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21st Century Student Leadership

Every student is a leader.

There is not a single day that goes by without a student engaging on an activity that displays traits of leadership. Whether it is through an act of kindness, resilience or teamwork, students are continuously exerting influence over each other and their surroundings.

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Students have the incredible power to define their learning environments; however, they are often unaware of this capacity and they don’t understand it within the framework of student leadership. Furthermore, there are also many adults who are oblivious to students’ leadership potential.

Too often, student leadership opportunities at schools are exclusive.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since there are many students who traditionally have not had access to student leadership programs or traditional student leadership roles and positions. Unfortunately, this causes a misconception, one that is often times promoted by students and adults alike, that student leadership belongs to only a few.

This has to change, because let’s be honest, what student wouldn’t benefit from learning about leadership?

Leadership programs provide students with skills that enhance their academic achievement, but also prepare them to succeed in various postsecondary settings. Talents such as creativity, collaboration, communication, empathy, and adaptability are not just nice to have; they’re the fundamental capabilities of a 21st-century global economy facing complex challenges. Thus, student leadership is not only focused on students’ personal growth and success, but also in their development as critical thinkers and stewards of service and global citizenship.

If you ask me, this is exactly the kind of education our students need.

Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University, has written and spoken extensively about the importance of revamping education so that it reflects the realities of the 21st Century. He explains:

“In today’s highly competitive global knowledge economy, all students need new skills for college, careers, and citizenship. To fail to give all students these new skills leaves today’s youth-and our country-at an alarming competitive disadvantage.”

And I agree, but my contention is that these so-called “new skills” are not new. They are already been taught in many leadership classes and programs, but these opportunities are not accessible to every student.

So I repeat my question: what student wouldn’t benefit from learning about leadership?

The answer is none.

So I firmly believe that in order to transform education for the 21st Century every teacher will have to be a leadership teacher. This is already happening, there are many teachers who do an amazing job at teaching math, history or science while reinforcing leadership skills, values and habits. But we can do better and make sure every student gets the opportunity to have a leadership teacher and facilitator. 

I was recently asked at a conference on student leadership about what I thought student leadership should look like in the 21st Century.

To which I replied the following: My core belief is that student leadership belongs to everyone and everywhere. This means to every student and in every classroom, but also in our parks, businesses, organizations, and many more spaces and places.

Students are not only the leaders of tomorrow, they are the leaders of today. This is particularly true in education and we have to be ready and willing to partner with them to improve and strengthen our schools and communities - this is the student leaders’ journey in the 21st Century.

Student leadership can’t solely be compartmentalized to one class, summer camp, or program. In addition to these various activities, we have to envision new strategies to make it inclusive and adaptive. Most importantly, students have to be involved in leading this process.

What better student leadership project than to make leadership available to every student?

For this purpose, I have designed the Inspira Project and during the upcoming fall, I will be working with various classrooms, schools, universities and organizations to facilitate this process. I welcome everyone to join me on this journey. 

21st Century Student Leadership, here we come!


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