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How can we design learning settings so that all students thrive?

Updated: Apr 8

Pamela Cantor, M.D., Linda Darling-Hammond, Merita Irby, and Karen Pittman


Education has long been central to the promise of the United States of America. But our current education system has never been designed to promote the equitable opportunities or outcomes that our children and families deserve, and that our democracy, society and economy need. Our system was designed for a different world — to support mass education preparing students for their presumed “places in life.” That world believed that talent and skills were scarce, it trusted averages as a measure of individuals and it was a world where racist beliefs and stereotypes shaped the system so that only some children were deemed worthy of opportunity. These beliefs influenced the learning and development ecosystem beyond school walls as well – such that access to high quality exploration and enrichment opportunities were more often a reflection of wealth and zip code than need or interest.


The Principles: What We Know

A recent report from Policy Analysis for California Education found that school closures in spring 2020 caused especially severe slowdowns in reading and math achievement for young students, and growing achievement gaps for low-income students and English learners.

COVID-19, the economic downturn and the racialized violence that we all saw on video from Minneapolis to the nation’s capital have laid bare the inequities of experience and opportunity for people of color in our country. First responses to these realities (using deficit-focused terms like learning loss and COVID slide) are sometimes framed as simply needing extra doses of instructional time, with a “booster shot” of relationship-building to assess and address trauma. These deficit-focused responses will fail for most students. Students lost instructional time; they did not lose their ability to learn, and they have not stopped learning since the start of the pandemic. Focusing on what they lost without asking them what they learned will not motivate or engage them; instead, it could inadvertently exacerbate learning gaps. Given a chance, most students, even those who faced significant adversities, have positive stories to tell about the competencies, confidence, connections and contributions they made, even as they acknowledge concern about the instructional time they have missed. While it seems counter-intuitive, narrow remedial responses do not accelerate learning in the ways we know are possible because they both under-educate and stigmatize students, undermining them rather than accelerating their progress. A deep focus on building strong relationships, fostering a sense of belonging and attending to social, emotional, and cognitive development is not in conflict with efforts to accelerate academic learning. These strategies are mutually dependent and reinforcing.


The inequitably funded, highly tracked system we inherited was designed for selecting and sorting those who got to go on to more challenging curriculum, good schools and good jobs and those who did not. It was not designed to give children – especially Black and Brown children and children living in poverty – the experiences they needed to thrive and, especially, what they needed to escape the gravitational pull of poverty.


Today, we have a tremendous opportunity to reimagine our education system, to stop doing the things that have harmed many students, especially Black and Brown students, and to use what we know from the science of learning and development. Joining scientific research to the deep experiences of practitioners can bring far better learning experiences and opportunity to many more students—experiences that are transformative, empowering, personalized and culturally affirming


Today, we know that talent and skills exist in a potential state in all children. We know that all learning is variable, and that we can design settings, both in and out of school, that are rich in relationships, and are deeply personalized in order to help all students master 21st century skills and knowledge, develop positive identities, and find purpose and fulfillment in their lives. All of this can happen today, but only if we apply the knowledge we have, invest in the right things and do it at a level of scale that can reach each and every young person no matter their starting point.


This is why we, as part of a group of educators, scientists and community partners, are launching the Essential Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole-Child Design.


Building from the science of learning and development, each of the five elements of the wheel is grounded in a substantial body of research from diverse fields and, in many ways, are not controversial and will be familiar to and resonate with educators and practitioners. However, despite this clarity and alignment, it is challenging for districts and schools to implement truly integrated classroom and school environments. Progress has been impeded by both historical traditions and current policy built on dated assumptions about teaching and learning.


Taken together, they are the essential ingredients to healthy development, learning and thriving.

Positive developmental relationships. The key characteristics of a developmental relationship include emotional caring and attachment that create trust and support learning and growth. The emotional connection is joined with adult guidance that enables children to learn skills, grow in their competence and confidence and become more able to perform tasks on their own and take on new challenges. Developmental relationships can both buffer the impact of stress and provide a pathway to motivation, self-efficacy, learning and further growth.


Environments filled with safety and belonging. Children learn best when they feel physically, emotionally and identity safe, when their cultures are represented and valued in their learning communities and when they feel a sense of membership and connection. Learning communities that have shared values and routines, communicate worth as well as high expectations and demonstrate cultural affirmation create calm and ignite students’ capacity for engagement and creativity.


Rich learning experiences and knowledge development. Rich learning experiences are those that fully engage and challenge students and help them discover what they are capable of. These experiences are both personally meaningful and intellectually challenging, building on students’ prior knowledge and experiences, and helping students build skills and knowledge within their zone of proximal development. Students learn best when they are engaged in authentic activities and are collaborating and working with peers to deepen their understanding and transfer knowledge to new problems and settings.


Development of skills, habits and mindsets. Social, emotional, academic and cognitive skills are essential for productive engaged learning, work and life. These skills include personal and social awareness that support self-regulation and social skills, executive function skills that support organization and self-direction and habits that support a growth mindset, resilience and perseverance. When integrated with content, these skills work together to produce higher order 21st century skills like problem solving, collaboration, metacognition and critical thinking.


Integrated support systems. Learning settings that are designed with many more protective factors in place – including health, mental health and academic supports such as tutoring and mentoring – will enhance engagement, achievement and fulfillment in learning. These include the opportunities to extend learning and build on interests and passions.


These five elements (the segments of the wheel) implemented in ways that are personalized, empowering, culturally-affirming and transformative are useful both for designing new learning settings and for assessing our current settings. They are also critical for exposing and upending inequities across the learning and development ecosystem, from classrooms to extra-curriculars to community-based programming, and at every level of decision-making – from learning sites to systems to policies. With these lenses in place, we can not only imagine and build what is possible and new but also interrogate and transform what exists in the present.


To this end, we have worked with over 100 leaders across the fields of education and youth development to develop two companion playbooks, one for K-12 educators and one for community-based practitioners, that provide a grounding in developmental and learning science, include descriptions of the structures and practices that characterize Whole-Child Design and provide case studies and vignettes that illustrate what these practices look like in action. We also provide resources for implementation and evidence about what these practices accomplish when implemented with high fidelity and integration in both school and community-based settings.


These resources, which will launch before summer, were designed by practitioners, scientists and community stakeholders, including parents, to build the bridge to practice and drive innovations through new school and learning models, curricula, measurement and educator development.


To achieve the transformation we need today, education and learning systems must be willing to embrace what we know about how children learn and develop. The core message from diverse sciences is clear: the range of students’ academic skills and knowledge – and, ultimately, students’ potential as human beings – can be significantly influenced through exposure to highly favorable conditions: learning environments and experiences that are intentionally designed using the principles of Whole-Child Design. To create this transformation, the scientific principles, structures and practices highlighted in this upcoming Whole-Child Design playbook can become the foundation for new 21st century education and learning systems designed to support robust equity and the acquisition of the full set of skills and mastery-level competencies needed by all young people in the 21st century.


If you have questions or are interested in learning more about the Design Principles project, please click here to sign up for our newsletter.


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