What if high schoolers had access to a graduate-level executive leadership course customized just for them — one that called on them to interact with and lead teams of adults from local businesses? Two members of our d.leadership teaching team, Kathryn Segovia and Jeremy Utley, undertook the challenge of creating such a course this summer, joining with alumni of their graduate-level class and executive training program to instruct students at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto earlier this summer.
The teaching team spent two weeks with sixteen rising sophomores and juniors at Eastside, teaching a course that drew on the d.leadership class framework to help students translate everyday leadership experiences in their own lives to the classroom and the school environment. The class, which included a number of exercises, hands-on activities, and even an overnight backpacking trip (not to be confused with a more relaxed camping trip), was a prototype meant to test a variation on one of the d.school’s core courses.
In order to appreciate the relevance of the teaching team’s resulting insights from their work at Eastside, it’s important to look at the way d.leadership is traditionally taught at the d.school:
d.leadership students are a mixture of Stanford graduate students and working executives. Shortly after class begins, the students are split into teams of two and are assigned to work with a project partner. Project partners are real-world organizations — anywhere from nonprofits and startups to established businesses and Fortune 500 companies. Each student team is then charged with leading a team of individuals from their partner organization through a specific design challenge for the remainder of the quarter.
Students accepted into the course are expected to have some level of familiarity with design thinking. That allows for there to be very little hand-holding in d.leadership as it is taught at Stanford. It is up to the students to establish what qualifies as a success or a failure for their duo and their partner team. They are then expected to grow and calibrate their leadership based on their interactions and accumulated knowledge from class sessions, design reviews and open collaborations with one another.
The teaching team modified this framework, including an introduction to design thinking as well as other instructional tools and handbooks to make the leadership concepts more accessible. For example, one exercise called on students to identify leadership characteristics from popular films, such as Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3 and The Sound of Music. In addition to the in-class activities and instruction, Eastside students, just like their graduate student counterparts, worked with partner organizations — local businesses in Palo Alto, including Four Seasons and Baskin Robbins/Togo's. This meant the students were called on to lead individuals significantly older than they were, challenging the notion that age correlates to leadership status.
The class was roughly a year in the making and led to a number of insights. Many of these insights were captured in process, with teaching team members recording short-form videos that were shared with the rest of the team via their mobile phones. The teaching team also debriefed throughout the process as well as afterwards. Here are some of the team’s key insights grouped by theme:
I am a work in progress: The Eastside students were regularly called on to refer to themselves as a "work in progress" and identify the aspects of their personalities they wished to work on. This stood out as a big theme in d.leadership as taught to executives but was even more significant for the high school students. Whereas students who take d.leadership at Stanford or participate in the d.school’s Executive Education program already come with at least some idea of their own leadership potential, the Eastside students didn’t come with the same perception of themselves. That appeared to make them much more receptive of the idea of self-directed personal change.
Age does not equal leadership: Students, in their interactions with adults, came to realize that they were capable of leading those older than they were. One student who was surprised that the adults they worked with listened to and used their ideas said, "Age is only a number, and anyone can teach anything to anyone.” The students, while working with their partner organizations, were able to see their adult team members struggle with parts of the design thinking process, such as empathy interviewing.
Success is raising your hand: During the course, the teaching team put forth the concept that being a productive contributor to the world isn’t about raising your hand and having the right answer, but raising your hand and knowing that everyone will build on your contribution and support you.
Which comes first, the cohort or the individual?: The teaching team realized towards the end of the course that they were not only training individual students to become leaders, but for the cohort to collectively lead as well. Given the students were teenagers, their stage of social development seemed to lend itself best to developing their leadership abilities as a cohort rather than strictly as individuals. Students developed a sense of community over the course of the two-week course, leading the teaching team to ask: What if the community development happened before the leadership development? The development of that community, the team realized, seemed more important for the students than even their own individual development.
Revealing “play hard”: The camping trip was a particularly important aspect of the class, not only because it brought students out of the classroom, but because it physically challenged them, taking them out of their comfort zone. The camping trip provided an opportunity to show them that working hard and playing hard go hand in hand.
A chance to transform community: The class provided an opportunity for students from East Palo Alto to interact with local business stakeholders on an entirely different level. In other words, the class served as a prototype for perhaps transforming community, giving its school-age and professional members a common language in design thinking. That common language could then allow them to communicate their ideas more effectively, drawing on a wider range of experiences to catalyze positive change.
The teaching team was comprised of Kelly Schmutte, Ehsan Sadeghipour, Haley Robison and Claire Sutton. Eun-mee Jeong, a teacher at Eastside who taught all of the students prior to the class, also joined the team, providing insights as to the students’ overall development based on her past experience with them.
The class, in addition to being an educational experience and rich source of learning for the teaching team, proved to be a transformative experience for the students, going beyond merely training them in design thinking. As one student put it during reflection after the class, "I used to think my [older] sister would lead me. But now I think that I can lead my sister. I have the traits that a leader has.”
Do you want to learn more about d.leadership and the work at Eastside? Would you try a course like this in your school? Let us know! Post your questions in the comments. I’ll do my best to answer them or find someone who can.
(Video produced by Patrick Beaudouin with illustrations by Jonathan Ezer)