New Learning

Transitioning leadership as outcome and pedagogy

In fall 2020, I re-designed the course I was teaching to take place entirely online. I wrote, in detail, about the course in a series of blog posts (part 1, part 2, the assignments, the main project, and the content 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I taught that course for 4 semesters, and have since been trying to develop new courses based on what I learned while doing it.

Designing learning experiences that give learners the ability to wrestle with content is already a challenge. But modeling for learners the experience of doing the work, when the work is about changing our approach to relationships with others, is even harder. My major goal for this course was to make genuine invitations to learners to take control of their own learning and the learning of others. Through this, I hoped that they might learn to make the same invitations to the young people they would soon work with.

The blog posts above described how I did it, and a chapter co-written with my teaching mentor, Ilene Alexander, and 4 of the students that went through my class, describe how it all went (forthcoming). My favorite student comment was, “My other classes keep telling me that youth leadership is important; this class actually showed me how to do it.”

I wrote recently about giving up power to grow participation. Many believe this is as easy as asking for someone’s opinion, or offering them a seat at the table. But this is a naive belief. In a world where most of us have been taught democratic ideas in theory, but experienced mostly authoritarianism, if you want to create more democratic involvement, decision-making, and governance, you need to teach people how to participate meaningfully. And, you need to teach the people who usually hold the power to occupy a new role and to perform and use their authority in a different fashion. My colleague Ross VeLure Roholt and I call this combined shift Transitioning Leadership. It’s a constellation of concepts, orientation, ethos and practices oriented toward inviting those who’ve been historically prevented from exercising their power into positions of power.

Transitioning leadership from those who traditionally have it to those who ought to have it requires a framework for practice and mentored experiences doing it. My blog posts above offer the details on how I went about doing these in detail, but these are the two key elements I think are worth sharing.

In the case of my class, the framework for practice was the model for a day’s class plan, with students learning to design and develop effective curriculum to lead a learning experience themselves. I gave many examples, including my own class plans for the course, and also offered some readings and videos that helped frame important concepts. Mentored practice came through increasingly robust invitations to momentarily take on class leadership, with me as a support. This began with invitations to facilitate warm-up activities, then evolved into students facilitating a whole class period alone.

The outcome: students experienced the transition of leadership from the traditional authority figure (me) to a community (made up of an us collectively). We still had different roles, I still maintained some unique authority, but they took up much of the authority that would have traditionally remained with me.

The pedagogy was transitioning leadership, and through the experience of it, my students realized that they could also explore and experiment with this pedagogy. As youth workers and future social workers, they could also create opportunities to transition leadership and authority to their participants and clients. That will look somewhat different from what I’ve done, but the goals and overarching practices will share much in common.

The most important thing is this: transitioning leadership is slow, persistent work, and it is work for everybody. In this case, my students had to work to conceptualize and practice in a new role. In my case, I had to prepare well enough that I could improvise, meeting my students at the points at which they’d take up my invitations; being prepared in case they didn’t. And then I had to constantly catch myself wanting to take over and have things go my way; turning those moments into opportunities for collective reflection and learning.

While the data obsessed may want human services to veer in the direction of algorithmic helping – the use of algorithmic data analysis to determine and administer interventions in the helping profession – I’m advocating something profoundly different. I’d like to see deep shifts in our relating to each other, to learning, and to communal problem-solving that make algorithmic helping and its likes obsolete and unnecessary. Transitioning leadership practices, like those from this class I taught, can help us get there by exposing people to new experiences of individual and collective learning and problem-solving, and by modeling how to bring these experiences to others.

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