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The Portrait of a Learner as a Tool for Equitable Design

By: Felicia Rutledge, PhD

At the Nevada Learning for the Future Conference, educators, community leaders, and young people gathered to explore and employ the Nevada Portrait of a Learner as a powerful tool for educational equity. Through innovative workshops and learning labs, including a group dance activity, participants engaged deeply with concepts of inclusivity and co-creation to envision and design educational experiences that prioritize equity and learner-centered approaches.


  • Emphasis on Co-Creation: The conference highlighted the importance of collaborative efforts in education, where educators and youth work together to tailor learning experiences as learners that are not only relevant but also deeply engaging and inclusive.

  • Focus on Equity and Inclusivity: By integrating elements like brain-based learning and Universal Design for Learning (UDL), the learning labs and workshop illuminated a commitment to making education accessible and meaningful for all students, respecting diverse learning needs and preferences.

  • Liberating Learning Environments: The creation of a dance and a learning experience by participants symbolized the liberating and joyful nature of learning when educators and students co-create, fostering a sense of community and shared purpose in educational settings.


"Dreaming aloud and boldly envisioning the Nevada Portrait of Learner, we’re crafting an environment where young people are the focal point of their educational journey."

"Let it be a beacon for nurturing environments filled with joy, imagination, and the collective creation of inclusive learning experiences—where dreaming of belonging becomes reality."

“I dreamed about a culture of belonging. I still dream that dream. I contemplate what our lives would be like if we knew how to cultivate awareness, to live mindfully, peacefully; if we learned habits of being that would bring us closer together, that would help us build beloved community.”

-bell hooks

Imagine walking into a learning lab or a workshop and being invited to create a dance. Well for some educators at Nevada’s Learning for the Future Conference that was their first introduction to employing the Nevada Portrait of a Learner (the Portrait) as a tool for educational equity. As a Nevada Future of Learning Network education ambassador and leader, I designed and facilitated this learning workshop, I wondered, “How might we create a space with educators and youth to design and co-create with inclusion in mind?” The Nevada Portrait of a Learner isn’t about subscribing to a set of standards, moving targets, or an initiative to be implemented as a mandate. It's about our collective dreams and visions of equitable education in Nevada.

At the Nevada Learning for the Future Conference, this vision was actualized. The Portrait served as an instrument of equity for educators, young people, and community stakeholders to craft an educational journey centered on learners and inclusivity. Employing a protocol that wove together elements of brain-based learning, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and profiles of young learners, the attendees worked together to co-create and design an educational experience.

So what happens when educators, community leaders, and youth share space, centering the Portrait?

Connection and Joy

Imagine your first attempt at design thinking being the creation of a dance. As a collective of strangers, we orchestrated complete dance sequences involving 50 participants across two conference sessions. This project hinged on mutual trust in each other’s guidance and our own instincts, enabling us to craft a dance move within 2 minutes. Each group contributed a unique dance move, and upon completion, we had woven together a comprehensive dance routine. In these moments, a blend of comfort and discomfort surfaced, enriching the experience. We forged deeper connections with ourselves and our peers. Educators were prompted to select guiding questions to delve into their learning styles and construct a personalized learner profile. Questions like “Who am I as a learner?”, “What are my objectives?”, and “What do I aspire to accomplish?” were explored, fostering a shared understanding of our identities as learners within this collective space. With each added layer of the design experience, we connected with diverse frameworks and strategies to deepen our learning examining brain-based learning and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to enhance the inclusivity of our educational design experiences. Making connections between the youth and the educators in the session, an educator participant exclaimed, “Build those relationships! Communicate verbally and non-verbally! Make a safe environment! Don’t forget to have fun! Think outside the box! Be abstract!” It was an empowering experience. We laughed, we danced, we designed. We shared authentic connections of joy in learning with and from one another. Dance Co Creation 2.movDance Co-Creation .mov

Dreaming and Co-Creation

We closely examined the Portrait, considering its specific Portrait pillars of empowering, connecting, impacting, and thriving as a means for fostering fairness and equity in educational experiences. Each small, in-session group chose specific Portrait elements, including a Portrait pillar and accompanying pillar question to guide their design of an educational experience.  During this collaborative effort, educators engaged youth as design partners, inquiring about their preferred learning methods and which aspects of the Portrait make learning meaningful and relevant to them. One youth who engaged in the session with educators stated, “I feel there wasn’t enough of me to go around to each group”. Many of the educators expressed that they wanted more time to co-create with the youth in designing their educational experiences.

Together, educators and youth posed and explored questions, designing and shaping the educational experiences, with educators offering guidance along the way. They shared their experiences with one another and we adopted the “Yes, and” approach, further fostering affirmation and collaboration, honoring one another’s leadership and contributions. This allowed educators to refine their design experiences, taking into account the youths’ perspectives to ensure the experiences were meaningful and impactful. One educator exclaimed that the learning lab was, “An exceptional reminder that we must allow our students to be co-partners in their own education.”

Dreaming aloud and boldly envisioning the Nevada Portrait of Learner, we’re crafting an environment where young people are centered in their educational journey and educators are the heart of their professional learning and development. 

Youth can and must be collaborators and co-creators with educators. “[We] have to design with the student in mind,” an educator shared when asked about their key takeaway from our time together.

As a colleague, I urge educators to view the Nevada Portrait of a Learner not as another directive, but as an instrument for fostering equity. Let it be a beacon for nurturing environments filled with joy, imagination, and the collective creation of inclusive learning experiences—where dreaming of belonging becomes reality.

Felicia Rutledge, Ph.D., serves as a Project Director for Nevada Special Education Technology Assistance at the University of Nevada, Reno, supporting educators with the implementation of special education supports. She is a special education consultant and coach, a Nevada Future of Learning Educator Network Ambassador, a Teach Plus Nevada Senior Policy Fellow Alumna, and a Nevada Succeeds InspirEd Global Fellowship Alumna.

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