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We Need Human-Centered Learning Systems

February 2, 2021

By: Katherine Prince

What if education were life-affirming for both people and the planet? What if systems of teaching and learning provided each person with the opportunities and supports that they needed to thrive?

In a recent paper, Envisioning Human-Centered Learning Systems, KnowledgeWorks unpacks these possibilities. We first introduced the concept of human-centered learning in our Navigating the Future of Learning forecast. While we aim to present a balanced view of future possibilities, we form opinions about them. This one excited us.

So we dug in further. As we did so, our ideas evolved, deepening and bringing more dimensions to our understanding of human-centered learning. As we stated in the paper, we came to see that “human-centered learning is more than a classroom practice or a pedagogical approach. It is a systemic shift that aligns educational structures, policies, practices and learning experiences around the flourishing and well-being of the people involved in education — including students, teachers, administrators, families and community members.”

Webinar: Learn More About Human-Centered Learning

We believe that human-centered learning is essential for this moment in time. As KnowledgeWorks has been exploring for the past few years, a new era is emerging. Driven by the rise of smart machines, data-driven automation and artificial intelligence and compounded by the challenges of climate change and expanding globalization, the emerging era is shifting the ground upon which education and other long-established institutions stand. Education systems have been straining to adapt. With COVID-19 and the public outcry caused by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black individuals, education’s systemic inequities and failure to provide each learner with the opportunities and supports needed to thrive have come into widespread view.

The systems upon which we have relied – and which have failed to serve every learner – do not suffice now. They will be even more inadequate in 10 years.

As we pick up the pieces of disrupted teaching and learning systems, support learners in healing from scars left by the COVID-19 pandemic and confront systemic inequities, we need to do more than patch back together established approaches to education. We need to envision how education systems might prioritize both human development and well-being for all stakeholders. We need to consider how human-centered learning systems might help learners and educators realize their aspirations and navigate a volatile future. We need to let ourselves imagine what such systems would look, feel and sound like.

As KnowledgeWorks explored human-centered learning, we identified four essential elements that suggest where we might take education with these aspirations in mind, along with four strategies for making human-centered learning a reality.

Illustration of sun, labeled "Human-Centered Learning," with the light being labeled "vision." Clouds read: "Education Liberates Young People to Participate Fully in Society," "Leadership Is Intentionally Inclusive and Co-Creative," "Schools Organize for Love and Belonging" and "Learning Becomes a Lifelong Personal Practice." An arrow path leads toward the sun. It's labeled "Strategic Steps" and lists the steps: "Model Learning as a Personal Practice," "Prioritize Relational Competencies as Essential Skills," "co-Create Authentic Learning for Agency and Impact" and "Build Organizational Connections for Equitable Responses."

What might this vision for the future of learning mean for your organization or learning community? What programs, structures, practices and priorities would be different? What kinds of stories might students, educators, families and communities tell about their experiences? What might be possible that does not seem attainable today?

To delve further into possibilities for human-centered learning and what they could mean in your context, download Envisioning Human-Centered Learning Systems.


Katherine Prince
Vice President of Foresight and Strategy

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