Student Leadership in Schools: How can teacher do better for learners?

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Student leadership, why? Why do we need to foster leadership and develop leadership skills in ākonga?

Primary and secondary schools can provide opportunities for young people who have limited social capital to build networks, connections, understand worlds of work and tertiary study. If, as one study suggests, “the greater the total amount of leadership exercised, the better off is the organisation” (Leithwood & Jantzi, 1998), then the exercising of student leadership within the school must contribute to its efficacy and effectiveness.

We all have our own experience and versions of student leadership in schools. Some elements and ideas work well and some…not so much. As with educational models overall student leadership is in need of an overhaul in schools. A big call from me but after seeing student leadership in action and undertaking some initial research I am developing with a the help of a colleague (Thanks Hayden Shaw!) a new ideal of learner leadership that meets the needs of the learners now and in the future. Not a model that meets the need of the schools who sometimes want “leaders” to do the jobs we don’t want to.

Current Model Vs Student Ideal

Many existing models of student leadership are hierarchical, based on popularity in sport, academia, culture etc, and teachers are the gatekeepers of the roles. We’ve all seen it, student vote, teachers vote, teachers votes are more heavily weighted and then those who we knew were going to get picked do. They do an OK job with some help from a teacher as a mentor and various examples of short and long term leadership courses.

The student ideal would be non-hierarchical, practical, informal and situational. With this in mind here are some ideas that we are working on in our kura. Our initial discussion was that we wanted to foster leadership in all areas, acknowledge that not everyone wants to lead, we needed to define what leadership is for learners, and  what will they actually do?

The idea of a revolving leadership model was floated and we knew that we needed to ensure we guided the learners rather than give them a badge/title and leave them to it….then wonder why they fail. To us revolving leadership meant a chance for many students to have the opportunity to “lead” where and when they felt comfortable.

Another element we felt was important was having an allocated time for all learners to develop leadership skills. This means offering a course where they can learn leadership skills and learn about different styles of leadership. It is important for them to harness the skills they have and to know that being a leader in a school is about being responsible for something and following through. It does not just mean speaking in assemblies and rallying the troops for inter-school competitions. The course on offer would be open to all at different stages of the academic year for all to explore and grow.

Potential leadership opportunities

  • Students as data source  where students might provide information via a student opinion survey for adults to utilise as part of their decision making.
  • Students as active respondents who respond to invitations to join in discussion with adults.
  • Students as co-inquirers who support staff to take a lead research role.
  • Students as knowledge creators supported by staff.
  • Students as joint authors participating in decision-making alongside staff and learning to live in a democracy where there is shared responsibility, (Fielding, 2012).

Using the ideas above and other research mentioned this is the model of learner leadership that we are going to explore for the remainder of the year with more research and much discussion to come.

  • Te Rōpū Hauora – a student council model with representatives from all groups that meets regularly. Membership can change but is reasonable static as we move forward.
  • Ambassadors – who represent the college in all areas for a period of time when representation is needed for events on-site and off-site
  • Specialist Kaitiaki – to meet the needs that arise across the school eg: Tech angels, Librarians etc
  • Learner Action Group – groups formed as and when needed eg: Environmental Action Group who see a need for more sun protection & put ideas into action etc.

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This is the first of version of learner leadership that has been developed in recent weeks. I look forward to meeting the leadership needs of the learners in an authentic way and wonder what this model will look like in 12 months after much robust discussion and research. I believe student leadership must fit the context in which it exists and for this to happen student voice is imperative.

Watch this space…

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Reflections on Reading ‘Futurewise’

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I recently chugged through “Futurewise: Educating our children for a changing world” by David N. Perkins. Chugged because it was not the easiest of reads as I have been reading lots of educational change books recently and initially this book seemed to be singing the same tune as the others. That is it’s time to drag the existing school system into the 21st Century and create 21C learners who have the skills and abilities to be adaptable, creative, curious, resilient, innovative…. I could go on but your get the picture. To a degree this book is telling us this however there is more to it. I see it as a bit of a ‘how to’ guide with many examples relating to other areas of innovation and creativity where people are making wiser decisions with the tools that surround them. I guess that’s it for the traditional school, we are not making the most of the tools that are around us. We have the Internet and many believe that this equals the new way of teaching and in many places this IS what is happening. Traditional ‘chalk n’ talk’ lessons are have been replaced with “Google this…” in the hope that students will see what is out there for them and just go with it. However if they do not have the skills and abilities  to do more that just Google it then they may as well be in a content dumping classroom where the teacher just hits unload for an hour. This account of the traditional school model may seem simplistic but you get the picture.

So what did I learn from reading David N. Perkins “Futurewise”? Firstly, lifeworthy learning which basically means what is worth learning? He returns to the idea of the quadratic equation and what is the point of learning it, he discusses how this could be justified as the pandoras box of things you need to know by teachers. Throughout the book the quadratic equation idea comes up and there are 6 trends that can be applied to lifeworthy learning: beyond 21C skills & dispositions; beyond traditional subject disciplines; beyond traditional interdisciplinary topics & problems; beyond regional perspectives; beyond mastering content; and beyond prescribed content.

When combined these trends can shape the way education could be for learners.This means developing learners who are inquisitive and know how to use the tools at their disposal. This means teachers getting on-board and finding out for themselves what IS lifeworthy learning for them.

Secondly, the concept of big this includes big questions and big understandings Perkins explains that this forms part of the inquiry process. Big includes the trends in society and ensuring that learners can hack the pace of what they are presented with. Big know-how, knowledge and ideas. Insight into the content we are receiving to help us move forward and unpack what we are hearing. An understanding of the actions that we can take to make a difference in a wider context that just our own, think local/act global actions. This include an understanding of ethics and leads to opportunities to varying degrees. Growing and allowing for learner agency is what comes out of big.

We have heard this before but as secondary teachers we must remember that we are teachers of students first not teachers of subjects. Why are tertiary teaching institutions in this country not getting this? Some are having a go but it seems in a very rigid tick box fashion.

Hey, I’m not telling anyone anything new that hasn’t been heard before, just my thought from reading ‘Furturewise’. Have a go get through it I think I will go back for a second look to gain even more insight in a few months or a year and then she how my own teaching practice reflects the 6 trends that are discussed in the introductory chapter.

After writing this blog entry I think I would re-phrase my opening sentence about ‘chugging’ through the book to read ‘I have just finished my first digestion of Futurewise and I will be going back for more’

Kia pai to rā!