A School Culture of Changemaking

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Schools are like living organisms. Microcosms of society. The place where young people spend most of their young lives, learning about themselves, each other and the world. If we want young people to grow up to be empathic, problem-solvers who know how to work in teams and lead change, then we have to create opportunities for them to practice. School is a great place to start.

“Fostering an environment where students are empowered to be those agents of change can transpose into adults who transform the workplace. I think changemaking touches on another another aspect of change which is exploration. Allowing students to explore problems they want to solve is key.” ~ Monique Price-Taylor, CREC schools

The great reimagining has begun. A growing, global community of innovators in education are reimagining how young people grow up. They are guided by critical questions such as: What is the purpose of education? What is the role of schools and educators in contributing to a more empathetic, sustainable, empowering and fulfilling world? How can they make learning special for each child and transform schools into community wealth-building hubs and institutions?

Changemaker Educators

To develop young changemakers, the teachers themselves must identify as changemakers, practise changemaking, and model that journey for students. Changemaker school leaders recognise the power of investing in people at all levels of the organisation, and create spaces where teachers are encouraged to pause and reflect on themselves, their professional relationships, and their practice.

As with social innovation, they begin with two simple questions: ‘why?’ and ‘what if?’ Together, they reflect on, question, and challenge the current system and imagine a better one. It doesn’t require completely reinventing the wheel, but it does demand that educators connect to their passion, reframe priorities and embrace the exceptional power that their profession has in shaping the world. It starts with being honest about what we value. If, instead of concentrating wealth and power among the few, we seek a society of “caring, creative and committed people,” and leaders who feel “called to service rather than to stature,” then we need to make that clear (Cain, 2017).

Culture, Curriculum, Systems

The curriculum, culture and physical environment are used as opportunities for students to connect to their passions, collaborate, lead, problem-solve, analyse, synthesize, create and contribute to their community. Changemaker educators aim to foster both the will and skill to make the world a better place. They emphasise values, attitudes and behaviours as much as academics. Students are encouraged to be entrepreneurial, creative, empathetic, and community-oriented leaders no matter what career path they choose to follow. It is a combination of a deep understanding of what is, and the ability to imagine and bring about what could be. It is as much about how to be than who to be.

Supportive Learning Environments

School culture is key. It is the milieu for all action and interaction. It is both individual and plural. School culture is often more than the sum of its parts but it still benefits from explicit and mindful tending. The environment, including the people and place, the values and norms, rules and rituals that define it, matters.

How do we weave empathy-based ethics and a culture of changemaking into the very fabric of our schools, homes and communities? A big part of doing so requires explicitly prioritizing its intellectual, social, and emotional building blocks as key indicators of success for students and adults. Before expecting to achieve social innovation as an outcome, schools must first create the conditions in which the knowledge, skills and motivation of social innovators can thrive. With this explicit purpose and desired outcome in mind, leaders can help their team rethink and re-shape the school environment.


“Empathy is at the core of Changemaker Schools. It is the foundation that guides decision-making, reflection, and action.” ~ Changemakers: Educating with Purpose

Empathy is critical to creating the kinds of conditions in which deeper learning can take place. It is modelled by the teachers and embedded into every aspect of the learning environment. This includes creating safe, open spaces for dialogue, building mutual trust, respecting and elevating student voices, encouraging students to take the lead, teaching relevant content, placing value on outcomes beyond traditional academic achievement, restorative rather than punitive procedures, and making time for growth through reflection and feedback. See the ‘Case for Promoting Empathy in Schools.’

Changemaker School Lusher Charter’s number-one school rule is “be kind.” It may seem simple, but making kindness the foundation of a school culture is very challenging in practice. Through a robust social and emotional learning program and a planned effort to help students use empathy to improve their class, school and local New Orleans community, Lusher challenges us to rethink what “being kind” means as an educational philosophy.

Social-Emotional Intelligence and Wellbeing

The quality of relationships and connections between students and adults affect the quality of learning. Research has shown that while robots learn in “abstract and formulaic” ways, human learning is founded in “embodied, emotive, subjective” and experiences (Beard, 2018). Young children bring their whole selves to the classroom and their emotional experiences affect how they learn. Teachers are asked to be as familiar with the reality of students as they are with specialised content knowledge. They take time to talk about how students are feeling and what happened at home. They provide emotional vocabulary, model deep listening and prioritise individual interactions with students to make sure they know their teachers care. Each student is greeted when they arrive in the classroom, often with a high-five, hug, or handshake. At Momentous Institute in Dallas and Maury Elementary in D.C., teachers spend time before school starts visiting their new students and families in their homes to begin building a positive relationship based on trust, respect and shared understandings.

Emotions are fundamental to long-term success. Google conducted a study of their most effective teams and found that the top seven characteristics of success are all ‘soft skills’ (Strauss, 2017). Social and emotional intelligence helps students build the foundations for conflict resolution, teamwork, leadership, and resilience. Set routines and procedures help students to understand class expectations. Teachers work with students to identify feelings and implement self-regulation procedures, teach self-awareness strategies and use problem-solving procedures so that students can practise communication and peaceful conflict resolution.

Creating a Caring Community

At each one of our changemaker schools, students are immersed in a community environment where living out values of personal responsibility, hard work, initiative and excellence go hand-in-hand with empathy, creativity, contribution, and caring. Set routines and procedures enable students to understand the class expectations. How are they supposed to act toward other students? What are they supposed to do when they start losing control of their emotions? What are they supposed to do when a conflict occurs?

Schools can create a foundation for students to act with empathy and kindness when they have the following types of routines and procedures set in place:

  • Create Kindness Rules: A set of student-generated rules for how to act toward each other.
  • Identifying Feelings: vocabulary to recognize and talk about emotions.
  • Implement Self-Regulation Procedures: A set of strategies that students can use to get their emotions back under control
  • Teach Self-Awareness Strategies: A set of choices that students can make to help themselves maintain a healthy emotional state.
  • Use Problem-Solving Procedures: A set of strategies that students can use to solve conflicts amongst themselves.

Trust-Based Environment

“Mutual trust is built over time, in small instances that present themselves daily”~ Changemakers: Educating with Purpose

Creating a trust-based environment is core to unlocking empathy. In order to think critically, creativity and compassionately, to share new ideas and challenge status quo, people need to feel safe to do so. Psychological safety promotes a better atmosphere and increases the capacity for learning (West, et al., 2003). When you walk into a Changemaker School, you can feel and see the trust, respect and equality between the students and the adults. Here, vulnerability is a learning asset, emotional expression is encouraged, and mutual trust is built over time in small, daily interactions.

The principal of Spring Mill Elementary School in Indianapolis starts each year by setting expectations: “Everything is on the table and open for changing except for how I will treat you, how you will treat me, and how we will treat each other.” When school leaders make caring an explicit priority and lead by example, it changes the type of interactions teachers and students make time for, and builds the foundation for culture change.

Forming Strong Relationships

“From a place of mutual trust, these practices can break down the teacher-student power imbalance that impacts how teachers and students interact with each other, and how students communicate among themselves” ~ Changemakers: Educating with Purpose

Empathy does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a larger context of social-emotional health. Changemaker Schools understand that you cannot segment humans into brain and heart, so for real learning to take place, students (and teachers) must feel safe and supported both intellectually and emotionally. Young children bring their whole selves to the classroom. They want to talk about how they are feeling and what happened at home. They first have to feel safe and regulated. Once they feel heard, seen and felt, then you can move onto the academics. The first step to enabling children to act with kindness is building strong relationships between children and teachers. Respect is a two way street. You cannot demand respect from students without showing them respect first.

Research at Momentous Institute in Dallas showed a link between empathy and academic performance. While 85% of their students are growing up in poverty and dealing with all that comes with those conditions, they have been making a difference by focusing as much on children’s emotional wellbeing as their academic wellbeing. They start each day with a morning meeting where they practice breathing exercises to help the kids get focused. Research showed a link between empathy and academic performance, especially for kids growing up in tough circumstances. So far, nothing can substitute a caring, supportive adult in the classroom in helping kids to flourish.

Central to wellbeing are three basic human needs:

  1. Sense of Self: purpose, identity, empathy, self-awareness, awareness of others.
  2. Skills, Opportunities, Purpose: the agency to improve your situation and contribute to building society.
  3. Community & Belonging: relationships, connectedness, and feeling valued by your community.
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Community Norms

“Human resources are like natural resources: they are buried deep. We have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.”~ Ken Robinson

Since empathy is a relational skills as well as a personal one, Changemaker Schools focus on creating the conditions for changemakers to emerge and flourish. The mindset that supports this kind of learning environment can be summed up by the mantra ‘I matter. I can.’ It is about humanizing education by centering the students and their holistic development. Students are not merely passive recipients or disengaged consumers of education, they are active participants and leaders of their learning experiences.

Student Voice, Choice and Agency

“You have to invite kids to participate and make decisions. If you say to a child: ‘you decide the rules because this is your community’, they will be the first person to respect them because they enacted them.” ~ Cesar Bona

Changemaker Schools prioritize student voice and choice. Young people need to feel that they are respected, listened to and that they are valuable, contributing members of their community. One way of achieving this is to prioritize their experiences and knowledge and provide official platforms where they can voice their opinions, guide decision-making and contribute to their school community. This gives young people the confidence, sense of self worth, sense of belonging and sense of ownership. It starts with listening to your students and building that trust.

At many Changemaker Schools, decisions are made by consensus, meaning that students have to learn to articulate their ideas and present clear arguments. If a student is opposed to a school rule, they cannot simply say “I don’t like it”. They are expected to communicate their perspective, motivations, possible consequences, and the pros and cons.

Classroom Contract: Changemaker Schools ensure that their students contribute to shaping the culture and norms of their classroom and school. This is a chance for collaborative, inclusive norm-setting. When students are involved in making the rules, they are more likely to respect and follow them!

During the first week of school at Inspired Teaching Demonstration School, teachers engage students in creating a democratic classroom charter. Students debate and articulate what really matters to them and learn about the individual rights and collective responsibilities that come with being part of a community. Decisions are made by consensus, and if a student is opposed to a school rule, they are expected to communicate their perspective, offer alternatives, discuss possible consequences, and present the pros and cons.

Values-Based Behavior Management & Positive Psychology

Negative behavior often stems from unmet needs. Center for Inspired Teaching and the Inspired Teaching School use a matrix to identify the unmet needs behind student behavior and to creatively brainstorm other ways to address those needs. The message? “I accept you and your needs, but not the behavior you are using to satisfy your needs.”

Conflicts are inevitable, but whether they turn into opportunities to build empathy or lead to ongoing conflict depends on how they conflicts are solved. In Ashoka Changemaker Schools, teachers use a variety of problem-solving procedures to seize the opportunity to teach students how to calm their emotions, then take the perspective of others alongside their own views to find a solution. Changemakers often have the motivation to walk towards conflict instead of away from it. They see it as a chance to listen, dialogue and learn.

Restorative Behavior Management

Children do not always know why they may have engaged in a behavior that is harmful to others. At Ephesus Elementary in Chapel Hill, NC, teachers use restorative questions to help students arrive at a solution. By using restorative questions, teachers can help students understand the reason for their actions, the reason for other’s reactions, and how to prevent doing the same harm in the future.

Fiona Collins, Principal of Francis Street CBS primary school in Dublin talks about how they use restorative measures to address behavioral challenges. When a situation of conflict arises, the children are encouraged to ask themselves questions: what happened? What were you thinking or feeling at the time? Who has been affected by this? What do you need to move on? What needs to happen now so that harm can be repaired? Designated student mediators belonging to a “peace club” carry question cards in their pockets during play time, and must consult them when dealing with a situation in the yard, rather than involving an adult. Circles are a common theme in our school: peace circles, conflict-resolution circles, “circle time.” Lessons are taught in circular formation and are incorporated into the school day. In circles, everyone is equal and feels equally important.”

At Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland, CA, and other Montessori schools throughout the world, children use peace tables to solve conflicts. A peace table is a small table that is big enough to seat two children and is situated in a quiet part of the classroom. Teachers can mediate conflicts at the peace table if necessary, but the children should come up with the solution themselves. By using peace tables, children are able to learn how to solve conflicts peacefully on their own.

One of Trillium Public Charter School’s greatest integrated systems is their mediation program. It was held in such regard by students that is has become the fabric that holds the school and relationships together. In elementary school they have a mat that allows kids to stand on three stages of the mediation process. Young students are taught about the process by fellow students and eventually learn how to do it themselves. In middle school the children use the process often as a means of working out differences. If the mediation fails within their peer group they take their mediation to the school counselor. One 4th grader described the mediation mat as “the life boat that comes to save your sinking boat.”

Passion, Purpose, Play

Many changemakers are driven by personal experience. It is up to educators to listen to students, foster their ideas, and challenge them to take ownership of their interests and actions. They encourage students to reflect on why being a changemaker is important to them and help them become leaders in the name of a cause they care deeply about (Cain, 2017). Kids crave connection, purpose and legitimacy. The teacher’s role is to “look for threads, plant the seeds and provide them with the tools and structures for purposefulness” (Wagner, 2014). Knowledge and skills are important, but it is motivation that determines what people actually ‘do’ (Seelig, 2013). While research pinpoints intrinsic motivation as far more powerful in sparking creativity and action, most systems still almost exclusively appeal to extrinsic motivation (Amabile and Kramer, 2012).

A team of eighth-graders in Maryland were inspired to create a campaign to raise awareness about the harmful effects of pesticides with neonicotinoids on bees. They presented their findings to their Congressman who committed to co-sponsoring legislation, now known as Save the Pollinators Act, which was passed by the Maryland State Assembly in April 2017. Even after graduating, the students continue to build their website, fundraise and campaign.

Students as Problem-Solvers

By challenging their students to be active participants of their community, teachers are fostering the most critical habits and processes necessary for social innovation: asking questions, involving the community, framing and reframing problems, generating ideas, collaborating across difference, and persevering through challenges. Teachers can help students reflect on what issues they care about, who is affected, what are the symptoms and root causes, and what beliefs and assumptions underpin the problem.

Many schools have adopted W.L Gore’s 10% time and Google’s 20% time that carves out space for students work on ‘passion projects,’ ‘quests,’ or ‘genius hour.’ These are experiential, passion-based, inquiry-led, multidisciplinary learning experiences rooted in making change in their community. Riverpoint Academy is a student-led, student-run school that integrates computer science with the humanities in a focus called ‘inventioneering.’ One group of students designed a stylus for children with cerebral palsy, obtained a patent and are working on taking it to market. Another students’ grandmother wanted help catering to older women who were losing their hair. Students created ‘wigs on wheels,’ a van that goes to homes of seniors who are immobile. All projects are fuelled by radical collaboration with peers and failure is seen as an important learning experience. Students are expected to iterate a few times before arriving at the final product. To accommodate these longer-term learning experiences, some schools develop up to 10 week long cycles of experimentation, iteration and learning. Project-based learning is a popular pathway used to kindle the three interrelated elements associated with intrinsic motivation: play, passion, and purpose.

Physical Environment

“Really interesting learning environments are not homogeneous, they are diverse and they adapt, and are suited to different sorts of purposes. There’s freedom to move, use different sorts of materials, collaborate and interact with different people or quietly work on theoretical tasks. The best learning environments do that, they embody the variety of learning.” ~ Ken Robinson

A school’s physical environment sets the tone for creativity, risk-taking and learning. The iconic image of two classrooms side-by-side, one from 1900 and the other from today is simplistic yet symbolic of the old but still prevailing paradigm that prizes standardisation, competition, compliance and distance between adults and students. At changemaker schools, the visible habitats signal that creativity and collaboration are welcome. Students sit at round desks so that they can face each other and work together on assignments. They feel that the space is theirs because their work proudly decorates the walls. There is flexible furniture so students can self-organise. There are calming spaces where students can self-regulate and ‘peace paths’ where students can resolve their conflicts.

Everyone becomes overwhelmed by their emotions sometimes. Momentous Institute in Dallas, TX provides a comfortable space for students to go in the classroom where they can regulate their emotions. A critical tool, called a calm down basket, is available in this space. Check-out these directions to create a calm-down basket.

Classroom Seating: A fourth-grade teacher at Momentous Institute in Dallas, TX gave students the option of sitting on exercise balls or traditional chairs in her classroom. Students are able to make the choice to use the balls when they feel the need for them to better focus. They are learning the skill of figuring out how to monitor their own inner state and make adjustments to their environment to be more effective. Check out this blog post that the teacher wrote about the change!

Sensory Input: Laura White noticed that some of her preschoolers and pre kindergarteners at Maury Elementary in Washington, DC really struggled to behave with kindness toward their peers during circle time. After observing these students, she realized that these couple students were pinching and interrupting their peers because they had unmet sensory needs — sitting and listening to a peer was really hard for them physically! When Ms. Laura gave these students the option to sit on studded, squishy pads, it was much easier for them to keep their hands to themselves and listen to others.

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