in collaborations across practice, policy, philanthropy, and researchThis spring we’ll be  launching the second cohort of youth researchers that is “twice exceptional. This new cohort will involve students with learning differences whose experiences are intersectional; that is, they possess a learning difference and are also Black, Brown, English learners, LGBTQ or come from a low-income family. These students will pursue research questions they formulate on how student-centered learning impacts students like themselves. With our research teams, we’re continuing to investigate the impact of student-centered learning on the outcomes of students from marginalized groups. In another blog in this series, Senior Research Director Eric Toshalis writes about our efforts to work with research teams that not only pose research questions focused on equity but also to investigate questions of researcher positionality and to find and support researchers “who possessed the necessary critical sophistication with various forms of marginalization and inequity in education.” 

Our work with partners, research teams, fellows, students, policymakers, and funders has led, pushed, and encouraged us to ask some pretty big questions, including about our own grounding framework.  

Revisiting the Student-Centered Learning Framework 

Where we can go next depends on the direction we face when we start. When we first researched, developed, and launched the Students at the Center Framework with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in 2012 – 2013, it was designed to orient us in the work. The framework identified four core strategies we’d focus on as we built the evidence base to achieve equity – personalized learning, student ownership of their learning, anytimeanywhere learning, and competency-based learningAt our public convening in October 2018, in a full-day deep dive workshop at Deeper Learning 2019, and at our May 2019 Research Collaborative grantee gathering, we put those four principles to the test with numerous diverse audiencesTrue to Students at the Center’s original New England rootswe are finding that as things stand, “you can’t get theya (equity) from heah (our principles).”  

What did we discover can be some of the limitations and problems with the current four principles? For example:  

  • Personalization has morphed into both wonderful student-centered approaches and a contested grab-bag of sometimes misunderstood and misapplied practices that can over-emphasize technology or privilege a Western, individualist understanding of the student that eclipse the collectivist orientation most of the world’s children possess. 
  • Student ownership, if studied, implemented, and scaled uncritically, can become a way to blame students for not assuming responsibility for their work.  
  • Without careful and intentional planning, competency-based education can become yet another apparatus that legitimates tracking, ability-grouping, and de facto segregation in our schools.  
  • Anytime-anywhere approaches may support problematic assumptions about where valued knowledge is located, who possesses it and who should be required to understand and assess it.  

Over the next few months, we’ll be exploring how the original principles need to shift and what else needs to be addedAnd we’re not stopping there. 

Some of the things that make our heads tired by the end of the day are big questions like:  

We perceive a deep hunger for explicit talk and action linking student-centered learning to equity, but to what extent is there a concurrent appetite for the significant system-level changes needed? How much are we willing to move beyond rhetoric to the hard work of transforming or dismantling and rebuilding, and who is best positioned to do that work? 

And if we show certain student-centered learning approaches help all students equallythen might we be intensifying pre-existing inequitiesHistorically, research has shown “a rising tide does not lift all boats” where our most marginalized learners are concerned, so istudent-centered learning is to be an equity play, should it benefit some in deeper, more accelerated, or simply different ways than others? 

If these questions animate your work or if you think we need to ask different ones, let us know. We’re excited about our new lines of inquiry, new programs being developed, and new relationships being formed to carry the work forward.

And by the way…the complementary color of purple is yellow … but dreams and space? Can I phone a friend here?! 


This blog is part of the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative Equity Series by JFF and KnowledgeWorks and created with support from its fundersLearn more about this work. 

You Might Also Be Interested In

Skip to content