ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Student Advisory: A Model for the 21st Century

William J Tolley

Post written by William J. Tolley, instructional coach and head of history at the International School of Curitiba in Brazil. A graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University, he is a member of the current cohort in the Johns Hopkins/ISTE Supervision and Administration graduate certificate program. Connect with Tolley by e-mail at This post was originally featured in ASCD Express.

"Advisory" is often a catch-all phrase for a space and time set aside for faculty and staff to help students face academic, social, psychological, and perhaps physical challenges. Unfortunately, schools seldom give such programs the space, time, and resources needed to accomplish all this. Moreover, advisories are often ill-defined or poorly designed and end up as well-intentioned tangents to the school mission. Nonetheless, the need for effective advisories is especially important in the 21st century because, as never before, students with different abilities and intelligences all need to know how to learn without us and build their shared future. A 21st century advisory is the perfect place to help them do this.

Seeing the Need

At the International School of Curitiba in Brazil, school leaders began an advisory experiment last year with a course titled IB Prep. The mission of the course, aimed at 9th and 10th grade students before their entry into the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, intended to help students "learn new techniques, develop skills, learn to manage time and materials more effectively, and discover how to achieve academic success" in their the first two years of high school as well as in their IB classes in 11th and 12th grades.

Those broad goals developed for the original course convey how little we knew as we began the program. Yet we knew that we needed something. The generic goals notwithstanding, the course was largely a success, with favorable student feedback on sessions covering leadership, team building, time management, and sustaining a culture of achievement. Students have credited IB Prep with helping them to recover in challenging classes, crowdsource research and solutions, and maintain effective personal and professional relationships with their peers.

However, we learned several lessons. One student remarked that although she liked her session on good leaders and good followers, the subsequent team-building scavenger hunt activity, and the marketing presentation that followed, she had no idea how they connected with one another. It became clear that every teacher involved in the pilot had a great idea, but we had not arranged all of our contributions under a cohesive set of big ideas. And as our talented curriculum coordinator attempted to herd a cohort of busy educators into presenting a mosaic of talks and mini-projects on various academic subjects, dead space inevitably arose in the program.

The advisory program also lacked sufficient technology integration. These days, if we are going to teach students about time management and leadership, we clearly must teach them how to use organizational apps and programs and how to deploy social media for more than socializing. A final observation—labeling the course "IB Prep" put a shelf life on its perceived usefulness and aims.

Making Advisory Better

To address these issues, a new approach, a new vision, and a new course title are planned. By renaming the course Academic Leadership, the school seeks to use this course to train students in lifelong skills useful beyond the successful completion of the IB program, keeping in mind what Keri Facer writes in her book Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change: that "the future is not something that is done to us, but an ongoing process in which we can intervene" (2011). The school's revised advisory program firmly rests on the following assumptions:

  1. Students desire—and increasingly demand—to be taken seriously as active members of the wider society. It is the school's job to provide them with the training and skills they need to be engaged leaders throughout their lives.
  2. All leadership is academic. Whether our students go into academia, politics, business, the trades, or the arts, they will be best served, and best serve their world, if they also serve as community intellectuals.
  3. Our students are (not "will be") the global citizens who are building the future we endeavor to envision; therefore, it is up to us to design and monitor their current apprenticeship.

By expanding upon our original IB Prep concept, the Academic Leadership advisory aims to provide this apprenticeship through the following course elements:

Producing e-portfolios so students establish a repository of artifacts through which they define themselves as academic leaders. Students will develop a thorough e-portfolio that will serve both as a traditional portfolio and as a cocreated and negotiated individual learning plan (ILP) that will be used to inform individualized instruction, design new challenges, and map the student's future.

Developing a personal learning network (PLN) so each student becomes an independent, lifelong learner in the 21st century world. Richard Gerver observes, "Increasingly in the world of tomorrow, people will be working for themselves. They will need to set themselves targets, plan their work patterns, and work unmanaged toward deadlines (2010)." PLN development will address these challenges of individual workflow and demonstrate to students the power and efficacy of first creating, and then studying within a personal learning environment. These networks will be anchored by their e-portfolios and will bolster their negotiated curriculum course elements.

Using academic reading, thinking, and writing to prepare students for the rigor of the IB, future college courses, and a lifetime of academic leadership. No matter how prevalent social media and information technology become, the strength of such tools depends on independent thinkers and leaders who need to know how to research, organize, process, and express the overwhelming flow of data available to them. This element of the course is also meant to further embed the notion that critical reading, critical thinking, and critical writing are not disparate skills, but rather congruent and complimentary components of an organic process.

Fostering leadership and 21st century skills to prepare students for the technological and collaborative challenges that face them now. Leadership and 21st century skills topics will include: establishing identity, "glocal" citizenship (i.e., addressing one's local and global roles), dealing with bullies, workflow, physical and mental well-being, celebrating diversity and difference, academic leadership, social justice, advocating for others, conflict resolution, crowdsourcing solutions and systems thinking, instilling confidence, and understanding credibility.

Providing diverse models of leadership to expose students to varied perspectives on engaging issues within disciplines and across the curriculum. Cocreated presentations involving multiple disciplines and ideas (including, but not restricted to those covered in a 21st century skills and leadership component) will still be eagerly solicited from the faculty and school community. We are also cognizant of John Gardner's warning that "most of those seeking to develop potential leaders have in mind one ideal model that is inevitably constricting" (2007). Thus, we must give students a sense of the many kinds of leaders and styles of leadership through direct modeling.

Allowing a negotiated curriculum to nurture each student as a uniquely creative member of the school community. Google employees are famously permitted to devote 20 percent of their paid hours to work on individual projects. The International School of Curitiba's secondary division will follow Google's example as a way of encouraging students to develop talents and intelligences that are not directly addressed in the classroom. Students can negotiate an ongoing project in traditional subjects like the arts; humanities; mathematics; sciences; or alternative options such as photography, sports psychology, educational theory, and guitar. They will incorporate their projects into their portfolios, PLNs, and exploration of leadership and 21st century skills. Above all, students will be encouraged to always view their projects—no matter the subject—as academic endeavors. To facilitate their projects, students will select faculty or, increasingly, senior student supervisors who will provide modeling and mentoring.

Taken as a whole, the components of the Academic Leadership course will be used as the base for creating individual learning plans (ILPs) for every 9th and 10th grade student. Through a dynamic of cocreation, students and teachers will use these ILPs to inform themselves and each other about each student's history of strengths and weaknesses, their academic and extra-curricular progress, and their goals and their plans for reaching them.

Through our revised program—the design of which we hope is widely useful—we intend to graduate successive cohorts of students equipped to face 21st century challenges and to guide their younger peers to equal success. Rather than limiting our students and ourselves to narrow conceptions of the advisory, we aim to prove that the power of our students to affect their lives and futures is limitless.

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