Following the Learner
Within learner-centered environments, an educator's ability to follow the child is critical in enhancing opportunities for optimal growth. When moment-by-moment decisions are made based on the observations of what a learner can and cannot do, we meet them where they are at their precise moment of development. It is at this point that learning has the potential to ignite. For facilitators, there is no gift greater than seeing a child construct meaning and intrinsically develop deep, purposeful understanding. When these connections are made on behalf of the learner, the natural learning process becomes quite beautiful to observe.
Dr. Maria Montessori dedicated her life to analyzing and studying the enlightened concepts of observation, purpose, and intentionality. In that, she deeply understood learning was an evolutionary process that could only take hold if the child's well-being was central to the experiential learning environment they interacted with. Often, she compared educators to gardeners of the human potential responsible for guiding and cultivating conditions for optimal learning. In her opinion, facilitators serve as hidden hinges, providing the proper support throughout a learner's journey. Just as plants wilt without proper care, she explained that children would not thrive in environments unresponsive to their individualized needs. Against all odds and even with the best intentions, a garden will not flourish without the necessary elements for growth.
For those passionate about creating thriving learning environments, the disheartened reality is that most educational sectors do not embrace a learner-centered approach. With this, we understand far too well that progressive research supports the importance of meeting individual learners where they are in their academic, social, and emotional development. Yet, within the inner workings of many current educational systems, opportunities for natural progression and individualized learning rarely present themselves. It is ubiquitous to find that a ten-year-old placed in a fourth-grade class, instructed in a fourth-grade anthology-based program, may very well be reading at a first-grade level. "How could this scenario be possible?" one may question.
Suppose a young child did not know how to swim. Would the Red Cross recommend placing them in an advanced class where they were expected to swim over 50 meters or have them join a course aligned with their abilities? Roles reversed; an advanced swimmer would not be placed in an emergent class simply because of their chronological age. Yet, in education, this is precisely how the system is structured. As a swim instructor, I've often observed five-year-olds more than capable of diving into the deep end of a pool and swimming independently to the ladder. In this case, there was no need to hold them back in an emergent class when they demonstrated the competencies needed to build upon their skills. This leads us to question why learners are consistently pushed along without acquiring the essential strategies necessary for long-term understanding or held back because of the year they were born. We could only imagine the growth we would see if they were immersed in environments that supported individualized pacing, where mastery was central to progression.
We can certainly look to the medical field as an example of differentiation. In various scenarios, patients undergoing treatment for particular ailments may seek the advice of medical professionals they trust and respect. Their doctor's skillset and recommended course for treatment are vital to the individual's overall well-being. Even with a similar diagnosis, each patient's care differs due to their unique makeup, environment, and factors affecting their prognosis. With these essential components carefully considered, individualized treatment plans are designed and implemented under the direct facilitation of the professional physician. Similar to the autonomy needed for a physician to navigate a patient's course of treatment, it would only make sense that professional educators are given the same latitude to individualize learning. In doing so, decisions would be tailored to the very best interest of each learner.
In reflecting upon these analogies, we return to our learner-centered roots and research that supports the creation of optimal environments. Undoubtedly, learning is a natural, organic process for which there is no prescribed treatment. It can only take hold when learners are active agents in the process, and the freedom to guide inquiry is provided. In addition to being inspired by many influential pioneers of our past, such as Dr. Maria Montessori, we can look to the Finnish School System as a model of transformative growth. Within one of the most vital school systems in the world, learners, professional educators, and leadership teams are reaching their potential within thriving learning environments. By following the learner and harnessing a sense of trust in the professional educators guiding them, we seek to find a starting point for progression.