New View EDU Episode 40: Student Voice and Agency in Education

Available May 16, 2023

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In four seasons of New View EDU, we’ve talked a lot about what students need to thrive. In this episode, we’re going straight to the source to learn more. Host Tim Fish sits down with Ella Cornett and Mackenzie Link, high school students from One Stone School in Boise, Idaho, to get their real-world perspectives on everything from classes and schedules to life lessons on failure, accountability, passion, purpose, and more.
Mackenzie Link and Ella CornettStarting with One Stone School’s foundational statement “We believe in the power of students,” Ella (right) and Mackenzie detail the differences they’ve experienced between traditional settings and the empowering culture at Lab51, the One Stone high school experience. Ella is currently a student lead on the admissions team, and Mackenzie is the board chair—two powerful positions that would not be possible for high school students at most schools. They share that the school’s charter as a nonprofit organization not only allows, but mandates, deeply entrenched student leadership of the institution. It’s not simply an opportunity; it’s the lifeblood of the model.
That deep student engagement and hands-on collaboration in the design of the experience allows Ella and Mackenzie, along with their fellow students, to experience a wide variety of real-world learning opportunities. They speak enthusiastically about their summer learning experiences, which have allowed them to try everything from environmental science and forensics to construction management and midwifery. Learning on the job has meant that they’re able to gain real career skills, while also gaining a deeper understanding of what they may or may not want to pursue more actively in the future. As Mackenzie points out, this kind of experience and freedom to try new options makes students more ready for life after high school, more confident in their choices, and more focused on their goals.
Far from being a low-stress or low-work environment, Ella and Mackenzie describe their school life as inspiring and highly engaging. On the topic of stress and burnout, they candidly share that understanding the purpose of the work they’re doing helps drive them. Rather than simply completing assignments to get a grade, they work hard at each of their pursuits because they understand the value it brings to the community. The stress they feel is a positive motivator most of the time; Ella calls it the “weight of ambition” on her shoulders, and describes the internal challenge of wanting to do her best work in order to learn and grow into her own potential.
Mackenzie points out that the school is designed for student growth through “purpose finding”—not just understanding what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. Complementary to that philosophy, she describes the personal-growth aspects of student assessment, sharing that school staff take a “360 view” of students and look at character traits and soft skills like humility, empathy, and the ability to “fail forward,” in addition to academic competencies. In a culture without grades and with an emphasis on personal development and accountability, Mackenzie and Ella find that rigor and the drive to excel naturally arise in the student body.
That drive, Mackenzie says, comes from knowing that everyone around you believes in you. “If someone thinks you can do it,” she asks, “then why not go do it?” Ella reflects that this kind of core support and empowerment has transformed her relationship to herself and to learning. Whereas in a traditional school environment, she identified herself purely through her good grades—and derived self-worth, either positive or negative, by those outcomes—in a learning environment that pushes her to excel for the sake of excellence alone, she no longer feels defined by simple metrics of success or failure. Pushing herself to learn and grow in all areas, both academic and otherwise, has allowed her to learn that it’s not the grades or outcomes that make her who she is; she is valuable and has something to offer the world because she knows who she is and what her purpose is.
These inspiring student leaders have much more to offer in a transformative conversation about agency and vision, summed up in a single question they ask all prospective students at their school: “What breaks your heart, and what are you going to do about it?”

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim, Ella, and Mackenzie explore in this episode include:
  • How does believing in the power of students, and allowing student agency, actually create greater rigor?
  • What do you believe is the relationship between grades and a willingness to take risks and fail?
  • What is the difference between the stress of a traditional high school environment and the stress experienced by students in an agency-rich environment?
  • From a student perspective, what is the purpose of school, and what do students need right now to grow into that purpose?

Episode Highlights

  • “There are the days, and I've had them myself, where maybe I'm not being real productive or all in that day, and that's OK. And a student like Ella or my sister or whoever, will come up and like, hold each other accountable. Which I think is one of the coolest parts, is it's not only the staff and the coaches keeping us accountable. There's so much peer accountability there.” (16:40)
  • “To go back to the question of what should school be, I feel like learners and students should come out of school with that sense of purpose. And that really resonates with me because I feel like that's what I want out of school. I want to leave school and kind of know what I want to do and who I want to be in the world.” (21:39)
  • “I would describe my stress...less so stress. I would call it ambition. I think the weight of ambition sits heavy on my shoulders because I strive for the next best thing I want to keep doing. I want to keep going, I want to keep pushing. And One Stone really allows me to do that and empowers me to do that.” (26:24)
  • “It's that pushing students, the healthy balance of pushing students. And this is where great coaching comes in. And great mentorship is, you do have to find the thing that students care about and relate it, everything that you're doing, to that. And then we're in the home stretch.” (29:57)
  • “For the first couple months it was really rough. I really struggled like, who am I without my grades? How will I validate myself? How will I know that I'm being successful? And it was through our evaluation process where we get to reflect and look back and like, cooperation with coaches and mentors and peers that I realized, I can gain that validation from myself and from within. I don't need a grade to tell me that I'm doing well, because I'm satisfied with my work. And I'm happy about it, and that's what really matters.” (36:24)
  • “It's easy if you let it be easy, in the sense that if you don't want to grow, if you don't try to grow, you won't. Just like a student in public school that doesn't try, they won't get a good GPA. But that's not the motivation here. The motivation here for us is to grow. So if a student doesn't want to grow, how can they?” (39:44)

Resource List

Full Transcript

  • Read the full transcript here.

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About Our Guests

Mackenzie Link is the chairwoman of One Stone’s board. She is a student at One Stone’s Lab51 and planning on graduating this coming spring. Mackenzie is an avid outdoorswoman and when she is not at One Stone she is in the Idaho wilderness hiking, hunting, or snowboarding. 
Ella Cornett is a second-year student at One Stone’s Lab51, intending to graduate in 2025. She sits on the One Stone board of directors and is an admissions team student lead. She is passionate about preserving the planet, protecting the environment, and advocating for those in need. Ella loves creating art, writing, and spending time out in nature.