Moving Education Toward the Third Horizon

Acclaimed Educational Innovator Kim Smith Reflects on How LearnerStudio is Accelerating Progress Toward an Equitable, Flexible, and Learner-Centered Educational System

We often talk about reenvisioning, reimagining, redesigning, and rethinking educational systems. But such language sometimes obscures more basic questions: How does a learner experience that transformation? What groups need to be involved? What investments do we need? What structures do we need to create? What infrastructure is required? What capacities do we need to develop? What policies do we need to establish? LearnerStudio is doing critical work to answer these questions, bringing together diverse stakeholders to collaboratively wrestle with questions of practice and design to create a blueprint for redesigning and building a learner-centered, flexible, equitable system of education.

We sat down with LearnerStudio’s founder and CEO Kim Smith. Smith has founded and led some of the most cutting-edge organizations in education, philanthropy, and research, including the Pahara Institute, Bellwether Education Partners, and NewSchools Venture Fund. In our conversation, Smith shares why she founded LearnerStudio; her vision for the third horizon of education; the infrastructure that is needed to develop a future-ready educational ecosystem; and the crucial role of philanthropy in driving innovation.

What inspired the creation of LearnerStudio? What challenges were you seeking to address?

As I was leaving the Pahara Institute, which focuses on developing and supporting diverse leaders, I was conducting interviews across the education innovation landscape, thinking about what the next frontier needed to be. At the same time, the COVID disruption began.

We were hearing a lot of common themes, which I was also seeing with my own middle school kids. We were hearing, from parents, students, and educators alike, that there was a need to re-envision PreK to 14 education to make it more engaging, experiential, and learner-centered. To be blunt, learners were just bored.

We watched the COVID disruption change parents’ and educators’ mindsets about what’s possible. We also saw learners make big pivots in the way they were approaching their own learning. We realized that this was a moment when we could do some really bold systems reengineering.

How did those conversations and that opportunity lead to the collaborative model for LearnerStudio that you’ve developed?

What was exciting about all these conversations was how much alignment there was amongst parents, learners, and educators around a system where learners could drive their own learning and combine their passions and interests with other areas such as career preparation, civics, and participating in democracy.

We saw a need for collective action and collaborative work to advance this vision. There are many innovators in the field who have been working in this direction for a really long time, but not necessarily at scale. They’re often swimming against the current because of the way the system was set up. We saw an opportunity to accelerate their work and bring people together to think about what it would be like if we could reengineer these systems. 

In what ways does the collaborative model that you’re describing build on your leadership at Pahara, NewSchools, Bellwether, and other organizations?

In so many ways! There are similarities to the structure and process that we developed at NewSchools where we brought together a network of leaders with some common purpose, including policy leaders, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs. At Pahara, we were engaging leaders in the kind of deep, reflective, values-based learning that we want to design the new system to provide for young people. At Bellwether, we intentionally tried to connect the dots between policy and leadership strategy, recognizing that those things really have to be aligned in order to work well.

At LearnerStudio, you’ve brought all this thinking together to develop the Horizon 3 (H3) framing for the future of education. What does this concept entail?

We need to recognize the fact that these three different horizons are happening at the same time. The first horizon is traditional efficiency design. This is the system most of us associate with schooling, organized in grade levels by age, with learning parsed into narrow subject areas organized into time blocks and curricula. There are a lot of amazing people who’ve been innovating within that structure. 

The second horizon is efficiency innovation. This system operates in parallel to and often within the traditional school model, with innovations pushing against the constraints of the old rules. In this system, we’re changing one or two components, but not really re-designing everything. 

The third horizon—a future-ready ecosystem—is a new system, which requires new infrastructure, new design, and a new set of policy rules. It’s much smaller than the other two horizons. That offers an opportunity to pause and redesign the way we think about how the system works so that it accomplishes what we’re interested in around agentic learning, so that it’s learner-centered.

What does that learner-centered vision actually look like in the third horizon?

There’s much more opportunity for learners to make choices and to drive their own learning, to own their data, to follow different pathways based on a mixture of their interests, their skills, their competencies, and their appetites.

It will involve rethinking the educator role so that there’s much more flexibility in the system for different adults to engage in youth development and teaching. It will involve creating many more places to learn. There will be schools, of course, but there’ll also be other opportunities to learn outside of the school environment. We’ll also need a different sort of technology infrastructure to track and credit learning.

How does the third horizon work as an ecosystem?

In the third horizon, we’re operating with a broader definition of success. We’re looking not just at academic success in schools, but also success in careers, success in life, success as active participants in community and democracy.

When you begin from that broader definition of success, you can identify the different things that need to be available for learners to develop competencies and capacities. Classroom learning is a piece of it. Online learning could be a piece of it. Learning in real life and in the community can be a part of it. 

In order to facilitate all those different kinds of learning, we’ll need many different roles—learning coaches, student success coaches, mentors. We’ll need different ways for learners to access learning experiences, as well as different kinds of learning experiences.

What’s an example of what this might look like?

My daughter happens to be participating in an internship in aviation right now. She’s going out in the real world to learn at the local airport. She then discovered that her VR tool had a flight simulator that included an instrumentation piece. Instrumentation was actually one of the first steps in the aviation class course. My daughter used the VR to understand where the different instruments were in the plane. 

In this case, that’s learning she’s doing on her own. In a sense it’s credited because it’s part of a course that she’s taking. But you could imagine a situation where if she was compiling these learning experiences on her own, you might see some credit for completing the VR component and a different piece to credit the learning she did at the airport. All these things through all of these different modalities add up to her mastering a skill set around learning how to operate a plane. Currently, it can be really difficult for learners to get credited.

On the third horizon, we’d have a learning and employment record and an infrastructure that would let us track all those different kinds of learning and the learner could sew them together. They could explain to someone and share that data to say, “I was interested in learning how to fly and these are the different component pieces I have pulled together for that.”

What pieces of infrastructure are needed in the third horizon?

There’s obviously the physical infrastructure piece, but we need to think about other sites for learning besides just the school building. We need to navigate and manage those sites safely. Transportation between learning experiences is important. There’s the technological infrastructure needed to track learning and employment and offer different options for plugging into those technologies. 

Some of the infrastructure has to do with quality. We typically now look to accredited institutions to grant credit for the learning. But if learners are learning in different places, we’ll need a different type of arbiter of quality. For example, in most cases, kids who are learning in 4-H don’t get credit for that learning. They should be and they could be. But there needs to be an arbiter who can say that the experience you had raising livestock in 4-H qualifies for scientific learning and experiential learning. You need a place to plug in those badges or other credentials to certify skills and competencies. That’s an emergent piece of infrastructure that we’re going to need to develop and design in a way that allows young people to own this data versus solely universities and institutions.

We will also need to develop a more robust set of learning experiences, building on what’s available already. And we will need a new set of assessments. To go back to my daughter working on avionics, there might be some “assessments” embedded in that VR simulation, or in her work at the airport. In addition, we are going to need some formative and summative assessments that are different from the way we’re used to thinking about assessments. They can’t be abstract. Instead, they need to be embedded at different moments in time in the learning process. The good news is that there are beginning points that already exist for almost all of those things.

What are some of those starting points that you’re looking to as inspiration for this work?

We already have a whole set of strong competency frameworks including Durable Skills, the XQ Competencies, reDesign’s Future9, and One Stone. There’s also great progress on states working on “portraits of a graduate” which are similarly aligned ways of saying, “This is what we want young people to know and be able to do.”

There are a whole lot of technologies available to develop different knowledge and skills. And we’re just beginning to make progress on the assessment front. There are some good initiatives emerging, including the Carnegie/ETS partnership. The Gordon Commission is working with researchers to think about how we could conceive of assessment in really different ways.

There are a number of school models that are different. For example, Big Picture has been working on this for a long time. They now have the international big picture credential, which is an effort to try to articulate the competencies they’re working toward and to invest in rigor.

The rigor piece is really important. As you change practice, and make learning more holistic, more mastery-based, more-competency based it’s important for us to invest in a conversation around what rigor looks like in that context. It’s different from the way we’re used to thinking about standard, static, academic rigor. 

How are you engaging and collaborating with others to have these conversations?

Our strategy is still emergent, but as an example, we have been convening a group of leaders and changemakers at an annual event called “Rethinking Together.” We are intentionally bringing leaders together across silos and across domains. That includes system designers, tech people, educators, policy leaders. Together we are talking about how we might build toward the third horizon. What should we take with us from the second horizon? What needs to change? Where are there big gaps and opportunities?

We are also convening working groups to deal with specific design challenges, such as infrastructure. In that particular group, we were hearing decent conversations about infrastructure in general—buildings, transportation, learning experiences, data interoperability. But there was a sense in most of those conversations that either the private sector or the public sector would lead a lot of that work. We see what we call the “public-purpose utility” as a third way.

Tell us more about public-purpose utilities. LearnerStudio just released a whitepaper discussing the role of public-purpose utilities in building the third horizon. What are some of the major findings from that work?

The private sector is super efficient and pushes forward on innovation, but generally doesn’t do a great job of focusing on quality or equity. In turn, the public sector often carries the responsibility to focus on equity and quality, but is not known for speedy innovation. You have two players that can both be helpful, but neither is necessarily well-suited to this moment, which is to drive forward with bold innovation.

Instead, we see public-purpose utilities as a possible sector to lead this work. That could be a public-private entity, a quasi-public governance structure, or a different incentive structure. In our working group, we’re thinking about what a public-purpose utility could look like and where it should be deployed. Where should we not leave things to either the private sector or the public sector?

One of the things we emphasize in the paper is the importance of philanthropy in moving forward on these public-purpose utilities. When compared with the public and private sectors, philanthropy is more nimble, more flexible. Philanthropy can provide capital earlier in the process than the public sector can, but also stay focused on equity and quality in a way the private sector can’t. It can provide the grounding to set the other sectors up for success.

A good example of how philanthropy can get something started is public libraries. Andrew Carnegie initiated the public library system as a charitable endeavor. But over time, the public will changed. People came to feel that public libraries were an important public-purpose utility, so the public sector took it over and now manages it in most communities.

Philanthropy can play a similar role in bringing people together to collaborate around that next horizon. It’s understandable that there’s a lot of focus on the current system right now; that’s where most of our kids are. However, we also need to be proactive. There’s a great Paul Ylvisaker quote where he describes philanthropy as “society’s passing gear.” That’s what we need right now: passing gear.

What are some examples of the types of public-purpose utilities that you hope will support the development and implementation of the third horizon? What role can philanthropy play in advancing these types of initiatives?

One example is E-Rate, which is a government program that provides discounts for telecommunications, Internet access, and internal connections to eligible schools and libraries. In doing so, it gives greater, more equitable access to Wi-Fi and connectivity. It’s under attack right now. So one of the things we need to do to support this third horizon is to support the E-Rate program and other parts of the public-purpose infrastructure that are critical to function in society. We also need to think about how we can build upon that existing infrastructure. For example, we’re also wondering whether we might need to think about something like E-Rate for access to the underlying AI models so that there’s more equitable access to these robust AI models. 

Part of the challenge in all of this work is that it’s complicated. Philanthropy could invest in communications resources to help us translate this complex stuff into much more accessible messaging. I suspect almost all people would want everyone to have access to connectivity and to be able to learn. But the messaging around the legislation or whatever might be needed to sustain that gets complicated. Philanthropy can help in explaining why it’s important to support these public-purpose utilities and can help coordinate the response. Philanthropy can help articulate a clear use case where it’s obviously in the public interest to have that sort of resource.

Philanthropy can do other things as well. I think the Learning Landscape Challenge that Siegel Family Endowment and Walton Family Foundation are leading is a great idea. It’s nice in that it has a very wide mandate. There are all kinds of different infrastructure innovations or models that might be suggested there.

I also think this is a critically important moment for philanthropy to provide additional resources for collaborative problem solving, rather than simply choosing from among a number of amazing leaders and organizations. That might mean devoting more funds to developing the third horizon rather than only funding the system that currently exists. Funders can also convene policymakers so that we can figure out what kinds of policy barriers we might need to remove as we develop the third horizon. 

In addition, we have an opportunity to bring philanthropists into this work whose primary interest might be democracy strengthening or climate. We need to understand that it’s actually an investment in these other areas if we prepare our learners in a more cross-disciplinary way as problem solvers. There’s a space for all types of funders to contribute to the development of the third horizon.

What’s next for LearnerStudio? What projects are you currently pursuing? What efforts would you like to support in the future?

In addition to our recently-published public-purpose utilities whitepaper, we plan to publish a paper on capital markets. That paper looks at impact capital, which crosses philanthropy, family offices, and impact-focused investors. We’re looking at catalytic capital—or “the catalytic edge” that is described in the climate field. That paper will also share how impact investors and impact entrepreneurs are defining impact, which sometimes differs by role.

LearnerStudio will continue to host collaborative, problem-solving get-togethers. We’ll continue our design question provocations, which produces the working groups that I described earlier. Some are around problems of practice and some are around problems of design.

We’ll also continue to work with supporting entrepreneurs in the field. We’ll continue our pilots, which is an effort to collaborate with solution providers and practitioners on the second horizon, in order to help us all get smarter about what it takes to move from the second horizon to the third horizon or to an area of practice where something is emergent.

What unifies all these efforts is the belief that collaborative problem-solving is the way to build capacity and learning to move us toward that third horizon.


Kim Smith is founder and CEO of LearnerStudio. She also serves as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Cambiar Education. Kim is the founder and former CEO of a number of important educational institutions: the Pahara Institute, Bellwether Education Partners, and NewSchools Venture Fund, among them. She was also a founding team member at Teach For America. Smith is widely recognized as an entrepreneurial leader in education, and was featured in Newsweek’s “Women of the 21st Century” as “the kind of woman who will shape America’s new century.”