There's a challenge faced by schools around the world. As educators continue to grasp the necessity and potential of student engagement in education, they're challenged to rethinking old models of how that happened.
In the past decade of my work, I concerned myself with identifying radically different approaches to integrating students as partners throughout education. However, more recently I've become interested in the practical, applicable ways that we can increase student voice and infuse student engagement throughout our learning environments. Towards that end, I want to introduce a conceptualization of cascading leadership among students.
Cascading leadership is the experience of having students facilitate other students in a sequenced way according to their skills, knowledge, and experience. It is different from traditional leadership, which is generally having students command other students according to their interest and ability.
In my experience working with student leadership programs in hundreds of K-12 schools over the last decade, I have discovered that students can be the best purveyors of student leadership skills and knowledge. This is especially true among nontraditional student leaders—the ones who lead their peers in negative ways throughout your school. I have actually found cascading leadership to be a norm among these students, as they rely on self-guidance and peer relationships to meet their needs, as opposed to traditional student leaders who rely on adults.
Cascading leadership offers students the chance they need to mentor, support, and sustain each other as they engage in decision-making activities throughout school. Acknowledging the variety of experiences, knowledge, reflections, and applications of student decision-making can leverage student ability, engagement, and outcomes, in the more effective ways than traditional student leadership. It does this by activating greater effectiveness, ownership, and belonging among students.
In this model:
At the end of the waterfall, Student 5 is acknowledged as the foundation for successful leadership, and as their knowledge, experience, and reflection expands, they will in turn “swim upstream” to new positions of authority.
This way even more students can become engaged in leadership by expanding student engagement activities beyond the immediate leaders at the top of the waterfall and increasing the capacity of the school to engage student leaders.
This model offers a new way to visualize how students can support students becoming more engaged in leading themselves, their peers, and their entire school. Cascading leadership among students is best supported by student/adult partnerships, and is one of the very best ways to support Meaningful Student Involvement.
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