5 Principles of Student-Led Education

by Jeff Sorensen

Having been a college student in the era of “engaged learning,” I have to report that my experience left a lot to be desired. As I approached my own graduation in 2012, I wondered a few things:

  1. In a place with so many amazing minds, access to resources, and time to do interesting things, why did I spend so much time writing papers and taking tests?
  2. Why did I have to respond to other people’s prompts and questions instead of formulating my own?
  3. Why was I spending all of my time “solving” problems that had been solved decades earlier when we have so many unsolved problems in the world today?

After three years on campus, I knew that if students were allowed to choose their own work, most of us would be working on much more ambitious projects than what we were currently presented with. Most of us would be spending much more time on our work because we would actually care about what we were doing. Most of us would be learning a lot more because we would be engaged in the successes and the failures.

And, through it all, our work might even make the world a little bit more just, a little bit more free, a little bit more sustainable. If we had the freedom to choose our own education, we might illuminate possibilities for everyone around us.

Obviously, I decided to do something about it: I co-founded optiMize in my final year as an undergrad at Michigan. The University of Michigan saw its potential and hired my co-founder and me to create and direct their first department for Social Innovation, which we’ve set up to work collaboratively with the student-led optiMize organization.

Five years, 2000 students, and $2 million dollars later, I’m more convinced than ever that if we want “engaged learning” to happen, we need to let students take the lead.

This isn’t a revolutionary statement. Everyone says they care about student leadership. From my view, though, organizations tend to struggle to embrace the full ramifications of student-led education. Given that optiMize is running a pretty unique model — which is student-led and also includes full-time staff — I’d like to share our approach.

How do we cultivate genuine student leadership in education?

To guide our actions, we’ve spent the last five years working to develop and implement some principles of student-led education. I hope these are helpful for my fellow optiMizers as well as for anyone else who wants to cultivate student leadership in their own educational setting.

These principles are my own interpretation — I can’t possibly speak for every unique individual in optiMize. I hope to hear from many of you to let me know what you think, where we agree, and where we disagree!

With all that said, here are five principles I believe are important in student-led education:

  1. Students choose their own projects. Every project in the optiMize Challenge is chosen and directed by the students who are working on it. If they want to change their project midway, that’s their decision. We provide information to help students make better decisions: Our community partners provide information to help students understand the most pressing challenges that need work, and our mentors offer guidance to help students find productive paths. But ultimately the decisions themselves lie fully with the students. Who are we to tell a student what they “should” care about? This openness leads to a diverse array of projects — 130 student-led projects joined optiMize last year, all united by a desire to create projects that illuminate possibilities for a just and sustainable future, but diverse in every way in their approach to that challenge.
  2. Students design and organize their own learning environments. optiMize isn’t just a program for students to create their own self-directed projects, it’s a year-round learning community that’s led and organized by students. The optiMize Core Team designs and organizes 70 events every year for their peers to learn new skills, meet mentors, share ideas and feedback, and cultivate a strong, supportive community. Students are perfectly capable of co-creating their own learning environments in collaboration with our staff team. Our staff team will never design anything without students as equal collaborative partners.
  3. Mentorship matters, but mentors never tell students what they “should” do. Cultivating student leadership doesn’t mean we should ignore other perspectives. optiMize has full-time staff and lots of volunteer mentors whose perspectives are crucial to helping students make decisions about how to move their self-directed work forward. But there are a few misconceptions about mentorship that we’ve tried to clear up in optiMize. First, mentors are not managers. We ask mentors to share experiences and insights, not to tell a student what decision they “should” make. In our mentor trainings, we remind mentors that “the projects belong to the students, not you!” With a little coaching, mentors easily embrace this principle. Beyond this, we remind everyone that mentors are not oracles. Sometimes mentors think they’re expected to have answers for every question. This is absurd and leads to incredible dishonesty that undermines students’ ability to develop. Henry David Thoreau understood this well, writing that, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my own experience.” He went on to say that he trusts his readers will “accept such portions as apply to them.” As mentors, cultivating student leadership means trusting that we don’t need to spell everything out for them — and humbly accepting that we couldn’t even if we wanted to.
  4. Student leaders and staff collaborate as equal partners in the organization. No one in optiMize has any authority by virtue of their position or title. Even as a co-founder and full-time staff member, there’s not a single situation where I could ever compel someone to do something against their free choice just because I say so. By this same principle, student leaders cannot inflict unjustified authority on anyone else, either. Instead of giving orders, we need to persuade (not coerce!) each other to consent to collaborative actions. We use a process that we call Collaborative Change, adapted from our mentors at Zingerman’s. It helps us present our ideas to the group, get feedback and change the idea to incorporate other perspectives, and ultimately gain unanimous support before we take the action. Personally, it’s the only way I can imagine achieving genuine student leadership in any organization.
  5. All decisions are made by consensus, and students are always involved. This is last on the list, but it’s probably the one that sets optiMize apart more than any of the others: we make decisions by unanimous consensus, and students are involved in every decision. And in our view, student leadership means having students involved in every decision. Budget decisions. Funding decisions. Staffing decisions. Program decisions. Branding decisions. Nothing happens without student participation. Last year, when we had to choose how to allocate more than $200,000 in funding to 18 optiMize Challenge projects (out of more than 50 who were seeking summer funding), we made the decisions by unanimous consensus among 20 students, staff, and mentors. It took us a full weekend, requiring about 15–20 hours from each person involved. And the feelings expressed afterward? Exhaustion, sure. But also gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of such important decisions. Solidarity from the incredibly challenging experience we had all just shared. And satisfaction at knowing we’d just made radically better decisions than any single one of us ever could have on our own.

What do you think?

These are some principles that seem to be working well for us. I’m not saying we have it all figured out, and I’m definitely not suggesting that this list is complete.

I’ve probably made some mistakes in how I’ve presented these ideas, too. It’s a tradeoff I’ll accept in exchange for getting more writing out to you on a more consistent basis — which is a serious goal for the next year.

With that in mind, I would love to hear your thoughts in response. What do you think?