Students must be at the very heart and center of any education system for it to be truly transformative. Their voices, their learning and life experiences, their socio-cultural backgrounds and their full selves must be recognized to move toward sustainable education systems transformation that is human-centered.
From its inception through its successful implementation, the YARI Project is a youth-led research program that adheres to the principle of centering students as full human beings. The project provides structures and scaffolds to support a cohort of intersectional youth – those coming from historically marginalized backgrounds and identify as possessing a learning difference – to pursue research questions about the education system that they are most passionate about. Their perspective is powerful because of their intersectionality and because they are researching and critiquing systems that were built without them in mind. It’s a human-centered approach, one where every learner is able to engage in free thinking, unconstrained by their demographic and socio-cultural backgrounds.
A key learning at the very early stages of the YARI Project is that students’ experiences are inevitably rooted in the identities that provide them the passion, drive and sense-making lens in their research projects. At the launch convening, the students mapped their learning journeys, identifying where they had their best and worst learning experiences. Then, they participated in an advocacy exercise where they created posters about their main concerns and went on to set up a protest rally to loudly proclaim what they are advocating for:
- One research group, consisting of two students and their adult mentor, all women of color, pursued a question on racial and ethnic dynamics within classrooms
- Another team shared very difficult experiences being othered in middle school due to their learning differences and researched various accommodations provided within classrooms for students with different learning pathways
- Other students shared family immigration and English-learner backgrounds, motivating them to pursue a comparative study of English as a Second Language/English Language Learner programs between traditional schools and those that pursue relatively more personalized learning approaches
The students’ home school, The Met High School in Providence, Rhode Island, is a center for personalized learning innovation, and our collaboration with school administrators and counselors from the project start helped establish a multi-faceted and resilient support structure for the students. During the pandemic, there was a strong and unwavering commitment to prioritize the health, safety and specific situation of every person involved. This prioritization of human care and connection ensured that all five YARI projects were successfully completed.
For me, the most resonant insight that the YARI Project has brought is that human-centered learning is ultimately about human relationships held together by love, care and belonging. Systems must be built upon this principle if they want to provide learning and connection spaces that allow individuals to bring and interact with their full selves, wherein the tapestry of individual assets, backgrounds and experiences can be brought together for deeply rewarding learning experiences for all.