The Power of Student-Led Learning


Part Two of Two

By Ken Kay

For the past year I focused a lot of my time thinking and talking about how our vision for 21st century education must focus on “student-led learning.”  

In my last blog, I offered three important components of “student-led learning”: 

  • Problem-solving  

  • Self-direction  

  • Student responsibility  

I asked for your help in identifying students and practices that demonstrate these three components. I appreciate your many suggestions. Unfortunately, I was only able to highlight three of them, but, I think you will agree, they are powerful examples.   


Patrick Robles, Sunnyside High School, Tucson, AZ 

Patrick’s life mantra: "¡Sí, se puede!" which translates to "Yes, we can!" 

As student body president, Patrick had many successes, possibly the biggest of which was the major crosswalk renovation near his school. According to District Superintendent Steve Holmes, the school had been trying for years to fix the problem, but red tape, and bureaucratic roadblocks kept getting in the way. 

However, at the beginning of Patrick’s senior year, he took on this challenge. After reaching out to fellow students, teachers, the principal, and the superintendent, Patrick got the go ahead to approach the Tucson City Council. By the end of January, the Tucson Department of Transportation had installed a new Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon (RRFB) crosswalk, a new technology being piloted in another Tucson location.  

When I asked why he thought he had succeeded when adults had failed at the same project, Patrick said, “Young people bring a unique perspective and tone to the conversation.”  

I also asked him what skills and competencies he developed through the process and if he thought other students could benefit from similar experiences. His response: “I am now able to be in a conversation with adults and get my point across. My writing has improved, and I also improved my empathy skills.” 

“When you are in student government, you need a great deal of agency. We need to put that agency in the classroom. More agency in the curriculum will help students build a sense of ownership in their work, in the classroom, and in the school.”   

Patrick is a great example of students as problem solvers. 


Andrew Ellis, North Arvada Middle School, Arvada, CO 

Erin Fichtel teaches a STEAM elective at North Arvada Middle School. The emphasis of the class is self-directed learning. Students are assigned to work on some aspect of the school garden. However, Andrew Ellis wanted to focus on something else: the schools lack of playground space.  His teacher gave him the “thumbs up.” 

During this well scaffolded course, Andrew and the rest of the students spent the first six weeks of the semester doing an analysis of their potential project, communicating with students, teachers, and administrators; and designing their project, the success criteria, and how to manage their time and budget. 

Andrew and his team noticed students were bored during lunch recess and needed more options beyond just sitting and talking to friends. While researching a playground grant, Andrew realized the school must partner with the city government to be eligible. So, he worked to convince city council to apply for the grant on the school’s behalf. Working alongside his fellow students, Andrew took the lead on completing the grant application, gaining student consensus, and designing a Ninja-Warrior-inspired playground design. Long story short, the school won the $110,000 grant from GOCO (Great Outdoors Colorado) and the school and district added another $70,000. That’s right, Andrew, a seventh grader, raised $180,000 for his school and community. 

The obstacle course was installed this August. 

Andrew’s teacher, Erin, explained that this project transformed Andrew, who had been an average student in reading and writing.  

Not only did Andrew learn important researching, writing, negotiating, and organizational skills, he also developed a greater sense of confidence from a class project that allowed him to excel and make a much-needed difference for his school. 

“It makes me feel good to help other people. Now that my sister is in the school, she will get to use it. That’s pretty cool,” Andrew explained proudly. 

Andrew’s great story is a stellar example of what can happen in learning environments that focus on self-direction.


Rajaah Alagib, Albemarle High School, Charlottesville, VA 

In the period following the violent confrontations in Charlottesville, Rajaah’s school district was reviewing its dress code policy. It was controversial because the district had to make the difficult decision as to whether the policy should explicitly ban confederate imagery. 

The school district made two significant decisions about how to proceed. First, it broadened the inquiry to develop an “anti-racism” policy for the district. Then, it decided to ask a “student-only” panel to develop the policy. Rajaah was one of the students selected to serve on this panel. 

I asked Rajaah what she thought about having only students on the task force. She said it was “better than having adults that aren’t in the school or the classroom.”  

Rajaah and the rest of the students started working on the policy before school started and did in-depth data work before they entered an intensive interview stage. They completed a draft policy in late 2018, and the new policy was passed by the school board in February of this year.  

The anti-racism policy is a general policy framework that will help push forward a path for more specific policies. Rajaah describes it as a “first-step” and that she was confident the policy would continue to receive adequate attention from the district and the school board. She also proudly explained that the policy creates an ongoing student review board to review the new data, and believes the students will keep a continuing focus on the racism issues. 

Based on the success of this panel, the district is now establishing a new student policy panel on homework policy and its relationship to mental health challenges students in the district face. 

Rajaah noted that she benefited personally from her intense involvement in this work. Her public speaking and presentation skills, as well as her networking skills grew through this project. It also advanced her personal interest in public policy. She also shared that the younger students in the group dramatically improved their communication and confidence skills throughout the six-month experience. 

When I asked Rajaah what lessons she hoped the district might take away from this project, she suggested that all classes should include longer term projects. “If teachers embraced community-based projects, it would help students obtain a wide range of skills that they need.”

If you want to hear more about this great experience and are a member of the Edleader21 network, please join us at our Annual Event where Rajaah will be one of our keynote speakers on October 2 in Houston. 

Rajaah’s story exemplifies what happens when we give students significant responsibility in their school and community.   

The stories of Patrick, Andrew, and Rajaah are impressive, but they are the exception, not the norm. How do we make these experiences not the exception, but the standard for all students?  

Here are four questions, that could help you and your leadership team to advance student-led learning: 

  1. Do you think about your school system as an opportunity for students to hone their problem-solving skills? 

  1. Do you build self-direction and student agency into your learning designs? 

  1. Do you give students the opportunity to reflect on and work on aspects of their school they could change? 

  1. Have you considered adopting cornerstone or capstone projects to give students the opportunity to dig deeply into projects they care about? 

Your ability to unleash 21st century learning in your district is dependent on the power of your students to become masters of their own learning. That element of 21st century education deserves your laser-like attention. 


KenKay photo 2012 copy
By Ken Kay 
CEO, EdLeader21, 
A Network of Battelle for Kids

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