George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

Guiding Students to See Themselves as Changemakers

Students may see ways they can effect change if they break down big issues like climate change into smaller, more accessible challenges.

August 23, 2022
High school students do outdoor science experiment
MShieldsPhotos / Alamy

Do students feel confident in their own power and potential to act—to make change? To find the answer, I run an activity that involves passing sticky notes around and asking every student to come up with their own definition of a changemaker. I suggest they go beyond “someone who makes change.” Most will write that a changemaker is someone who makes a difference.

After they complete the definition, I ask them if they feel like a changemaker—if they embody the definition they just wrote. Most students will write, “No.”

This trend goes far beyond my own experience. When facilitating a changemaker workshop with teachers from across the nation through First Book and Ashoka’s Time for Change initiative, I asked educators to talk to their students about changemaking and run a similar exercise. The result: Many students didn’t feel they had much power. This led us all to wonder, how do we help our students understand their own worth and importance in the world? As educators, how do we support our students to feel like changemakers?

Helping Students to See the Changemaker in Them

We all want our students to understand that they each matter and that their actions matter. Too often, it can be a struggle to help students approach problems or understand the part they might play in developing solutions. It’s essential to provide a lens for students, not only on how they view problems, but also on their ability to create positive change. Students might fail to see the opportunity that each problem creates or how they might use their agency to do good. That’s where we can help to open the doors on the power they each have to act as changemakers.

Talk to your students about changemaking: This is an opportunity to gauge how students feel about themselves and starts an important dialogue as to how students see their role in the world and their capacity to solve problems. How do they define changemaking? Do they feel like a changemaker? Why or why not? They may lack confidence or a sense of self-worth about the impact they have the potential to make. Once they realize their power to take charge, that agency should stay with them.

Make problems approachable by using questions to inspire action: Many problems that impact our world are wicked problems. There’s no clear problem definition and no single solution that can solve the problem. All of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice—have no silver bullet solutions. Too often, because of the complexity of these issues, students disengage. We need to reframe the issues so they understand that opportunities abound—and we each can do something, anything, to make the world better. We’re not looking for a “right” answer but rather the collective ingenuity within us all to do something.

Challenging students to see the opportunity—the ways in which we can act—is a great way to shift a seemingly negative issue into something more constructive. For instance, the more students learn about poverty, the more they’ll see the relevance of policy and business practices. These potential solutions might feel out of their control, so helping students engage by giving problems a local context can help them feel more tangible, something that students can realistically act on (for instance, starting a local food pantry). This lets students shift their thinking and see the benefit of solving the problem and the value of local solutions contributing toward the greater whole.

In the classroom, you can try flipping a challenge into an opportunity using the following activity.

Step 1: Writing a Challenge Question

Instead of telling students about a problem, have them investigate it for themselves using a challenge question. This is a version of Mad Libs from The Startup Teacher Playbook. You can use this to help students think about what they’re trying to do by focusing on impact, action, and users. Use the ideas below to create your own, or have students create one for themselves.

How to write a challenge question:

Fill in the following blanks—it’s OK to be general:

How might I/we ___ (action) + ___ (user) + ___ (impact)?

  • Action = A verb (or verb phrase) describing how you will work on the problem.
  • User = Who are you designing for; who’s the primary beneficiary of your work? For example, it could be: students, peers, parents/guardians, community, animals, the environment.
  • Impact = The goal of your action. Having a measurable outcome will help you assess whether or not your approach had the desired impact.

Example: How might we take climate action (action) as a school community (user) so that we contribute toward a better world (impact)?

Step 2: Investigating the Question

After posing a challenge question or after students have created their own, have them further investigate the question by exploring each of the following pieces. This brainstorming activity helps them structure their ideas.

Impact. This is a chance for students to think about their end goals or the outcomes they want to achieve. For instance, how does mitigating climate change contribute toward a better world? What are the benefits? (This isn’t an easy assignment for students, as they’re not used to focusing on the positive in finding solutions.)

User. Have students dig deeper into the audience or beneficiary (for example, some students might want to help animals or the planet). What are their needs? How will students work with them?

Action. Have students make their ideas more tangible. What does it look like to take action? What could they do? To help students brainstorm, have them think about the following:

  • Mindset: How might you change how people think?
  • Behavior: How might you change how people act?
  • Innovation: What could you create to solve the problem?
  • Systems: How could we do things differently as a society?

Step 3: Synthesizing

When finished, have students synthesize their ideas. Which ideas did they develop from the action piece that will best help them achieve their impact and take into account the needs of their user? Have them put the pieces together to create a solution statement—an idea they might try.

When students are presented with societal problems, they seem to internalize the negative. Take an example from sustainability: Students usually know what climate change is, they know it’s bad, and they often hear that everything they do (their footprint) causes further harm. When it’s presented this way, it may cause students to disengage or feel disempowered, and it may fuel anxiety or stress that spurs hopelessness or inaction. Help students recognize what’s in their control.

You can ask them to focus on what they can do when approaching a problem, rather than what they can’t. For instance, what if instead of asking students to always focus on their footprint (what they shouldn’t do), we asked them to focus on their handprint (what they could do to make the situation better)? Having them craft a list of small actions is a great way to engage them in the problem and help them to understand their power as changemakers.

This ability to solve problems and adapt to change is empowering and lays the foundation for students to take bigger and bolder steps. It also supports their well-being (research from Ashoka has found that changemaking increases joy and purpose), as students feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment through the actions they take.

Students should leave school knowing that they can use their power to do something to make the world better. Helping them to be comfortable approaching problems, learn how to flip problems into possibilities, and use their agency to do good—no matter how small the step—contributes to their ability to act as changemakers.

Solving problems isn’t just about doing good. Yes, we want a better world, but through this ingenuity students will learn how to craft the kind of world they want to live in. Their ideas will spark new jobs, new innovations, new policies, and new ways of doing things. It’s through changemaking, through uncovering the opportunities that lie within each challenge, that students will be able to embrace the world. We may not know what the future holds, but helping them to understand their power and take on challenges will certainly enable them to be ready for it.

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Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • Environmental Education
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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