DA Op-ed: Empowering students to be change agents

By: | May 7, 2019

Robert McDowell is the assistant superintendent for Stillwater Area Public Schools (ISD 834) in Minnesota

The argument for getting student voice into decision making can be found in journal articles and heard in conversations around the country. Examples emerge about how students from a club or class have taken on an issue and made a difference by solving a problem for a school or community.

But what if we were more intentional about the why, the what and the how? What if we combined student voice with design thinking, and then allowed students the same platform for improvement that we provide our adult groups? The Student Innovation Team (SIT) concept does just that. By applying the question, “How might we?” to the idea of ultimate student engagement the SIT was born.

Student Innovation Teams are a way for districts to leverage the voice and incredible problem solving ability of students. By inviting students to be actively part of conversations and engaged at the same level as adult stakeholders, they can help to break down barriers school systems face. Students have the will and limitless lens to look within the box as well as outside of it.

Further, by sharing with them the concepts of Human Centered Design (HCD) and Design Thinking, they gain a framework to utilize in solving problems or pinch points in our school systems, from an empathetic viewpoint, while co-designing the solutions that can build bridges.

What is it?

Upon first glance one might ask what makes Student Innovation Teams different from, say, a student government? With Student Innovation Teams, students usually first notice, experience, or find their own problems or opportunities and become researchers, grounding themselves in empathy to fully explore what they uncover. They are co-definers of the issue and co-designers of the solution versus being given a specific problem to solve. Both experiences are valuable but the former reinforces the value and importance of the students ideas and gifts.

Asking students to fully address what empathy means and have them experience it through interviewing other stakeholders with diverse and sometimes extreme perspectives. They learn and practice asking why, and by assuming a beginner’s mindset, sharing stories and creating journey maps, students come to fully understand and realize the end user’s point of view and how to define the work ahead.

The ultimate goal is for student prototypes to be implemented and to provide a framework for students to explore this linear-looking, yet oftentimes ambiguous process. The targeted purpose is for students to both understand and apply the HCD process. The SIT elevates the voice of our students and gives them opportunities to act as positive agents of change. It fosters leadership and character skills that support students growth in what is often referred to as the 4-Cs of Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity. It develops Innovative Mindsets to tackle real-world problems, accept critical feedback, and revise work based on the needs of others. Students collaborate with team members and present their findings to an authentic audience.

Exploring HCD through a SIT provides a real but safe way to learn how to fail and iterate, which is an important life skill. The process also allows students to turn the historically bad label of “failure” into “iteration” and teaches them how to persevere through adversity. If students do not have these important opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them, how can we expect them to tackle more complex problems and take on challenges as adults?

How does it work?

We have discovered that SITs can take on different looks and formats. Much depends upon the comfort level of the adults to lead, the age of the students, and the time available to dedicate to the process.

The original SIT began at Minnetonka Schools in 2016. It was run on a high school platform and consisted of roughly 25 students in grades 9-12. A letter was sent to all Minnetonka High School students and families in August of 2016 inviting students to be a part of the inaugural “Student Innovation Teams.”

In it, Principal Jeff Erickson noted, “Innovation is a key part of how Minnetonka Schools operate and this year we are creating a process and structure for student participation in the ideation and process. We want to provide you the opportunity to ask the question, “What if?”

SIT provides a real but safe way to learn how to fail and iterate, which is an important life skill.

At its core, the SIT is the cross-section of HCD and student voice, with a bias towards action. To that end, there are several ways to put a “sandbox” around how a SIT actually works.

For example, a student team could use HCD processes to work through a problem/opportunity provided by administration/staff. There could be multiple teams, however they are all working on a solution to the problem.

A second option has students identify problems/opportunities, but the adults choose the final path of ideation. In this situation, depending upon the developmental level of the students, and the capacity of the adults, there could be multiple groups working on multiple issues, or multiple groups working on one issue.

Still a third opportunity would have a student team identify the problems/opportunities on its own and then use the HCD process. In this situation, there are typically multiple teams that work simultaneously on different problems/opportunities. As time goes on, ideas could be limitless. For example, two high school teams in Stillwater, Minnesota, have created a hybrid, combining staff and students on innovation teams.

Timeline and considerations

The process of the SIT is iterative in its own right and, depending upon your context, could start and end at any time. However, when trying to bookend the school year, consider doing parent notifications in August, then use September to provide an introduction to HCD and team building and October to identify problems/opportunities and work on empathy. November through December is a good time to begin prototyping, which allows for January through the end of the year to gain feedback, retool, test and iterate. Regardless of the timeline chosen, it is important to maintain an authentic audience to solve problems for and share solutions with is key.

For pre-k and elementary, adjustments must be made to the length of a single setting for these students to maintain focus. Consider adjustments to the ratio of adult to students, so more attention can be paid to each group, throughout the process (maybe 5:1). Another option would be to have a class or grade level take on as a project rather than an application process (This is how the process is done at Brookview Elementary in Stillwater Schools, MN).

Students at the elementary level identify well with different stages of the HCD process. For example, sometimes teaching a topic outside of the linear Design Thinking model is helpful. Ideation for example is a topic and process that can be introduced independently while working through other projects and activities. This is also true for prototyping.

Empathy is at the heart of HCD. Much time and thought should go into organically embedding this work into the first six weeks of school. Having students “Hack a classroom” is a perfect way to begin empathy work. Teaching the concept of Define can be used when problem solving and talking about setting goals, etc. Students tend to put the pieces together well when they’ve first had exposure to them in isolation.

The SIT could provide an opportunity for middle grade students to be involved in something, so after school might be worth considering. Also, staggering the day and time of the longer meetings may be worthwhile due to A/B schedules or other rotating classes. Teachers tend to struggle with students being pulled from their classes during the school day.

Consider combining SIT work with an established leadership group in the building, such as NJHS or student council. SITs could also be embedded with multiple curricular areas. Students at this level are eager and ready to have their voices heard. Having strong leadership from staff who can provide a safe environment for these students to take risks, jump in, and make something happen is crucial.

This model provides opportunity for students to engage in topics like “addressing bullying,” or “depression,” as well as pragmatic issues like the “lunchroom.”
High school students are involved in other activities, so caution should be used if considering NOT running this during the school day.

Also, as with middle school, staggering the day and time of the longer meetings may be worthwhile due to A/B schedules or other rotating classes. High school students tend to do well with some direct modeling at first and then allowed the agility to move at their own pace, maintaining dates and/or timelines.

Having a mentor or “check in” person is helpful to keep students on track and prototypes moving forward. This is especially true when prototypes start to disrupt culture and students need a strong leader who can help them answer questions, keep things moving, and support when obstacles may arise. Students at the high school level also benefit from some type of communication with their team. Group Me texting, Schoology, email, as well as other methods are helpful to stay connected to the team as ideas arise.

Regardless of the level, if using the application process, it is important to get a diverse group of students. Consider things like, grades, ideas of problems they feel needs to be solved, why they have an interest, clubs/activities they already belong to, and staff recommendations.

Elevating voice

Again, the ultimate goal is for student prototypes to be selected and implemented, however, the targeted purpose is for students to both understand and apply the HCD process. By providing students a safe environment to be creative, take risks, experience vulnerability and grow their courageous leadership, we can see directly how they can influence meaningful and powerful change in our K-12 environments.

SITs elevate the voice of students, give them opportunities to act as positive agents of change, and foster leadership and skills relevant to their current lives which are sought after in the world beyond school. The process allows students to develop their innovative mindset to tackle real-world problems, accept critical feedback, and revise work based on the needs of others.

When engaging in this work, be cognizant of local business and organizational resources who might already use HCD. They can be strong partners and validate the work. Consider other schools to partner with, who have similar needs. Find where potential mentors and guest speakers are located, and consider outside groups who could provide feedback during prototyping.

Student innovation teams are a perfect example of “real world” experience that is applicable to both school related issues and practice for local to international issues. Businesses, industries, and organizations use the HCD framework in their day-to-day operations. And, engaging students in SITs provides opportunities for students to practice and hone the skills employers are asking for.

Robert McDowell is the assistant superintendent for Stillwater Area Public Schools (ISD 834) in Minnesota