Inside an innovation school where students run the show

This article originally appeared on The 74, a digital news site covering K-12 education nationally. Alan Gottlieb is a Colorado-based writer, editor, journalist, communications consultant, and nonprofit entrepreneur who owns Write.Edit.Think, LLC.

Take 30 initially skeptical engineers, designers and accountants from a large manufacturing company and put them under the direction of 15- and 16-year-old high school students for a half-day brainstorming session, and what do you get?

If the kids come from One Stone school, the answer is a group of impressed and inspired adults.

That a team from RedBuilt, a national building materials manufacturing company headquartered in Boise, ended up hiring a group of students to lead it through a complex and high-stakes design thinking workshop speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the school’s unique approach to teaching and learning.

Viveca Beall (center), a first-year student at One Stone, participates in a CrashUP brainstorming session with One Stone coaches and employees of RedBuilt, a building materials manufacturing company trying to improve its internal communications. Photo by Alan Gottlieb.

By inspiring students to uncover and pursue their passions, and to direct their own learning, One Stone prepares kids for the uncertain but exciting future they face.

As automation and artificial intelligence transform the world of work in the coming years, our schools must transform themselves as well to prepare students for this new reality.

A report I recently co-authored calls this new era the Age of Agility. Many of today’s students will not have careers, or work in jobs as currently defined. Instead, they’ll go from “gig” to “gig,” like itinerant musicians, using whatever talents or skills they possess to perform tasks for others on a contract or freelance basis.

This means they will have to be adaptable, nimble thinkers, committed to a lifetime of learning, relearning, training and retraining.

One Stone is one of the few schools I’ve seen anywhere that has gotten ahead of this curve.

It is an independent, non-profit, tuition-free school located on the edge of downtown Boise. Now in its second year of operation, One Stone has an enrollment of 70 10th- and 11th-graders. The school doesn’t track the student body’s ethnicity or income, and doesn’t charge tuition because “a core value for us is equality of voice,” says Neva Geisler, One Stone’s community engagement director. But One Stone’s socioeconomic and racial diversity “exceeds that of the Treasure Valley,” Geisler said.

One Stone grew out of two after-school programs launched eight years ago to provide teens with hands-on experience designing and implementing large-scale service projects, and running a creative studio cleverly named Two Birds.

The school’s lead funder is the Boise-based J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. It receives smaller donations from other area foundations, corporations, and individuals, and also brings in a chunk of revenue from its Two Birds business.

In the jargon-laden, fad-prone world of education, many schools and programs these days describe themselves as student-centered or student-led. Few, if any walk that talk to One Stone’s extent.

The school’s board of directors is chaired by a student, and the majority of its members, under its bylaws, must be students. Classes and courses of study are designed jointly by coaches (adults who would be called teachers at most schools) and kids.

Students spend at least as much time outside the school’s walls as inside, using the city as a classroom, participating in internships with local businesses, and undertaking self-designed service projects.

Even though the school is in just its second year, its methods and philosophy are deeply ingrained in those students who have been involved for years in its after-school programs.

As a result, One Stone students display a level of self-confidence and maturity rarely seen in the halls of a traditional high school.

That’s why leading a group of balky RedBuilt employees through a design thinking process didn’t appear to phase even those students who had never before run a “CrashUP,” as the school calls its workshops.

One Stone wants its students to stretch themselves, and to “fail forward.” That’s why even high-intensity, high-stakes programs like CrashUPs are jointly led by a team of coaches and students. It gives the students a safe environment for learning on the job.

At 12:30 p.m. on a wet fall Friday, the group of 30 adults from RedBuilt arrived at One Stone’s bright and open building, a former pathology lab.

The body language exhibited by some of the adults suggested they harbored doubts about just what they were doing here, and why.

“I had to beg, bribe, and finally order some of them to be here,” acknowledged Cornelia Sprung, a RedBuilt design center leader who directly supervises most of the participants. “I had a bunch of people decline the initial invitation, or ask if it was optional. So, I had to make it mandatory.”

CrashUPs follow a proscribed set of steps to get participants to relax and grapple with tough challenges. In the case of RedBuilt, issues of communication between designers and engineers had begun to stymie creative collaboration.

Students and coaches had to get the group in the collective frame of mind to talk about the problems honestly and openly with supervisors and with colleagues in some cases they didn’t know well.

Students led teams of RedBuilt employees through quick one-on-one interviews with colleagues, with guiding questions intended to tease out the collaboration challenges the company faces.

Then, each interviewer wrote on sticky notes what they observed during the interview, what the subject did — fidget, cross arms and legs, etc. — and what the interviewer could infer about what the subject was thinking and feeling during the interview.

The idea was to build an “empathy map,” because fostering empathy is a key component of design thinking.

The rest of the day was spent devising solutions by crafting problem statements, “how might we” statements to “spark ideation,” then design physical prototypes to test ideas (a physical model, a storyboard, a wireframe, or a role play). After feedback, prototypes were revised.

Two extraordinary facts stood out to someone observing the process unfold. First, the RedBuilt employees’ skepticism melted away within minutes, and they became fully absorbed in the activities. Second, the students led groups with a self-assurance that belied their years and lack of experience. They had been well prepared by their coaches.

“Don’t jump ahead to ideation yet. We need to find some common themes first,” junior Tessa Simonds gently admonished her group when they started rushing through a key part of the process. They quickly fell in line.

As the design thinking workshop wrapped up, participants were asked to come up with a headline to describe the day.

“One Stone rocks RedBuilt’s world,” one employee said.

Sprung, the RedBuilt manager, said the day had exceeded her high expectations. “The students are awesome. You can tell they are creative thinking experts,” she said. “They are great team leaders. I can guarantee we will use some of the ideas we developed today.”

Once the group departed, the students sprawled on One Stone’s modular furniture for an informal debrief.

“At first I didn’t feel comfortable telling adults what to do,” said sophomore Claire Westergard. “But by the end, they looked up to me because they could tell I understood the process.”

Disclosure: Alan Gottlieb sits on the non-profit board of Idaho Education News, which was modeled on EdNews Colorado, a site Gottlieb founded. EdNews Colorado later merged with Gotham Schools to form Chalkbeat. The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation supports Idaho Education News and the One Stone school.



Alan Gottlieb

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