Teaching Opinion

Randy Ziegenfuss on Teacher Leadership and Student-Centered Learning

By Tom Vander Ark — October 17, 2018 4 min read
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If you follow education social media, you’ve probably heard of Salisbury Superintendent Randy Ziegenfuss. Over the last three years, he’s become a leading advocate of learner-centered education. He’s on Facebook, Twitter (@ziegeran) and he blogs. With his assistant superintendent Lynn, Randy has produced more than 40 episodes of the Shift Your Paradigm podcast which explores learner-centered education and leadership.

Salisbury Township sits between Allentown and Bethlehem in the Lehigh Valley of central Pennsylvania. Randy went to high school and college in Bethlehem. He was pretty good at playing school and really good at playing the trumpet. He studied music in college and became a music teacher after graduation.

Ziegenfuss thinks music teachers have a special appreciation for personalized and competency-based learning. “By the nature of the domain it’s very performance oriented,” said Randy

Music teachers also appreciate the benefits of extended challenges, individual practice, and public performances said, Ziegenfuss. “Musicians become expert in areas of passion.”

Randy moved from music to technology and helped Salisbury make the shift from analog to digital. He admitted they were more focused on tech than learning during the shift, “We were focused on tech until we got to 1:1.”

After the shift to digital learning, “Mindsets started to shift,” said Ziegenfuss, “We ask what really is powerful learning?”

Four years ago, Randy became superintendent in Salisbury. Rather than “focus on boards, budgets, and sports fields,” as is common, Ziegenfuss set out to put “teaching and learning at the core of what we do.”

Randy launched a community conversation to develop the Salisbury portrait of a graduate. Then they began considering what learning experiences and environments would get students there. With a clear definition of what graduates should know and be able to do, the Salisbury team found and adopted the elements of learner-centered education from Education Reimagined: learner agency; personalized, relevant and contextualized; socially embedded; open walled; and competency-based.

“Getting to know kids, what are they curious about, and connecting to student passion--these things line up with elements of Education Reimagined.”

In the early stages of transformation, Ziegenfuss recognizes that “context is important” and “each school has unique strengths and personalities.” Salisbury schools have the agency to create a focus and organize their own work.

“Two years ago the change process started with pockets of teachers that had the propensity to give it a go,” said Ziegenfuss. “We gave them license to experiment.”

“You can’t force a mindset change, you create conditions where people come to it in their time,” added Ziegenfuss.

Change is starting around the edges. Salisbury high school is experimenting with student internships captured on media. A half-day middle school pilot is experimenting with new forms of feedback and harnessing student (and parent) interest.

Ziegenfuss is trying to create space for principals to develop their own understanding. They visit and study other schools to learn what they can. “The process takes time,” said Randy, “It can’t come top down.”

While he may not be pushing top-down change, Randy’s advocacy asks us all to reconsider education and ways it could become more learner-centered.

Key Takeaways from the Podcast

[:16] About this week’s guest, Randy Ziegenfuss.
[1:06] About Randy’s early education.
[4:11] Does Randy think that music teachers have a special appreciation for personalized and competency-based learning? And that every learner is on a different journey?
[8:43] How being a band director teaches you humility.
[10:48] How Randy moved from his position teaching music, to teaching technology, to becoming Superintendent.
[15:17] About next week’s iNACOL Party in Nashville. Email Editor@gettingsmart.com to get your name on the list!
[15:36] Randy speaks about the analog-to-digital learning shift in education and how it has helped to provide perspective on the current shift from school-centered to student-centered.
[19:26] When student-centered learning really clicked for Randy.
[21:13] Did Randy adopt Education Reimagined’s student-centered learning principles as part of his strategic plan at Salisbury?
[23:55] Randy’s journey at Salisbury and his progress in shifting the schools to more student-based learning.
[31:44] How Randy’s framework is helping to shift the mindsets and allow time for reflection.
[33:25] Randy’s thoughts on the tension between innovation and equity (when progress is happening at different speeds in the district).
[35:35] About Randy’s podcast, Shift Your Paradigm, and what he’s trying to accomplish with it.
[41:37] Looking forward, what is Randy most curious about in transforming education?
[44:22] Parting words and thanks from Tom and Randy.

Mentioned in This Episode

Randy’s Twitter
Randy’s LinkedIn
Shift Your ParadigmPodcast
Lynn Fuini-Hetten’s Twitter (Randy’s podcast co-host)
Social Good Summit
Johns Hopkins University
Education Reimagined
Pioneering Newsletter

For more, see:

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.