Student Leadership Development as an “Area of Inquiry”

What happens when you teach a topic for years, diligently chipping away at the teaching and learning challenges that occur, in order to maximize student learning outcomes?  If you couple it with deliberate innovation, systematic observation and proactive, robust evaluation, you may suddenly find yourself deep in a SOTL Area of Inquiry.

The Wulling Center has recently started to define five Areas of Inquiry, with Student Leadership Development being one.  In this post, we ask Kristin Janke to describe some of the current challenges in Student Leadership Development that are requiring a scholarly approach.dsc_2290-fuzzy

What are some common problems or challenges in teaching/learning about leadership?

One of the biggest problems is practice.  You can only talk about leadership for so long.  In the classroom, we can take students through awareness building exercises and introduce models that might expand their approach, but at some point students need to “do leadership.”   Building leadership skills isn’t like building patient care skills.  We can simulate a patient with diabetes needing education on their glucometer.  It’s tougher to simulate a situation requiring leadership.

How have you been innovating to address this problem?

In 2014, we received funding from the C Charles Jackson Foundation to build new teaching and assessment methods into the Leadership Emphasis Area (LEA).  With these advanced students, we piloted the use of Leadership Advisory Councils, which meet four times per year.  At each meeting, an LEA student comes prepared to present a leadership challenge that they are currently experiencing.  They complete pre-work to help them identify relevant details to share and questions/requests they have of the Council.  Other students are assigned roles as either the Chairperson or Consultants.  The Chairperson ensures the group accomplishes the desired tasks, including ensuring that each Consultant participates.  The Consultants are trusted advisors and coaches.  Their job is to help the Case Presenter to examine the situation, diagnose it accurately and see new options for direction.  This process allows students to practice analyzing a problem, asking for focused advice and supporting one another, by explicitly using the strategies we discuss in class.   These sessions are completely “teacher-less.”  The Councils do their work with each member completing post-meeting documentation to help them debrief on the skills they utilized and successfulness.  With advanced students, this has been shown to be a highly engaging and meaningful process.  The Councils are putting their learning and skills to bear on real challenges.

How has a scholarly approach been an asset in this work?

We didn’t launch into this process overnight.  Dr. Sorensen and I attended a conference for leadership educators and learned about the process.  We shared it with Dr. Fierke.  With agreement on the potential for this, I then read books and articles to learn more about it. For guidance, I reached out to colleagues at Harvard that had originated it.  We engaged more colleagues, Dr. Claire Kolar and Dr. Oscar Garza, in writing the grant and helping us to modify the approach for our situation and context.  It was a collaborative, thoughtful process that built on existing literature and experiences with the approach.

Being a teacherless experience, it was a challenge to figure out methods for determining success.  We couldn’t observe!  However, with careful planning, we were able to construct methods of document review and student input that allowed us to describe the outcomes.  In our second year, the analysis is ongoing and has already identified ways to focus skill development, streamline the process, and help students better articulate their learning.

Future posts will feature leads from other Areas of Inquiry, describing current challenges and innovative solutions!