The Expert in the Room is the Room: Redefining 21st Century Student Leadership

Walk through the hallway of any school and you are likely to see a younger student reading with an older student.  In this one-on-one pairing, trust is built between both students, the younger knowing that she can make a mistake and receive guidance, the older experiencing the pride felt when given the opportunity to help.  A reading buddy can go a long way in building particular skill sets in a child, but, more importantly, can give our older students the chance to tangibly make a difference in the life of another.  If this model can work with literacy, why not with STEM?


A grade 7 student explaining the basics of controlling a LEGO EV3 robot.


Nothing energizes a student like the opportunity to help others in a meaningful and powerful way.  Effective communication, collaboration and mediation skill sets have never been more necessary as we prepare our students for an increasingly globalized work space.  But how are they to develop these skill sets if our students are never given authentic opportunities and challenges to put these traits to the test?  

A grade 6 facilitator working with grade 2 students to create an amusement park for a variety of age groups.

Much of our time as educators is spent equipping students with content knowledge and practical skills within the confines of the class.  Yet, these student-experts can be facilitators and, more often than not, can be effective teachers.  Using student facilitators can actually lead to more effective dissemination of technical knowledge and practical learning strategies when compared with the traditional teacher-driven classroom.    

Student leadership has become part of the learning culture at our school.  Students facilitate robotics camps, remediate the inquiry method with younger groups and have played an instrumental role when guiding students through challenge-based learning activities within the classroom.  

LEGO Robotics Camp: a grade 7 facilitator with grade 6 students as they work their way through the labyrinth.

Let’s explore the fundamental principles that we’ve used to inform and empower our students to become leaders of today within the school so that they can become the leaders of tomorrow.

Reorient the Role of Leader

‘Leader’ is a loaded word!  An adolescent, as they grow and develop, can understandably develop a concept of leadership is synonymous with power, control and authority.  Further compounding this, students look to by the ‘leaders’ of popular culture, politics and team captains, some of whom may be anything but.   

A good starting point is to challenge this notion of leadership.  Watch the ideas flow when it comes to the characteristics that define poor leadership.  Gradually students begin to connect the dots, recognizing that true leadership is ultimately a role of service: walking hand-in-hand with teammates to achieve common goals, develop new skill sets and help them to be the best version of themselves.  Leaders listen. Leaders see strengths and come up with solutions to remediate weakness.  Above all, effective leaders care deeply about those who have been placed in their care.  

Finally, I have students define their own role of leader, in the context of facilitating learning experiences for others.  As a leader, we want to help students make decisions in an explicit way and to work together in pursuit of goals.  As a student facilitator (I prefer this term over leader), good questioning and observing is at its heart.   

Student facilitators working with students who are creating a business pitch to sell their innovative 3 Little Pig wolf capturing LEGO WEDO solution.

Guiding, Observing and Questioning

For many students, the roadblock to learning is oftentimes not knowing how to tackle a problem in a systematic way.  As protocols and problem-solving methodologies are explicitly taught and modelled by the teacher, our students will have more tools at their disposal when tackling tough problems.  Student facilitated learning presents an amazing opportunity for student facilitators to model and discuss each step of the problem-solving process with the participating student. 

Our students use the following model:

  1. Brainstorm possible solutions
  2. Select a solution to try and come up with a plan (designs, pictures, lists of materials)
  3. Build and test a solution
  4. Discuss the results and improve your solution

At each phase, the facilitator ensures that each step of the problem-solving process is complete before moving on.  Student facilitators also are able to observe results and ask thought-provoking questions that help guide discovery.  Good facilitators never give the answer, but ask good questions or create learning experiences where the student can discover the answer.  We should never cheat the student out of the experience of discovery by revealing the correct answer for the sake of moving on.  The act of discovery enflames, motivates and ultimately builds confidence in one’s own abilities.  

Student facilitation also provides an opportunity to celebrate successful outcomes, both with the task at hand but also the collaborative and problem-solving skill sets being practiced.    

Sample Observation Questions

Say:  I noticed that (Name) really did this…

Say:  (Name) improved at this…

Say:  (Name) did this well… 

Sample Reflection Questions

Ask:  What did we do well at?

Ask:  What do we need to improve on?

Ask:  What will we do differently next time, in order to improve?

Peer to Peer Facilitation: Student facilitators support same age students construct, test and refine sweeper robots in this clean-up challenge.

Documenting the Learning Process

Student leadership plays a huge role in the documentation of the learning and discovery process.  At any moment, effective facilitation puts the discovery process on pause for reflection and documentation.  Metacognition can be made explicit through discussion with a facilitator who poses reflective questions.  Such promptings are necessary, especially with young, eager learners who want to rush headlong into a solution.  By posing questions, facilitators listen to concrete responses that help the child better understand what they plan to do and the reasons for taking any course of action.  By talking it out with the facilitator, students catch their own mistakes or flaws in thinking, revising and avoiding unnecessary testing phases; ultimately making the learning experience more efficient.  At each phase, the facilitator can document for the child or ensure that the documentation is complete, before moving on to the next phase along the learning journey.    

A facilitator capturing the learning journey of a kindergarten student.

Know your Role

As a student facilitator or leader, it must be stressed that the role is simply to provide the tools so that the student can achieve their goal.  This can be pointing to physical materials, teaching new skills, or by introducing step-by-step protocols to break down the learning process into manageable tasks.  Student facilitators are not allowed to do the task for them, the work must be their own!  With robotics, student facilitators are not to touch the robots but can guide.  Also, they are not to take on the role of disciplinarian, all issues are referred directly to the teacher.  For many student facilitators, this is a major source of relief.  At the beginning of any task, I always make this explicit, for both facilitators and participants alike.  


The benefits of student facilitation are manifold.  It is oftentimes more effective, efficient and leads long-lasting learning when compared to traditional teaching approaches.  For the facilitators, it is an opportunity to develop leadership skills and recognize that they can make a tangible difference in the lives of others.  For the participant, they are more willing to approach difficult or challenging tasks, knowing that the facilitator is there to support, guide and to provide encouragement, walking side-by-side throughout the entire learning journey.  

A student facilitator listening to a grade 2 student explain the various aspects of the LEGO build.

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