Student led learning design

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting Lawrence Public Schools in Lawrence, KS. It was my first trip to Kansas and aside from Jayhawks basketball, my only other connection to Kansas was the Wizard of Oz. My other connection was through Jerri Kemble who is the Assistant Superintendent of Innovation and Technology for Lawrence Public Schools. Jerri’s work has been driven by a silly book she read titled The 1:1 Roadmap: Setting the course for innovation in education. In her quest to roll out a 1:1 iPad environment, she noted a particular chapter that discussed a course I designed at Burlington Public Schools. This course was not your typical course, but rather a hybrid of many skill sets we hear about in educational discourse today.

Since its inception in the fall of 2011, the student led genius bar concept has taken off across the country and has been implemented into a number of schools. What’s exciting for me about all of this is that kids are benefiting from it and getting a course that allows them to explore, question, design, create, and experiment. Additionally, it gives students the opportunity to highlight their work to a greater audience, be part of the course design, and support their school.The primary goal of the student led genius bar is to create an engaging, empathetic customer service experience for every student and faculty member. These skill sets not only apply to the mission of graduating cultivated citizens, but also, provides each student with skill sets they can apply and adapt for the rest of their lives.

Jerri and I spoke three months ago about having me visit Lawrence Public Schools and work with middle school and high school students who would be the first cadre of genius bar students. Throughout the 1:1 proposal and transition, Jerri has had students at the forefront leading the campaign that would support a 1:1 learning environment for every student and faculty member. LPS students presented at school board meetings and explained why mobile, accessible devices were important to their learning experience.

When Jerri and I first talked about the format for the day, I was trying to think what would be appealing to me as a student. I also reflected on how we introduced and evolved this course at Burlington Public Schools. What I kept coming back to was in order for this course to thrive, students had to own it. They needed to make it theirs. You can’t retrofit a course like this into a standard educational paradigm. So, when Jerri and I started designing the day, I shared four sessions that would be led by the students with the end goal being to design their course. We had a mix of high school students and middle school students who would be attending that day. Here is the schedule we designed.


When I arrived, I started briefly by sharing the experience I had at Burlington High School when I led initial design and facilitation of the Genius Bar course. And, this was roughly the only time students were sitting by passively throughout the remainder of the day. Students started with the “Why” and outlined the purpose and the philosophy of their course. The next module of the day was to consider spatial design. What would their space look like? What kind of furniture would they have? How would people attending the Genius Bar interface with the space? What hardware would be present? Students eagerly navigated this session and built upon their previous session where they answered, “Why we, and our school, needs this course?” Additionally, I noticed students begin sketching out their space and the resources they wanted in their space.

After our lunch break, students were introduced to the idea of marketing and public relations for their course. As a former facilitator of this course, I found this to be one of the most important variables in the student led Genius Bar equation. In this section, students designed their Genius Bar logo, their slogan, and social media presences. Students discussed strategies for connecting with teachers and developed an outreach plan for ensuring the entire school knew about their offerings at the Genius Bar.

Brad Kempf, Principal of West Middle School stated, “The best observation from the tech team training was to see the students engaged and excited to build the future of technology at West!” Additionally, South West Middle School Principal, Kristen Ryan shared, “SWMS students experienced the real life situation of brainstorming, collaboration, and the sense of accomplishment. The students were highly engaged and proud of the work they accomplished today.”

At this point in the day, the student teams had one final module left; the shark tank pitch. Their goal for the day was to package and sell their course in front a group of educators and administrators who would serve as the “sharks”. I had students do preliminary pitches so they could each get an idea for what the other teams were creating. After the preliminary pitches concluded, students had five minutes to design their final shark tank pitch. This pitch would be a culmination of each design module they worked through that day. Students had three minutes to present their shark tank pitches.

The pitches were engaging and exciting to watch. The judges or, sharks had a difficult time selecting a winner from the six teams. But, the biggest takeaway for both me, and the students that day was, they got to design their own learning environment. From philosophy, to spatial design, to motto and slogan. At one point in the day, I asked Jerri, as I looked on at engaged students eagerly designing a course of their own, “what if this was what the first day of school looked like across every classroom in America?” What if instead of a teacher standing in front of the room telling students how their classroom would be this year, teachers had students design the course from soup to nuts on the first day of school? What if students not only had an opportunity to own their learning, but own the space in which they learned? This is not a revolutionary idea, but it should be considered by school leaders across the country.