What If Students Could Make a School? A Student-Led R&D Declaration

On October 29, 2011, 40 students, ages 12-22, travelled from all corner’s of Rhode Island’s public education system, to answer one simple question: can we create a student experience that enables all students to thrive? Their insights and passion for the design challenge will inspire you.

The day-long youth charrette (a nifty design term defined as an “intensive planning session where people come together to collaborate on a vision for development”) was hosted by the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). Both RIDE and BIF share a commitment to putting students at the center of the education R&D process by not only listening to their experiences but also engaging students in the design process. 

Led by RIDE’s Karsten Cash, and BIF’s Student Experience Lab director Chris Flanagan, the students dove right into the task at hand. After a brief introduction to experience design, the students were given an inspirational boost. Angela Blanchard, CEO of Houston’s Neighborhood Health Center, shared a simple yet powerful message: “You can’t build on broken.” Strength-based approaches to education provide a new way to look at the school experience, and Blanchard set the tone for students to feel exceptionally creative and empowered. After Angela gave the students the green light to express themselves freely, the design challenge rapidly accelerated.

Faced with the statistic that every 29 seconds another student gives up on school (creating nearly 1 million American high school dropouts a year) you might think the education system we’ve created is a failure. It’s true many students needs are not being met by the current system, but surprisingly, the 40 plus students in the room made it clear that they don’t hate school or fail to see the value of school. Instead, as we sat back and observed our diverse group of students we were met with one undeniable truth: Students don’t feel like they are being heard. Frustrations with funding, course selection, facilities and teacher relationships were nominal compared to the disappointment of feeling their ideas were not being heard. Students seek purpose. And they want to make an impact on their surroundings.

Jen Hetzel Silbert, one of our talented group “coaches” tweeted it best: “The secret to education reform is simply to listen to the student voice.” We overheard one student remark, “I come to school to be heard”, so shouldn’t you listen? When given the opportunity to design their “pie in the sky” experience not one of the eight student tables chose to throw away the traditional school model. Students embraced the importance of a strong core curriculum, but are hungry for the freedom to embrace their unique educational curiosities.

Creating educational change through redesigning the system with the student voice at the center of the conversation allows unique insight into the complex structure of the education space. It also offers a new lens for transformational change for all key stakeholders (faculty, administrators, school boards, etc.) engaged in the system. An emphasis on injecting students within the conversation will provide the very insights we need to improve the system – both incrementally and radically. Storytelling can change the world. It’s a powerful tool that can shed light on the complicated matrix of issues and challenges facing students.

Now adversity is not limited to one type of student. Our workshop was a cross-cultural group from all walks of life. Apart from the desire to be heard, we encountered additional reoccurring themes: The rigid schedule of school makes it difficult to attend to other responsibilities and the time block of the traditional school day is often disadvantageous to students facing roadblocks or other distractions and commitments. With that said, students are innovative and demonstrate an ingenious ability to work around these schedules, no matter how difficult it may be.

Students also react positively to individuals who understand their experience and provide hope and inspiration. Gerry Fernandez, President of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance, relayed a poignant story of adversity and triumph. He represented another key theme to come out of the workshop: Building strong relationships mentors and role models matters.

It’s incredibly important to explore the educational experience of students and be willing to engage them to be active participants in the design and innovation process. Our charrette offered students the opportunity to see the different and varied paths to education that exist within Rhode Island. But how to put them all together? How to integrate individual pathways into a multiple pathway system?

In the coming weeks, BIF and RIDE will be releasing a report and series of video vignettes profiling both the experiences relayed by our student participants as well as a handful of the great ideas students devised to reform and reinvent secondary education through the creation of a multiple pathway system. This body of evidence can serve at based of educational change. It’s amazing what we can learn from students when we are committed to listening to their voice.

We look forward to sharing them with you!

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