Reimagining Education: Giving Students a Seat at the Table

Andrew Findlay

How many times have you heard a version of the expression: “we need to get more adults in the room” to find a solution to such and such a problem. How about fewer adults and more kids? 

When visionary Vancouver filmmaker Jon Long set out to do a documentary on education, an admittedly massive topic, he wanted to flip the notion of education as something delivered by adults to children. He started with a simple thesis: bringing kids into the equation as participants in the design of their education, and giving them a seat at the table and a real voice is the one thing that will have the most impact in terms of transforming education.

“It’s the younger generation that is going to be saddled with the problems of exponential change pushing systems to the breaking point,” Long says.”Look what’s happening around the world today with climate change protests. It’s being led by young people and its really putting the older politicians to shame. So why discount those voices just because they’re young?”

Using the voice of youth as his guiding principle, he began searching for examples of kids, changemakers, and institutions that were reimagining school in profound ways, turning them into places where students are co-designers of their education rather than mere recipients.

A rich vein of education innovation

Long was propelled on a fascinating journey that eventually led to the front doors of One Stone, an independent, tuition-free high school in Boise, ID, where the voice of the student shapes every facet of the learning and school environment. He discovered a rich vein of education innovation. The result? Two recently released documentaries: Skool, a film about kids seizing control over their lives and education; and Rise, which zeroes in on the compelling story of One Stone.

One Stone is a remarkable high school designed by kids for kids. It is tuition-free, funded through donations and philanthropy, and situated in an unassuming downtown Boise. Long admits this conservative, not particularly diverse state, seemed an unlikely place to find a beacon of progressive, student-centric education. However, the more he visited the school and got to know the students and staff, the more he realized this was a story worth telling and sharing widely.  

“I went there initially for a day then ended up staying for six days,” Long says. “Over the course of the following year, I visited another six or seven times.”

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Students make up ‘two-thirds of the school board so are intimately engaged in how the school is run. It gives students veto power over board decisions, which is revolutionary in and of itself. Rote learning and memorization have no place at One Stone. Education is based on, or design thinking, a solution-based approach to solving problems that emerged from Stanford’s Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design

“A big part of their curriculum is going into their community, identifying a problem and solving it in ways that bring wellbeing to the community,” Long explains. “It’s such a fascinating way to learn using their own creativity and intuition. It’s not for everybody but for certain people when they’re thrust into that environment, it really allows them to find their potential.”

For example, one cohort of One Stone students decided to try to design an app that would combat texting and driving. They dug into the challenge and months later ended up giving a presentation to transport professionals in Washington, DC.

“This doesn’t feel like school.”

The level of engagement and personal investment at One Stone hit home for Long at the end of the school day. Rather than racing for the exit, students would hang around in a big open area talking about their projects, lives, dreams, and ideas. 

“This doesn’t feel like school,” Long remembers thinking at the time. “The best way that I can describe it is that these kids weren’t going to school, they were going to have an experience.”

Long is keenly interested in how One Stone’s unconventional but inspiring approach to education can be translated into the public school system. A simple first step Long believes, is to invite students into that proverbial room full of adults, to become full partners in designing their education. He says that’s a step all schools could take right away. Student-directed education isn’t exactly a new concept: for example, it’s foundational at Montessori and Waldorf schools around the world. However, there is a slowly growing realization that conventional top-down education in public school systems is no longer serving kids well, that we need to genuinely listen to the voice of the student. That’s the goal of the Transitions Canada Coalition.

“We’re not preparing students well for life after school,” says Phil Jarvis, founding president of Transitions Canada Coalition ”We need a new approach and when you get kids involved it becomes about their dreams and aspirations.”

Disrupting for good

Teach for America, a non-profit dedicated to “educational equity and excellence,” is also taking student voice seriously. The New York-based organization hired a group of 25 students to conduct more than 400 “empathy interviews” with their peers across the nation. The students then used these insights to reimagine education into something inspiring and engaging rather than discouraging and disengaging. 

 “With these films, I wanted to put these ideas out there and have people ask, is there something in what One Stone and other schools are doing that I can bring back to my school or classroom,” Long says. “I really think that’s what we need to get kids inspired and motivated.”

After all, kids are full of bright ideas. Take the students of One Stone, where the mission is “to disrupt for good.”

“There’s a lot of disruption happening in business, but it’s not necessarily helping a lot of people. There’s more income inequality than ever,” Long says. “That phrase, ‘disrupt for good’ really says it all. These kids are approaching their lives and jobs in a different way than previous generations. They want to go into the world and have a positive impact.”

About the Author

Andrew Findlay

Andrew Findlay is an award winning freelance journalist who writes about adventure, travel, business, conservation issues, and culture. He's a contributing writer at ThoughtExchange, where he helps tell the stories of leaders who are reimagining how they include their people, create ownership and make progress.