The Most Underutilized Resource in Our Schools

Sometimes, an author’s words light your soul on fire, and you know you can’t go back to the way it was. You can’t unknow what you know now. You can’t unsee this perspective that has brought you back to life. As Justin Timberlake would say, “Can’t stop the feeling.”

This was my experience with The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros.

“If we are going to help our students thrive, we have to move past ‘the way we have always done it,’ and create better learning experiences for our students than we had ourselves.”
― George Couros, The Innovator’s Mindset

Our school district is currently renovating two high school buildings. As someone in the curriculum department who works closely with our high school teams, I’m beginning to feel a sense of urgency. Because I see an opportunity. When our schools are finished, we have an opportunity to be different. To be better for kids. In our new spaces, with our new shiny things, we can improve learning. But we can’t do it without spending time thinking, reflecting, learning, and speaking candidly with each other about what kids deserve and what’s possible.

So, while everything in our bones is telling us to press pause and just survive construction, we are choosing to dream big, imagine, and ignite curiosity about what could be. Because our kids deserve it.

Since we legitimately don’t know exactly what we mean when we talk about radical change in our high schools, we are following a design thinking process which will involve interested students, teachers, counselors, administrators, parents, community members, and business leaders. Just to name a few. As George says, “The smartest person in the room is the room.”

As many of you know, step one in the design thinking process is empathy. So, our team brainstormed the many ways we could empathize with the student experience. We committed to shadowing a student for a day and then our administrators came up with a fun concept: take a cross-section of seniors through a design thinking challenge to reinvent school (or the senior year.)

So, that’s what we did. 30 seniors joined us in the learning commons of a beautiful, new elementary building for a design thinking challenge to engage in Moonshot Thinking.

Here are some of my takeaways:

  1. Looking at our own experiences and the world around us, like we are aliens from another planet, is helpful. We asked students to write about a typical day in their school life. I’m realizing that so many of us are so overbooked and overstimulated by everything that surrounds us in this life, the to-do lists, the societal pressures, you name it, that our lives are passing us by. It’s a blur. We often don’t remember what we did yesterday let alone whether or not the food we ate for lunch, if we ate at all, tasted good. And seniors in high school are no exception. Having them slow down and crawl back into their experiences like someone with no context, watching their life from the outside, like a day in their life was a movie, allowed them to truly capture the details. It’s hard to decide how you feel about something and whether it can be better if you are too stressed, overwhelmed, and tired to see the world around you.
  2. Students need adults to model risk-taking. The principal of this elementary building joined us and chimed in at times to share his thinking. There are so many things to love about Bob Buck; he’s truly an innovative leader that I admire, but one thing that I respect most is his straight talk. He calls it like it is. He shares what he thinks about things even when others may disagree or be offended. He’s driven by what is best for students. Always. And he shared some of his thinking with students on this day. The wow factor of hearing someone speak so boldly was liberating for these students. I could see them relax into the experience and get more comfortable sharing what they really thought about school and how it could be different.
  3. We don’t know what we don’t know. The level of conversation improved after students took a tour of the elementary building. They were in shock and awe over the flexible seating environments. They were blown away by students learning how to code. Their shock, in part, was over how much students who were so much younger were able to do. But their shock also stemmed from the way respect was earned in these classrooms. They asked Bob, “But how do students learn to respect the teacher?” Bob explained how these classroom communities were built TOGETHER. With the students. He mentioned how on the first day of school, teachers piled up the furniture in the middle of their rooms and asked students, “How do you think we should organize this space for our learning?” Seeing different learning spaces and learning in action helped students think about how they might reinvent learning opportunities in the high school. I think teachers would benefit from this same kind of opportunity.

Student voice may be the most underutilized resource we have in our schools.

Why aren’t we asking students more questions about their learning experiences? Are we afraid of what they might say? Are we worried that their feedback is going to inconvenience the adults? Do we think that because we are adults and they are kids that their input isn’t as valuable or sophisticated? Are we just not thinking about it? I don’t know why.

We all show up wanting to do a good job for kids. So, we should ask students for their feedback. And cultivate relationships that promote these honest, courageous conversations.

Thank you to these seniors who bravely shared their stories and solutions with us.

“I am more than a number.”

“We deserve more than 23 minutes to eat our lunches.”

“Our desks are uncomfortable, and I’m sitting at a desk ALL day.”

“You preach preparation for the real world, but you give us busy work.”

“I have one hour of homework for your class each night, but I have 7 classes…”

“Why can’t I use the bathroom when needed?”

“I only have one remaining credit for graduation. I would love the opportunity to do some internships. I want help getting out into the real world to learn some stuff.”

“We don’t have to run the same schedule every day or every week.”

The words of George Couros have changed me. The words of these students have changed me. Words matter. Words change people. Words inspire action. Words compel people to make their organizations better.


So, let’s listen. Let’s act. And then, let’s share our learning with others.