"Why We Need Kids as Leaders…to be more awesome."
So began one of our Launch scholar’s presentations to James Roy, Executive Director of Northeast Park Hill Collective Impact Initiative. James invited Launch scholars to identify needs in the community that his organization might address to further its vision, Cultivating a Healthy Community that Thrives. A key element of Launch is to develop leaders who are empowered to address real community needs. Here was an opportunity to join forces with an established community organizer to invest a $50,000 grant in the community.
The Industrial Age educated to fill the supply need for workers at that time. Imagine the outcome of schooling as a pyramid. The bottom of the pyramid filled the need for a large pool of human labor, the middle produced information processing bureaucrats and from the small top of the pyramid emerged the creative leadership sector, the owners of capital and the entrepreneurs. The cyclical instructional practice of teaching a unit for a few weeks, testing on it and moving on, stratified learners by their A to F grades: some learned well, others somewhat and some had significant holes in their understanding, that eventually inhibited them from advanced studies and limited their options for work.
We have exited the Industrial Age and need to reimagine our schools so they can cultivate creative leadership in all students. We are faced with automation replacing the need for the large pool human labor, computers replacing the information processors. We need an educational model that inverts the pyramid so all can participate in a society that rewards problem solvers and creative thinkers. At Launch this means we are not focused on “lock-step” learning but rather giving learners the time and experiences they need to learn deeply, to connect with their communities, think critically to understand the issues involved, problem solve and work in teams.
Developing leadership skills in nine to eleven year olds is a process that doesn’t happen just because we give learners opportunities. Often our learners struggle to keep their focus and act as a productive group. Individual needs and impulses create distractions and draw peers off task. Learning to self-regulate is a daily goal. Some teachers argue that kids must behave before they can engage in community learning. We counter that as learners experience connection with community leaders and success with complex and challenging problems, their heightened understanding and confidence reduces the need to act out and increases their willingness to listen and learn from others.
Launch scholars created Power Point presentations to support their sharing with Mr. Roy needs for “cool down” spaces in their school, different traffic patterns in their neighborhoods to increase safety, and neighborhood conversations about racism and how to better support each other. He listened attentively, thanked them individually for their ideas and shared how their ideas would be included in the Northeast Park Hill Collective Impact Initiative decision process. They knew their voices had been heard and valued. The learners were calmer that afternoon and more willing to help each other. One learner stayed after school to help clean up the classroom. As he put away supplies, he proclaimed this was his best year ever and his teachers were the nicest teachers he had ever had because they helped him. This was a first. Is it a just a coincidence that it happened on this particular day?
Vince Lombardi said, “Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”
If we prioritized the very worthwhile goal of developing leaders, our daily hard efforts would align with the following skills learners need to lead with confidence.
Participating in real world learning. Optimal learning happens when the learner has a meaningful connection to the content at hand and can use all senses in the learning experience. When students venture into their own neighborhoods and connect with local community leaders, they are interacting, exploring, collaborating, manipulating, synthesizing, prioritizing, discussing, and creating useful products they can share with their community. Learning “sticks” when there is ample time to nurture a greater depth of reasoning and creativity and there are specific, audience directed outcomes.
Meeting short and long term goals. When the goal of learning is to interact successfully with a community, a layer of emotional, academic and skill set developments occur. The artifacts of learning--records, research, plans, lists, notes, reading, contacts, drafts and support information--and the necessary deadlines of preparing for the authentic audience, create the natural context for learners to align goal setting and actions, peer critiques and revision, self-reflection and the setting of new goals. In celebrating milestones, learners gain certainty they can reach new challenges.
Self-awareness John Dewey believed that we actually learn more from thinking about our experiences than from the actual experiences themselves. As learning experiences prompt learners to engage deeply, learners have opportunity to increase awareness of how fears or frustration block their ability to move forward. They can see when the active use of strategies open a door to help them move forward. With teacher guidance to recognize milestones achieved and to support the activation of strategies, learners truly develop a growth mindset and confidence in their ability to make a difference.
Leadership development is part of our big dreams for our Launch scholars. It’s not a quick fix for the depth of their needs. But, in the few short months we have been working with them, we see the power of their connection with people like James Roy. We see an emerging sense of belonging to the small classroom community and to the community at large. We note the milestones when they take risks to share their personal challenges and their reflections on how they move forward when it might be easier to stand still.
We believe in this work and from it will emerge AWESOME kid leaders.