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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

Becoming an Independent Learner: A Conversation with Charli

By Ryan Mick

We are pleased to share with you today a piece from our storytelling series of reflections and noticings coming out of our convening in Tucson!

Please stay tuned for more writings from our team of storytellers and revisit the blog here to see them all in the coming months.


Caption: Becoming an independent learner (photo by Gary Chapin)

I sat down with my discussion partner Charli, a high school student, at the ALP conference in Tucson. It was a session on independent learning. The facilitator posed the question, “When did you become an independent learner?”

Charli, looking a bit skeptical, asked me, “When did you become an independent learner?”

I paused for a moment, realizing that Charli's question was poking at something in me. I confessed, “Honestly, I don’t think I became an independent learner until after I graduated from high school. It took me a while to figure out how to learn on my own.”

Charli nodded in agreement, “I feel the same way. But, why do you think it’s important to be an independent learner now?”

“Well,” I explained, “with so much information available and the world constantly changing, it’s important to be able to take control of your own learning and adapt to new challenges and opportunities.”

Charli responded thoughtfully, “That makes sense, but how can schools help students become independent learners?”

I suggested, “One way is to incorporate formative assessment practices. This is a process that provides ongoing feedback to students during the learning process, helping them monitor their progress and adjust their approach when needed. By giving students more control over their learning, formative assessment can help foster a sense of agency and motivation that drives independent learning.”

Charli seemed intrigued, “How can schools make sure the assessments are helping us develop the skills we need to be independent learners?”

I replied, “One approach is to align formative assessments with 'portraits of a graduate,' a set of competencies and skills that educators believe students should possess in order to succeed in college, career, and life. These competencies may include critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication, among others. By connecting assessments to these competencies, students can develop the skills they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world.”

Charli nodded, “That sounds like a good idea. But, how can formative assessments and portraits of a graduate help teachers improve their own teaching practices?”

I explained, “By providing ongoing feedback to students, teachers can gain valuable insights into how their students are learning and adjust their instruction to better meet their needs. Similarly, by focusing on the competencies and skills that students need to develop to succeed, educators can ensure that their teaching is aligned with real-world expectations and requirements.”

As Charli and I continued our conversation, we both agreed that if our schools had prioritized formative assessment and portraits of a graduate, we would have had more access to flexible and responsive learning opportunities where we would work collaboratively with our teachers and schools to meet our individual needs. Despite the barriers that exist, we both recognized the importance and value of independent learning as we look ahead to an uncertain future.


About the Storyteller

Ryan Mick is Chief Program Officer (CPO) of The Learning Accelerator (TLA). In this capacity, he is responsible for developing the vision for TLA’s programmatic impact, serving as a key partner in establishing overall strategy, and building and leveraging partnerships that support TLA in achieving its mission and goals.

A national leader in human-centered design, innovation, and continuous improvement, Ryan joined TLA after serving as the Senior Vice President of Program Design at City Year. There, he led the organization’s program model efforts across more than 350 schools and the launch of its school design and improvement division, which included the creation of a teacher residency program, a charter school, and several networks for school improvement across the nation.

Ryan is a first-generation college student from rural Ohio. He completed a bachelor’s degree in history and economics, a master’s degree in educational research, a law degree from George Washington University, and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in organizational learning, performance, and change. Ryan has worked in the fields of child policy, civic education, and legal advocacy and has held roles as special education teacher, program designer, performance coach, and was a founder of the Diverse Learners Initiative at Teach For America.

Ryan joined the TLA team because he believes that students deserve equitable access to the best education, free from barriers and system constraints. Ryan is based in Denver, CO and spends his time hiking the mountains, playing the piano, and traveling the world with friends and family.


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