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Online June 2015 | Volume 72
Improving Schools from Within
Here's how to tap the single greatest resource in a school.
Why are so many school improvement efforts doomed to failure? We've blamed many factors over the years: poorly run professional development, staff resistance, flavor-of-the-month changes in direction that inhibit teacher buy-in, and too-frequent changes in school administration, to name a few.
But what if the real secret to school improvement has been right in front of us the whole time? What if the "secret" isn't a secret at all, but simply the need to tap into the single biggest, most underused source of creativity, collaboration, leadership, and informed problem solving in any school—the students themselves?
Schools are in trouble. The longer students spend in school, the less engaged they are. Current research from Gallup indicates that although elementary school students are generally interested in school (76 percent), this number drops to 61 percent in middle school and to an abysmal 44 percent in high school (Busteed, 2013). This raises important questions about what students should be learning, how they might engage with learning, and what input they should have into their learning and their schools.
So what should students be learning? Tony Wagner (2008), of Harvard University's Innovation Lab, concludes that to succeed in the 21st century, students require "survival skills" in the following areas: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurship, effective oral and written communication, ability to access and analyze information, and curiosity and imagination. Most classrooms and schools provide little opportunity to learn and practice these skills.
As for student engagement, in his book Drive, Daniel Pink (2009) concludes that the three factors that motivate people are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These factors are in short supply in a traditional classroom, which mostly relies on the external reward of grades to motivate learning, often unsuccessfully.
Finally, addressing the issue of student input, Adam Fletcher (2005) notes that students typically are offered "token" levels of participation in school rather than truly authentic ones. In his "ladder of student involvement," the highest rungs involve students making decisions and acting as real partners with adults.
What Wagner, Pink, and Fletcher propose looks starkly different from what the traditional school structure generally offers. So how do we create a school context in which students are learning the skills they need for the new world of work, are motivated, and are true partners in decision making?
The fact is, real school improvement doesn't require complicated theoretical approaches or copious resources. All schools have the resources required—they just need to start really listening to their students and create opportunities for students to take the lead.
For the past several years, students at Almonte District High School in Ontario, Canada, were asked to complete a survey to provide feedback about their involvement, interest level, homework habits, and sense of belonging at school. The school, which serves about 550 students in grades 7–12, is located just 10 minutes from my own school. The survey provided interesting information, but the staff struggled with what to do with the results.
To change this, the school's principal, Ron Ferguson, challenged a few members of the student council to find someone completely different from them—to ensure that the group had broad representation—and to bring those students to a series of lunchtime meetings. When the students arrived, Ferguson distributed copies of the survey and asked them to find a problem and come up with a solution.
Over the course of three lunch hours, the students ate pizza and collaborated with one another as they discussed the survey and school. Here's what they came up with:
The principal was impressed. He invited the students to share their plan with the rest of the staff, who were equally complimentary. Everyone acknowledged that the students had come up with a plan that was more detailed and thoughtful than any plan the adults might have proposed and that it was more likely to succeed because it came from the students themselves.
The students ran the house system successfully for a semester, but then decided to focus more specifically on issues of equity and inclusion under the bullying umbrella. They have since started to work on issues of gender equality—for example, addressing how much schools spend on boys' and girls' sports respectively. What they've retained in the transition is a sense of empowerment and the knowledge that they can bring about positive change in their school.
Intrigued by their results, I ran the same process at my own school, Carleton Place High School, which is located just outside the city of Ottawa and serves approximately 800 students in grades 7–12. Students were initially selected by our student council co-chairs who, like the students at Almonte, were challenged to assemble a diverse group. The resulting group of 15 students from grades 8–11 included academically oriented kids, athletes, artists, and those only mildly engaged in school.
Over the course of several meetings, the students focused on the key words relevance, technology, trust, truancy, and school spirit. I charged them to come up with a plan that would address these issues. Their feedback looked something like this:
Students were invited to share the plan with staff members, who were deeply impressed with its thoughtfulness and flexibility. They also acknowledged that the plan addressed all the students' concerns, which was no small feat.
The resulting courses that students organized—on topics as diverse as photography, costuming, cake decorating, and law enforcement—were a great success and saw excellent participation because they focused on students' areas of real interest and gave students insights into a variety of possible careers. In many cases, we brought in experts to teach the courses, which lent them an air of legitimacy. For example, two photographers from the Associated Press taught the photography course. Teachers participated as fellow learners, enjoying the opportunity to become students again.
The experience of change leadership was clearly a positive one for students in both schools. The students were genuinely involved in school leadership, as Fletcher advocates; they were engaged in the meaningful practice of Wagner's survival skills; and they were highly motivated because they had the autonomy and purpose that Pink describes. As a result, the students poured countless hours of energy and ideas into making the project a success.
When given the opportunity, students will come up with solutions that are both insightful and practical and that solve multiple issues rather than just one. Here are some guidelines on getting started:
So many school improvement initiatives fail and so many dollars are wasted every year because the adults in the school are always guessing at what might work for students.
Why guess? Just ask your students. They'll develop plans they know will work.
As you think about the role that student participation plays in your school, consider these questions:
Busteed, B. (2013, January 7). The school cliff: Student engagement drops with each school year. Retrieved from Gallup at www.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/170525/school-cliff-student-engagement-drops-school-year.aspx
Fletcher, A. (2005). Meaningful school involvement: Guide to students as partners in school change. Retrieved from Soundout.org at www.soundout.org/MSIGuide.pdf
Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.
Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap: Why even our best schools don't teach the new survival skills our children need—and what we can do about it. New York: Basic Books.
Eric Hardie is principal of Carleton Place High School in Ontario, Canada. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_hardie.
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