FETC 2013 | Profile

To Create 21st Century Leaders, One District Lets the Students Drive

A rural Iowa school district is using technology to develop student leaders, foster creativity, and drive learning beyond the status quo. See how.

In order to create students that grow up to be leaders, schools need to start thinking about the skills they impart a whole lot differently. At least, that's the thinking of Andy Crozier, principal and superintendent at Andrew Community School District in rural Andrew, Iowa, who has spent much of his education career working with school administrators to develop and implement programs that put technology into students' hands.

Today's schools, Crozier says, need classroom environments that encourage a raft of new academic and leadership skills tailored to the 21st century world they will someday inhabit--and lead--including creativity, innovation, and new learning experiences. They need to give students ubiquitous access to technology and train teachers for new roles as facilitators.

The best way to accomplish this, he asserts, is by "removing obstacles that get in the way of kids taking ownership in learning and technology." That means letting students drive projects normally reserved for adults and giving them a greater sense of freedom, especially around technology. The Apple distinguished educator recently spoke with T.H.E. Journal about what, specifically, schools can do to develop leaders, encourage innovation, and create real 21st century learning environments.

Remove Obstacles
While technology has the opportunity to really drive learning, Crozier explains, too many schools go overboard with restrictions that actually stifle student understanding.

"They filter everything out," he says, in regards to internet use. While this is a common and, to some extent, legally necessary practice, Crozier notes that blocking too much content online also ties student's hands, prohibiting them from exploring beyond the confines of a given assignment. "Administrators tend to preserve the status quo. We know how to implement and support [the safeguards], so it's easy not to take the risk," he says, "but that doesn't mean it's what's best for kids."

andy crozier fetc speaker

Crozier has led professional development in many different areas of educational technology. He will present two sessions at FETC 2013, which starts Jan. 28, 2013 in Orlando, FL:

  • Let the Kids Drive: Using Technology to Empower Student Leadership

  • Walk The Talk: Modeling Effective Use of Technology

The first will focus on how school leaders can work on clearing barriers with technology for students. The second addresses tools and strategies to model effective use of technology in school districts.

For more information, visit Crozier's website or find him on Twitter.

YouTube and Google Image searches, for instance, are valuable resources, but many schools block students from using them because of the possibility that students may access inappropriate content. This presents a different problem, Crozier argues, because then "students struggle to find good resources."

Crozier tells the story of a project where students did a Google search on Martin Luther King Jr. and noticed one of the first results of that search was a link to a white supremacist website. Most schools he knows would block the site so kids couldn't gain access to the racist propaganda. Crozier encourages schools not to take this approach but instead turn this into a learning opportunity.

"There's going to be a day when these kids leave this school. We can't hold their hands," he says. Instead, he urges schools to teach responsibility and give students practical, real-world skills, particularly around digital literacy. "Teach students about copyright issues, what's acceptable to use, to republish, and to edit for your own work. Show them how to validate resources and how to dig deeper than the surface level of a couple hits on a Google search."

In order for real 21st century learning to take place, Crozier says, schools have to venture out beyond their comfort zones. They need a new perspective that sees opportunities for growth rather than just potential for danger. "Schools must look at the educational value versus the risk value," he notes. "The educational value outweighs the risk value every day of the week."

Teach Leadership Skills
This year, the Andrew CSD implemented Franklin Covey's "The Leader in Me" program. Based on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it aims to shift school culture and teach young people skills such as leadership, accountability, initiative and self-direction, responsibility, problem solving, communication, and teamwork.

"We are focused on cultivating future leaders for our community through explicit instruction of these habits," Crozier says. The program is still in its infancy at Andrew, but the district is optimistic about its long term potential.

"We want to see students transfer these leadership skills into their digital lives," he says, "and develop good cyber citizenship." The program teaches students to "synergize"--or work together. In real terms, this means that students demonstrate courtesy and respect when engaging with others online.

"We want kids to see through the behavior and responsibility issues in that digital space," he explains, "and learn how to pitch in to do their part and work together, appropriately, online."

Let Students Drive
Identify students that would be good leaders then give them opportunity to practice responsibility, Crozier advises.

"We seek kids out for roles and responsibilities," Crozier says, explaining that he and his staff try to get to know kids on a personal level so they can see what kids like to do or where they would be a good fit. "Some students naturally rise to the top thanks to their abilities, but we reserve some tasks for students that wouldn't volunteer themselves."

Schools set up agreements with the student leaders, which spell out expectations, available resources, guidelines, and measures of accountability. Students realize that if they don't adhere to the policies that they'll lose their privileges.

So far the program's been successful, Crozier says, citing a project that started this year, which put students in charge of the district's new television announcement system. The system, managed entirely by students, has been an opportunity for students to practice working with others and learn new skills. "Students are responsible for posting content to the system," Crozier says. "We gave the students guidelines for style--to teach good presentation rules--and behavior."

Another example is Andrew's new phone system. The district's technology director selected a team of students to help him set up the cabling for the new system, to make sure the cables went with the right spots on the network. Each student received a walkie-talkie, which they used to communicate with the tech director and each other.

"They walked around campus," Crozier explains, "unplugging cords and communicating with each other to make sure that sure the right classroom Ethernet cord was plugged into the right switch in the network closet." The benefits of this project were twofold. Students learned how to set up a complex phone system, and the district was able to get a big project done fast without having to strain its limited IT resources.

Students are also managing class websites for teachers at the elementary school. Students post the content--spelling lists, assignments, and pictures of what students did during the week. The sites serve as a valuable communication vehicle for parents.

Crozier also encourages schools to assign students to these types of tech projects. Allowing students to pitch in, he asserts, allows teachers and staff to concentrate on high priority tasks while giving students opportunities to learn and hone practical skills.

"Most districts have adults doing these jobs," Crozier says, "but kids are fully capable of doing them. They enjoy driving these projects. Technology's intuitive to them."

Provide the Right Tools
Creating 21st century leaders means putting technology into every student's hands, Crozier says. Not just devices, but also high speed broadband, which is still an issue for many schools in rural areas. "We need to ensure that all kids have access to technology in and out of the classroom, as well as access to high speed networking," he says.

Andrew's students are currently using Macbooks but the district plans to consider Chromebooks when its lease with Apple runs out. "I think the new Chromebooks are a major game changer for schools at $249 per device," Crozier asserts. "At that price point, we can provide ubiquitous access for our kids, plus they're easy for us to deploy and support."

Crozier advocates computers over mobile devices as a better tool for learning and student engagement. "Mobile devices are nice for consumption," he affirms, "but students need real hardware in their hands that allows them to be creators rather than simply consumers. Tablets and smartphones are part of the 21st century learning environment but should not be the main tool students rely on daily. Twenty-first century environments may include multiple tools but the computer is doing most of the work."

Train Teachers
As students take ownership of their learning, the role of the teacher will evolve as well, according to Crozier.

"As students create learning, and are doing project-based instruction," he points out. "The teacher moves from being the 'sage on the stage' to more of a facilitator, the one asking the critical questions of the kids."

Professional development is key to making teachers comfortable with this new role. "Teachers learn how to give up control in their classrooms," he explains. "They discover that organized chaos actually works."

Administrators can support this effort by giving teachers the freedom to make mistakes in their classrooms. "When teachers know they're in a safe environment, they can be innovative. They take risks and try new things," he says. "Sometimes they'll fail, and that's okay."