Highlights and Reflections from the Research Collaborative’s Public Convening

By Eric Toshalis
November 28, 2018

At the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative, we ask a lot of questions. In fact, it’s kind of our thing. We’re constantly wondering where our research should go next, how we can best inform and advance the field, and how to position students at the center of all we do. Our four recently completed studies, our five new research projects, and our team of youth researchers are all examples of the kinds of field-leading inquiries we support.

And just last month, we sought answers to a specific set of questions: What would happen if researchers, educators, students, funders, leaders, and policymakers from across the country gathered to talk about how the student-centered learning field might achieve equity? What if they broke down siloes to forge friendships and connections across their diverse experiences, identities, roles, and sectors? What if they used cutting-edge research findings and firsthand perspectives about student-centered approaches to uncover what works in today’s schools, districts, and states? And what if they really, truly, listened to one another?

Well, with the help of over 150 people from 19 states, we were able to explore and answer those questions at the Research Collaborative’s biennial convening in Providence on October 10th and 11th.

To those who attended the convening in Providence, thank you for learning alongside us. For those who weren’t at the convening, don’t worry! We’re here to share our post-convening reflections—and, of course, more questions—to get you up to speed.

Building a Collective Vision

At the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative, we believe that breaking down siloes between research, policy, and practice is a necessary step toward ensuring that the best scholarship and the most promising findings are effectively interpreted, communicated, and applied to practice—whether at the statehouse, district-level, or in the classroom. And we intentionally designed a convening that reflected that belief. We are thrilled to have had cross-sector participation from students, professors, researchers, classroom teachers, principals, systems-level leaders, nonprofit leaders, and funders. Over the two days in Providence, presenters facilitated breakout sessions, workshops, panels, and plenaries that both explored and modeled student-centered approaches. (Plus, there was a nacho bar!)

We learned about maximizing and measuring student agency to boost academic outcomes among marginalized students, implementing competency-based strategies that shift the focus from seat-time to measurable learning, rethinking professional development to ensure it provides adults with learner-centered experiences capable of being reproduced in the classroom, interrogating the assumptions and policies that shape the field and who most/least benefits from them, challenging how we sometimes construct student voice to bolster rather than tokenize youth agendas, and so much more. Overall, we asked each other how we might best turn all of this learning into action.

Learning Together

The Research Collaborative’s primary role in Providence may have been as a convener, but we approached the event as learners, eager to hear from our many peers, partners, and friends from across this busy and complicated field. And wow—did we learn! Here are just a few ideas the convening raised or affirmed for us:

  • There is a deep hunger within the field for explicit talk and action linking student-centered learning to equity. If we understand student-centered learning as an equity play, we have to show not just where research, practice, and policy can build new approaches but also how they can challenge the systems that continue to oppress some students while privileging others. Simply inserting new practices within existing structures won’t get us where our most marginalized students need us to go.
  • To build the evidence base for student-centered learning, we have to consider—critically—what kinds of evidence we value, who is at the table when decisions are made, and how findings are communicated. The same-ol’ same-ol’ won’t cut it. If we are to achieve equity in our work we must cultivate and sustain the kinds of spaces, critiques, and collaborations that prioritize justice, not just innovation. Our researcher positionality requirement in our most recent RFP is just one step in that direction, and we need to take many more.
  • Who is at the table determines what gets discussed. Consequently, it’s clear that we must make sure that our teams and meetings integrate those who represent and understand the populations we most seek to serve. We can’t stop at mere inclusion, however. The way we engage one another, which knowledge-sources we value, and how we make decisions all must reflect the diversity of scholars, leaders, educators, and students with whom we partner. This means that sometimes our best leadership move may be getting out of the way.
  • Overall, we need to be asking, persistently, “Whose student-centered learning is this, and for what purpose?” Doing so will help to reveal whether a specific practice or policy can move us closer to equity, and whose insights we should trust as we push and pull this field forward.

See for Yourself!

All told, it was a terrific gathering that clarified for us where we are as a field and where we need to go. But don’t just take our word for it—check out what others have said, too!

Up Next

Keep an eye out in the coming months for more reflections and resources from the Research Collaborative, like:

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