The role of school is not purely academic learning—educators are focused on the whole child, or the idea of the academic and social-emotional needs of students. Research shows that a traditional academic model alone doesn’t prepare students for success in the information age. Embedding 21st-century skills as part of any curriculum helps prepare students for a modern world and workforce. Ranging from the ability to collaborate with others, to critical thinking, to creativity, 21st-century skills prepare students for a world where the jobs they will likely hold don’t yet exist or will drastically change with technological advances.
One 21st-century skill getting more attention these days is leadership. Leadership skills translate into the traits students need to set goals and be successful in their career pathways and its the recipe for giving all students opportunities to be future CEOs, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders.
Traditional school models don’t always prepare students for leadership skills like problem solving, collaboration, or design thinking when content requirements take up all of the instructional time. The good news? These 21st-century leadership skills don’t have to be just "one more thing” on a teacher’s to-do list, but can, in fact, help build our future innovators and leaders by being embedded into everyday learning.
Let’s explore some ways we can mesh leadership skills into content across all curriculum areas and grade levels.
Introduce Students to Models of Leadership Excellence
One way to start introducing students to leadership is to expose them to examples of strong leaders. The more that students are exposed to quality leadership, the more they learn from these models of excellence.
Leadership doesn’t have to be defined as the celebrity CEOs of the big companies we all know or the infamous historical changemakers, though it can be part of the process. While highlighting the accomplishments of well-known leaders, balance this with strong and diverse leadership examples in your own community or examples of leaders from stories you read with students.
Consider reaching out to local leaders and business owners who can share their experiences in leadership and the pathways they took to reach their current roles. Leaders aren’t always the CEO or business owner, too, so your options are limitless. Find teacher leaders, small business owners, restaurant managers, independent contractors running their own businesses, or other examples of people working towards their career goals and invite them to talk with your students, either in person or during a Zoom call. Encourage these community leaders to share the challenges and outcomes on their journeys to success.
One important aspect of modeling leadership is to find leaders whom your students can see themselves within. Focus on variety in terms of age, gender, and race to ensure leadership is modeled inclusively.
Explore Community Partnerships with Students
School and community partnerships allow students to view real-world leaders while learning how to be active participants within their communities. By encouraging students to interact with organizations outside of school, they build a sense of pride in their communities and they start to develop greater passions and strengths towards future career paths, as well as interpersonal skills that help them grow as future leaders.
One way to do this is with a program like Lead4Change. Lead4Change is a program for grades 6-12 that includes multiple lessons on leadership skills for students that are easily integrated into any subject, as they are aligned to all core subject area standards. The program then offers a framework for a service project that students collaborate on with each other and community organizations. The program is privately funded and free for all teachers and students.
Younger students can model a similar approach by partnering with hospitals, fire departments, or park districts and exploring ways to collaborate towards solving problems. One elementary school in Fort Collins, Colorado modeled this by having their students work with a local healthcare system to create a strategy to increase handwashing through their facilities. Students created table tents and posters that were positioned around the healthcare facilities that shared benefits of handwashing, and the system saw a significant increase in overall health and cleanliness. The second graders developed the solution to the problem, collaborated with healthcare leaders on how best to communicate the need, and worked together to create the end result.
Allow Students to Choose, and Solve Problems
Giving students ownership of their learning allows them to build leadership capacity inherently. By allowing them to choose strategies to complete projects, they are self-regulating their learning and setting goals for what they want to accomplish. This can be as simple as choosing an assignment model to show mastery of a topic or choosing how to learn about new content from a menu board or other list.
Take this even further with models of learning such as Problem-Based or Project-Based Learning, commonly known as PBL. Through PBL, students collaborate and solve problems while participating in learning around a topic or unit of study. For example, students may explore concepts such as global warming or childhood hunger by coming up with solutions to these existing problems. Leadership skills are honed as they work together with classmates in solving a problem and designing a solution. Some PBL models take this further through panel presentations to real experts in the field and community partnerships to turn PBL projects into real-life solutions.
Leadership is a true 21st-century skill and something that educators need to foster in all children. Without the ability to collaborate, set goals, and solve problems, students won’t be ready for whatever their futures may hold.