State and federal education policy over the past 20 years has been developed within a standards-based reform framework which has emphasized a systemic approach to education reform. Through a sequence of developmental steps whole systems can be altered to create new levels of results: create standards with specific emphasis on college and career readiness and on 21st century skills; align the system’s components (e.g. curriculum, instruction, assessments, professional learning) to those standards; build accountability protocols to identify problems and successes; and establish a process for developing and delivering innovative solutions and continuous improvement processes.

This process for adjusting the architecture of learning environments and systems has met with some success when there is sufficient capacity to enact needed changes in an on-going fashion.  But like with any system it is fundamentally important to maintain a clear and laser-like focus on the end user/beneficiary — the students. As the world renowned design company IDEO asserts, “  … our challenge is not only to build infrastructure, but also to design effective learning experiences, so that students stay engaged, discover new meaning, and achieve the desired outcomes. We develop new digital apps and platforms, design schools and other learning environments, and build knowledge sharing systems for managing complex data across institutions – all of which center around the needs of core users, typically the learners themselves…”  In essence, we need to ensure a full focus on the learner even while we engage in continuing debates over the architecture of the system.

We propose to launch a study group on the learner to help guide the development of sound state policy moving forward. In consort with this focus on learners, what they know and can do, and the environment in which they learn, significant attention must also be given to higher order skills that will ensure success in the 21st century.  Among those skills are critical thinking, problem solving, effective communication, collaboration, and self-awareness.  Key issues such as instructional strategies, appropriate assessments, and learning environments focused on how the learner acquires and demonstrates these skills must be examined.