School Life
Student Leadership

Design Thinking and the Student Leadership We Need

Arguably, one of the most valuable quotes on education, one that merits being ever-present, ever finger-wagging in our minds, is the one shared by Larry Rosenstock from High Tech High. When speaking of the origin of this outstandingly effective school, he mused:
“It’s like Einstein (when he) said it was easy to discover the theory of relativity. All I had to do was ignore a few basic axioms.”
High Tech High sets a high bar for what can be achieved when we find the will to challenge assumptions. Our opportunity is to follow their lead, single out other axioms worthy of scrutiny, summon the will to improve them, and share like HTH has so more students can benefit. Student leadership is the one we’ve wrestled with, and we share our story in the hopes our experience can catalyse similar scrutiny, and similar benefits, in more schools.
A Foundation of Ubiquitous Student Leadership
The dialogue on 21st century skills has made clear the importance of student leadership. Ideally, all schools, elementary and secondary, have multiple, varied opportunities for student leadership in all grades. Over many years at our school, we’ve been building up the number of these opportunities, from within the classroom, in leadership and service learning classes, in our outdoor education program, in extra-curricular clubs and teams, in artistic performance, in our House system, and in the open-ended student-driven opportunities available to all willing to make something good happen. As an elementary school, our effort has made clear how capable even young children are as leaders, and how many dozens of ways they can add to the school experience if their leadership is unleashed.
On top of these opportunities, we introduced Student Voice about six years ago, and we continue to find it a valuable way to give all students voice on significant areas of school life. In the past, we’ve held Student Voice on clubs and teams, our House system, homework, leadership and wellness. Every class, from pre-kindergarten to grade 8, has a session to discuss what we do well, what we don’t do but should, and anything else that comes to mind on the topic at hand. A face-to-face focus group with all interested students in grades 6 to 8 contributes more insight. All feedback is recorded, compiled, shared with all staff and senior students, and then used to help determine next steps. Between motivated staff and the many open opportunities for student-initiated projects, new understanding and positive steps come from this process. But it’s not enough.
There was one area of leadership that we hadn’t fully figured out. Youth today want more than opportunities, and they want more than voice. If things aren’t to their liking, they either want change or they want to understand. They’re willing to listen, and they’re willing to work. Through Student Voice, some of our senior students asked for student government. They knew of it from friends, siblings, parents and media. It’s an attractive idea.
Challenging the Tradition of Student Elections
We used to have elections for our House Captains but dropped them for the three reasons that bedevil most models of election-based student government:
  1.  The clear hierarchy elections fostered. Due to the buzz and the effort elections require, the winners of the election were clearly considered leaders above others, often regardless of their inherent leadership abilities. Those who didn’t win faced deep disappointment. For the many who watched, leadership became synonymous with winning, losing and most people not getting to be leaders. A shame.
  2. The limited leadership it offered. For all the effort, the school ended up with one or a few leaders. A great many potential leaders, including those who understandably didn’t feel comfortable with elections, had no important place in an election-driven process.
  3. The imperfection of elections. They’re necessary in a large democracy, but no adult would argue they’re a perfect exercise in unleashing quality leadership. Yet we put children and teens through this, who by their nature have vulnerable self-esteem and significant social pressures.
Student Council has a strong foothold in our profession, and there’s much that’s good about it. Involving students in the leadership of their school, encouraging students to earn leadership roles, and having them speak publicly, face daunting challenges and hold significant responsibility are all worthy experiences. But by this model, it won’t be good for all, or even many. The use of elections in schools is an axiom in need of scrutiny.
Authentic, Inclusive, Impactful Student Leadership
Here are the questions that drove our effort to find something better:
  1. Is there a model that doesn’t come with an unhealthy and artificial hierarchy? Most leaders aren’t politicians. And most power to effect change doesn’t come from an election.
  2. Is there a model where all interested students can engage in real leadership, without an unnecessary and often reputation-threatening obstacle to overcome?
  3. Is there a model that leads to better real outcomes for the school, and provides more authentic leadership for students? School administrators didn’t get their roles through elections, and real leadership often doesn’t have a title. Instead, the mantle of leader is earned through learning, listening, collaborating, thinking creatively, communicating effectively and, frankly, doing the hard work of making good things happen.
We wrestled with these questions for years. Then we learned about the design thinking process developed by The Institute of Design at Stanford (also known as the and the Innovation, Design Engineering Organization (IDEO). That, and some creative use of Web 2.0 technology, have addressed this final piece of student leadership. Design thinking provides the framework for authentic, impactful leadership, and technology allows us to include an unlimited number of members, who can engage in ways that work for them, at their convenience, and to the degree that they can manage.
We created a dedicated wiki for the group, thereby allowing all members to contribute, collaborate and co-create online at least some of the discussion inherent in leadership. The wiki makes clear our design thinking process, and the mindset needed for the process to be successful. IDEO describes this mindset as having the following dispositions:
  • Creative confidence
  • An inclination to ‘make’ solutions
  • Willingness to learn from failure
  • Empathy
  • Comfort embracing ambiguity
  • Optimism
  • Commitment to iterate, iterate, iterate
Our version of the design thinking process, tweaked to fit our intentions, includes the following steps:

What is the design challenge?
  • What problems are you aware of that need fixing?
  • What challenges are you aware of that are worth addressing?
  • What opportunities have occurred to you that are worth pursuing?
    What do you need to know?
    • Who is affected?
    • What are their perspectives?
    • What research can inform you?
    • What can you learn from others’ experiences?
    What ideas address your design challenge?
    • What can you think of?
    • Which are win-win for all?
    • Get feedback from a larger group
      • Pilot at a small scale
      • Reflect and iterate
      • Expand to address the challenge
      All interested students in grades 7 and 8, and all interested staff (not just faculty), have been invited to join the wiki. Those who haven’t yet can do so at any time. Those who joined were given editing privileges so at a minimum they can add suggestions for any problems they see, challenges to address, or opportunities to pursue. Those who joined the wiki can also see all suggestions offered by other members. As ideas are added, the pages will keep growing.
      The level and focus of involvement is up to each member. For those who wish, they can join the wiki just to add suggestions, or even just to read the suggestions of others. If a suggestion piques one’s interest, they are welcome to pursue it. The only expectation is that they follow the design process and work with at least one member of staff. Groups can coalesce as they wish, organize their own meetings and establish their own timelines. 
      So far, a growing group of students and faculty have all chosen to work on one challenge identified by a student: How do we better enable differentiated learning at KCS? After enlightening discussion, seven steps were identified that would help us better understand the issue, engage the perspectives of more students and teachers, and begin to pilot solutions. We’ve already conducted a senior student survey on the topic of differentiated learning and this year’s Student Voice will add to the insight it provides. We’re piloting a new elective where interested students can pursue a significant project of their choosing.  There are a number of updates for faculty and a report on our efforts with a call to action will be given to all faculty by the end of the year. Other steps will surely follow – that’s the nature of design thinking. We’re off to an exciting and powerful start. Equally encouraging is the growing number of students who are choosing to join.
      High Tech High has shown us what’s possible if we’re willing to scrutinize what we assume to be good. We set our sights on traditional election-based student leadership, and we’re now seeing what’s possible with design thinking, technology, and the willingness to do things differently. Roles that can profoundly shape the school are now fully available to all senior students and all staff, at whatever level and in the capacity that is preferable for each individual. In our KCS By Design process, all involved work side-by-side in authentic, impactful leadership, and engage in the learning, empathy, flexible thinking, persistence and communication it entails. All students need to learn real leadership. Let it start with a show of our own, and the determination to make better student leadership happen.

      Andrea Fanjoy,
      Assistant Head, Academics
      All materials copyright © Kingsway College School.