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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Halloran

An Evolutionary Learner's Lifeline


Throughout a year-long journey together, our fifth-grade learners engage in reflective thought as they connect the essential question, “How is the evolution of thought transformative?” to learning opportunities experienced. As professional facilitators, we’re committed to creating fluid spaces of inquiry that inspire evolutionary learning. In the process of building understanding, each unique learner is encouraged to identify major shifts of thinking that have significantly impacted societies. For instance, a Socratic inquiry into the Sieve of Eratosthenes provides learners with the opportunity to construct a comprehensive understanding of prime and composite numbers. To go even deeper, depicting the lifeline of Eratosthenes by identifying his defining attributes and contributions, along with a real-world application of concepts uncovered strengthen the neural connections necessary for long-term understanding. Through metacognitive experiences, details of the progression of one's thought process support learners in making personal connections to the innovative ideas of others. As the school year comes to an end, we encourage members of our learning community to identify ways in which they connect this essential question to their own evolution of thought experienced throughout the year. The way in which each learner creatively makes their thinking visible is quite rewarding to observe.

As I recently engaged in a Learning Lab advisory cohort session with Education Reimagined, I was asked to reflect upon my own lifeline or evolution of thought in regard to my current position on reimagining learner-centered ecosystems. Being a passionate educator of over twenty-five years, I have found myself at times questioning why I feel so compelled to bring forth the change our educational institutions are desperately in need of. “Why consistently be the square peg that never fits into the institutionalized circle? Would it simply be easier to conform to the demands of the traditional system?” are a few questions I’ve asked myself when the idea of attaining what I believe in my heart is best for ALL learners seems dauntingly impossible. Additionally, I’ve often referred to the act of bringing our progressive vision to life as a “bigger than us,” experience to describe the charge of constructing transformational change. Many speak about what should be done to improve learning experiences but seldom do we actually experience within the system the necessary changes being put into action. For me, the question that resides in my mind is, “How do we build it?” All the reasons why an evolutionary approach should be fostered are well understood. At S.A.G.E.® our commitment to rebuilding has brought us into the stages of investigating how we reach communities on a larger scale.

Spiraling back to the latest Learning Lab session I participated in, our facilitator asked each contributing member to identify major shifts or events in our lives that brought us to the very point we currently find ourselves at. Throughout our zoom conversation which consisted of members from diverse sectors throughout the United States, I found myself quickly jotting down three central ideas that came to mind: Okinawa, Japan, Autism, and Collaborative Group. As I did so, I realized that these events were key turning points in my life that inspired me to follow the path of fighting for equity within ALL spaces of inquiry; for ALL unique learners. To note, the divergent paths I have traveled have not been free from obstacles. Though I have much gratitude for the experiences I’ve encountered, they have not come without hardship (despite my unwavering optimism) or regret of certain decisions made. I’ve tried to utilize these difficult times as a source of inspiration for improvement. If we are to truly grow as individuals and uncover the “gray” or otherwise seen as “unknown possibilities,” an acknowledgment of our own flaws or mistakes made becomes a necessary component. Additionally, I found the common thread that merged our essential question within our learner-centered environment to this global, yet personal reflective inquiry, no coincidence at all.

SHIFT ONE: Okinawa, Japan

From my earliest memories, I have always known that I wanted to become an educator. There was never a doubt that facilitating the growth of young minds and nurturing children to their optimal levels of development was what I was meant to do in life. However, when I entered college, I remember wondering when the time would come that I finally began learning and enjoying my methods courses the way I LOVED working with children. Something was still missing as I continued on my academic journey. I felt as if I was simply going through the motions of schooling, just as I did all of the years leading up to college. Entering college, I had high expectations that this next chapter would be different from the traditional settings I previously experienced, especially since I was so passionate about the profession I was striving to enter. As time went by, I became more frustrated and transferred to a larger University, switching my major to Psychology, while minoring in Education. By changing my environment, taking more rigorous courses, and connecting to concepts I was truly engaged in such as the neuroscience of the brain, statistics, and cognitive psychology, my perception of schooling began to slightly shift. I attributed this to the fact that for the first time, I began to experience active learning over complying with what I was told to do next. It was interesting to me that the harder I had to work and the more challenged I was, the more intrinsically motivated I became in delving deeper into the concepts I was uncovering.

Once it came time for my practicums and student teaching, I had the opportunity to fulfill my requirements in Okinawa, Japan, and experience diverse learner-centered environments which forever shifted my view of learning. Being introduced to the “Bigger Picture” at an impressionable age of entering the educational field, ignited a learner-centered vision that resides within me today. It was then that I began understanding the difference between learning and schooling. Finally, I saw a glimpse of what I imagined learning to be. The children in Okinawa were immersed in fluid learner-centered environments where they played an active role in all they encountered. There was a major difference from my personal experiences in that they were at the center of their learning opportunities, which made the connections made within the open-walled environments that much more meaningful. Each child had a purpose as they actively engaged in individualized and cohort-based integrated initiatives. I was amazed that experiential learning was happening everywhere! From that point on, I began to understand the stark differences between environments that were built to fit into the system over the ones that placed the learner at the center of all experiences to support them in meeting their potential. As I enthusiastically began my career back in the United States, I attempted to bring all that I experienced in Okinawa into the classrooms I facilitated. Over time, I was slowly reminded that back on Long Island, N.Y. not much (besides the programs selected by the administration) had changed within the public institution I grew up with. Returning to my home district brought back similar experiences I encountered as a student moving through the system. The need for transformational change within our educational systems became apparently clear and once again the question of how to do so surfaced.


As I entered my tenth year in education, my husband and I were blessed to welcome our second son Evan Michael into the world. Jack, our oldest son who was two and a half years old at the time, became a proud big brother. Life was a “good busy,” as we balanced raising a family and our educational professions. When Evan turned eight months, we were fortunate to have our babysitter, MaryLee come to our home to care for our boys when I returned to teaching full time. Up until the age of two, Evan met all of his milestones and was truly thriving. However, after his second birthday, we began to observe a decline in his speech, eye contact, and basic skills he had once mastered. He began communicating less with anyone who interacted with him and walking on his tippy toes as he became over-sensitive to his environment. We could not understand why we were observing his young mind shutting down. It was as if someone turned off a switch that disconnected him from us. The world around him began to terrify him and we did not know why this was happening. Water running, dogs barking, fans spinning, dryers turning on, all put him into a screaming panic, as if someone was hurting him. We reacted quickly and had him evaluated in search of answers as to why he could no longer tolerate the world he once enjoyed.

At twenty-seven months, for reasons unknown, Evan was diagnosed with Autism and a sensory regulation disorder. My family and I were shocked. We were not prepared to hear such news. The onset was fast and furious, just as our attempts to help him were. My husband and I read every book we could find about early intervention, ABA, and sensory modulation dysfunction and began putting his programs in place that centered around his individualized needs. Prior to services, Evan was falling deeper into his autistic behaviors and we knew we were losing him. No more “hi mama” when I walked into the room. He had lost his ability to reciprocate any interactions and had a blank look as if he was staring through me. It felt as if we were racing against the clock to keep him from losing all that he had learned in his first two years of life. Our focus went into trying to turn the switch in his mind back on and pull him from this dark tunnel he was spiraling into.

Upon Evan’s diagnosis, the first book I read in connection to a family’s triumph over Autism was, Let Me Hear Your Voice by Catherine Maurice. It was a story told by a mother whose autistic children were saved by intensive behavioral therapy. Her courage to share her universal experience offered me the hope I needed to believe that it was possible to reverse what was happening in Evan’s mind and body. Within our home, a forty-five-hour therapeutic schedule ranging from ABA (applied behavior analysis), Speech, PT (physical therapy), and OT (occupational therapy) was up and running six days a week from 8:00 to 5:00. We would pause sessions for the mid-afternoon nap he stilled needed. Rather than placing him in a school setting, we chose to build a learning environment in the heart of his home where he could communicate with his brother and soon-to-be sister, Abigail. As he learned to acclimate to the stimuli in his home and with his family, we slowly transitioned him into the community purposely choosing places that would present challenges for him. Over time, he became desensitized to the scenarios that he previously perceived as a threat. To give an example, Evan was petrified of fans and knew every house in our neighborhood that he remembered seeing one in. As a part of his therapy, we would intentionally walk past those houses ignoring any talk about “fans,” attempting to extinguish his repetitive language and acclimate him to his neighborhood. To say the least, this was a slow and steady approach and one that was critical in helping him adjust to the outside world. I will never forget the first time I sat next to him at a patio table with a fan spinning above our heads, as we worked on a puzzle together. He was completely focused on what we were engaged in without obsessing, crying, or clinging to me in fear that the fan would hurt him. The thought that what we were doing was actually helping him raced through my mind with excitement. In regard to particular noises that he was afraid of, we learned the importance of regulating his senses by recording sounds of blow dryers, mixers, and games with white noise, and playing them softly in the background. Over time, his intense reactions to the objects he could not tolerate lessened.

This upcoming school year, Evan will turn seventeen years old and enter his senior year. He’s currently learning to drive, working at a golf course, and making decisions about what college he will be attending after graduation to major in Sports Management. To say the least, he’s thriving again! By second grade, Evan was declassified and no longer met the requirements for classification on the Autism spectrum. After intense therapy at the critical time period of brain development and a commitment to an integrated learner-centered approach, he recovered from his early diagnosis. This major event in our lives confirmed for me that through the implementation of integrated and individualized opportunities, progression can transpire. The linking component in this life-changing experience is the application of an evolutionary approach where the growth of each child is facilitated to ensure that optimal levels of functioning are attained. Evan was not forced into a one size fits all program. Rather, the programs run were designed around his competencies and ensured a strong foundation was being constructed as his learning unfolded naturally. As he mastered one task, we moved on to the next never knowing the outcome until we experienced it. By the time we moved into his later years of preschool and prepared him for kindergarten, Evan was fully engaged and connected to the world around him. I give thanks to God for providing us with the insight, means, and ability to advocate for what Evan needed to become an active thinker who learned to view the world as his learning environment and not a threat to his being. On a larger scale, I believe that Evan’s story and all we experienced together have inspired me to reach for the “impossible.” Overall, it has strengthened my commitment to not only reimagining but rebuilding spaces of inquiry where the potential within ALL learners is unlocked.

SHIFT THREE: Collaborative Group

At the time of Evan’s diagnosis, my friend, colleague, and co-founder of S.A.G.E.®, Timothy R. Miller, offered me the opportunity to join a learner-centered cohort of educators he had formed based on the tenants of LCI (Learner-Centered Initiatives). His research, in-depth experience in building interwoven environments of thought, and commitment to pedagogy inspired him to share his craft as means to advance learner-centered practices. I remember feeling so excited to be a part of this movement and was honored to be considered a “mover” within the educational sector. I participated in the first few sessions Tim facilitated and quickly realized that despite my enthusiasm, at that particular time period, I would not be able to fully commit to the LCI collaboration or movement. Building Evan’s home learning environment, learning ABA, and working with his team of six teachers did not leave an opening for me to engage in additional endeavors. Engaging in the research needed to take on the charge of transforming education was simply not an option for me at that time. I remember the disappointment I felt in sharing my decision to leave the cohort with Tim but had no doubt that it was the path I had to take to support my family and facilitate Evan's home program, along with fulfilling my responsibilities as an educator. For then, I was content knowing that the work to share a progressive approach that made sense for ALL learners was happening, and believed it was the right direction for our educational institutions to be moving in. Back then, I still had hope that the fixed system could be changed from within.

Years later, a new opportunity to be immersed in learner-centered professional growth came my way. It was another invitation from Tim to join a “Collaborative Group” he formed of individuals who were committed to uncovering an evolutionary approach. The focus was on maximizing the creativity and diversity of passionate educators to cultivate cultures of innovative thought. We engaged in various Socratic discussions ranging from articles read to best practices that held the possibility of transforming learning environments. Our hopes were that each of us would communicate and collaborate in a way that we would eventually branch off to facilitate the growth of educators beyond our cohort and impact educational sectors on a larger scale. Immediately, the same enthusiasm I felt while being in Okinawa, observing Evan growing in his learner-centered home environment, and the brief sessions of participating in the LCI cohort returned. The time was right for me to commit to a unified vision and collaboration that held the power of possibilities. I was so thankful for the opportunity that presented itself once again.

With a shared understanding that learning is organic, our collaborative group morphed into a partnership that strengthened a commitment to uncovering the distinct elements that support evolutionary learning. Our recent post, A Step Towards Unlearning outlines our framework designed for rebuilding. Diving into research ranging from inquiries within LCI, Project Zero, Neuroscience, Transformative Leadership, and Montessori Methods eventually led us to establish connections with Education Reimagined where we continue building relationships with those who share a unified progressive vision. Together, we founded our educational organization S.A.G.E.® (Sustained Attainment Generating Excellence) to advance the emergence of thinking academies through the breakdown of institutionalized learning. In reflecting upon how these three major events merged together and impacted my life, I am reminded of the significant role the power of hope plays in uncovering possibilities. As we move into the unknown future, I do so with gratitude for the events that have solidified a transformational vision of evolutional thought.

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