Want to Set Students Up for Success? Make Room for Vulnerability

Student Voice

Want to Set Students Up for Success? Make Room for Vulnerability

By Sam Humrichouse     Nov 30, 2017

Want to Set Students Up for Success? Make Room for Vulnerability

Boise’s One Stone doesn’t resemble your typical high school—here you won’t find classrooms, teachers or even letter grades. Instead, we have a single open space, coaches and portfolios. It’s a place where students are more or less in control: One Stone was designed as a student led and directed non-profit that offers an independent and tuition-free education with a mission to make students better leaders and the world a better place.

This year there are about 70 students attending, and I count myself lucky to be one of them. Since One Stone is so different from the typical high school experience, our culture is a crucial part of how we define ourselves. Our culture is what allows us to work together, grow friendships and feel safe sharing our individuality and ideas. In fact, it’s so important to us that rather than starting a chess or rugby club, we began a culture club—designed to make our school as inclusive, friendly and authentic as possible.

Starting a school like ours meant taking a lot of risks, and after some some open discussion in culture club, we realized one key trait—vulnerability—is what enhances our ability to connect with each other. Vulnerability leads to inclusive groups, deeper friendships, a high level of creative collaboration and a willingness to “fail forward” (or to learn from failure). Vulnerability requires the courage to be imperfect, the authenticity to be true to ourselves and a willingness to take risks. Researcher Brené Brown defines it as the birthplace of creativity, innovation and change.

Removing the Fear

Some of the biggest applications of vulnerability are found in One Stone’s community action program Design Lab, a part of the school day for every student. Design Lab is a project-based way for us to make a difference in the community, typically in groups of three to five students. Here we use design thinking, a process that consists of understanding and empathizing with our end user (the person or group of people we’re designing for). We work on defining their problem, ideating/brainstorming, prototyping solutions and reflecting on them. The design thinking process demands high levels of creativity and a lot of brainstorming. By understanding that ideas are just ideas, rather than extensions of ourselves, and by removing the fear of rejection, we are able to put our best—or craziest—ideas forward to the group without holding back.

Removing the fear of rejection also helps us to open our eyes to new ideas quickly and efficiently, also known as failing forward fast. Having the ability to fail forward fast isn’t always easy, and it requires setting aside defensiveness of your own ideas. In order to learn from failure, we must reflect on the flaws in our ideas, so that we don’t repeat the same mistake. That’s where the culture club’s focus on vulnerability comes into play. Vulnerability enables us to see the flaws in our ideas.

Take a recent Design Lab project that focused on improving public transportation here in Boise. For the project, we were working on a plan that would add a new bus line from Meridian, a suburb, to downtown. The problem was that citizens in Meridian did not see value in a bus line to downtown Boise, so finding funding for this would be difficult. Fear of rejection aside, we quickly realized the problem with the original idea and reflected. We knew that bus lines could make a big difference if people knew about the benefits and supported public transportation, but they didn’t. With this in mind, we moved on to a new idea: increasing awareness of the benefits of public transportation in Meridian and Boise.

No Holding Back

We wouldn’t have learned nearly as much in this experience for future application if we hadn’t openly given and received feedback. Receiving feedback helps us grow by leaps and bounds. Such growth can’t happen in a competitive, defensive environment. The entire experience within a Design Lab project is structured for us all to learn and develop skills that go beyond the end result of a project. Giving open and honest feedback, as well as accepting positive and critical feedback with an open mind, lowers defenses that inhibit this growth.

Empathy and assuming good in others and yourself does not always come naturally. Vulnerability takes practice and encouragement within a community. Last year, the culture club hosted a workshop on vulnerability where we led students in an activity where we anonymously shared components of ourselves that spoke to the prompt, “Something you wouldn’t know about me by looking is…” We also started an encouragement wall where students posted inspiring quotes to help foster a safe environment where students help each other instead of break each other down. Then, we challenged students to pick a day to sit with someone they normally didn’t hang out with at lunch.

The results were outstanding. Students opened up to new friendships, reported feeling more comfortable sharing their ideas, and made Design Lab a more effective and pleasant experience.

For me, vulnerability drives my learning by increasing collaborative creativity in our self-directed Design Lab group. For my most recent project, dealing with getting squirrels off power lines, our best idea—repelling squirrels with sound—came from all of us sharing our ideas without holding back. Vulnerability allows me to feel comfortable sharing my passions so that I can explore them freely, and frees me to fail forward. Best of all, vulnerability improves how we go about using the design thinking process through collaborative creativity, failing forward fast and openly giving and receiving feedback.

Sam Humrichouse is an eleventh-grade student at Boise's One Stone, who is passionate about computer programming, martial arts, music and making the world a better place.

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