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June 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 9

When Students Drive Improvement

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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?

Where Schools Fall Short

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.

What One School Found

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:
  • Too many students feel bullied at school.
  • To prevent bullying, students need to feel a greater sense of belonging. Bullies will bully less and victims will be more resilient if everyone feels like part of a larger community.
  • To ensure a sense of belonging, the school should launch a system in which everyone belongs to a house and competes as a house against other houses for points. There should be a wide range of competitions so everyone has a chance to represent his or her house and win points for it. To promote individual accountability, a house should lose points if any of its members skip class and should gain points if any of its members have shown real improvement in class (which doesn't necessarily mean earning the highest marks).
  • To keep things interesting, if a house wins one month, it should have access to a house lounge that has comfortable seating, technology, and a refrigerator with water and juice in it. When members of the house hang out in the same area, house bonds will deepen.
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.

Bringing It Home

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:
  • School isn't relevant because it's not connected to the world around it. This lowers student engagement and school spirit.
  • Many students have no idea what they want to do when they finish school. They need to be exposed to more professions, activities, and ideas from the community.
  • Students who skip class regularly would be less likely to do so if they felt really connected to the school for at least part of the day.
  • The school should offer a series of practical extracurricular courses on a wide range of topics—from gardening to computer game development to baking to charity event planning. This way, students could try out a variety of activities that might help them discover areas of interest to pursue.
  • The project should be called Bear University (the bear is the school mascot) to help promote the idea of postsecondary education to all students and, most particularly, to encourage those who aren't currently thinking about attending a college or university.
  • All students and staff should be allowed to sign up for courses. Courses could be run by staff, students, or outside experts. If a teacher wanted to take the course, he or she could act as both supervisor and participant. Having students and teachers learning together would promote a love of learning throughout the school.
  • The school should offer practical one-off courses—on how to do taxes, save for school, or get car insurance—under the title of Life 101 because students want to know how to do these things.
  • On course completion, participants should receive certificates (to help with résumé building) and public recognition (to promote school spirit and inclusion). It's difficult for students to write a résumé when they have no experience, so including the certificates would help.
  • Teachers could connect work done in Bear University to their own course content. The two learning opportunities playing off each other would create more engagement and relevance schoolwide.
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.

How to Get Started

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:
  • Form a representative group of students. Don't just involve those who would normally volunteer. School works for certain students, but not for others—and it's often the students for whom school doesn't work who provide the most valuable insights. Because these students are less likely to volunteer, you'll probably have to recruit them. As one student observed, "We all have ideas. We just have to bring them out."
  • Start by having the students look at a recent schoolwide student survey. Students won't necessarily interpret the data the same way the adults in the building will, which is, in itself, insightful.
  • Leave the task of coming up with solutions open-ended, with minimal restrictive criteria (beyond what's required to make the idea safe and doable). With too many criteria, the exercise devolves into the tokenism that Fletcher refers to. As one student noted, having a blank slate was important because "there was nothing to limit us."
  • Start from a position of trust. Students will come up with valuable solutions to school problems if you give them the time and autonomy. Trust encourages students to take the task seriously and do a good job.

Beyond Guesswork

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.

Busteed, B. (2013, January 7). The school cliff: Student engagement drops with each school year. Retrieved from Gallup at

Fletcher, A. (2005). Meaningful school involvement: Guide to students as partners in school change. Retrieved from at

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 a superintendent of instruction at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board in Eastern Ontario. With more than two decades of experience in education, Hardie is a former elementary and secondary school teacher and principal. He holds a degree in English from Western University, a Bachelor of Education from Mount Allison University, and a Master of International Education (School Leadership). Hardie has provided professional development and training in experiential learning, working with both teachers and school leaders, and has previously published articles in ASCD's Educational Leadership.

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