Teaching the young to think like successful leaders is the goal of an ongoing curriculum and professional learning partnership between the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and the Toronto District School Board.
In a unique transfer of concepts from the world of business education to the public school system, the Integrative Thinking I-Think Leadership Program launched at John Polanyi Collegiate Institute (JPCI) in 2011 in the form of a Grade 12 Business Leadership class.
The curriculum for this course, developed jointly by the I-Think Leadership Program and teachers at the secondary school, is based on the theory of Integrative Thinking outlined in Roger Martin's book The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win through Integrative Thinking. It holds that successful leaders, when faced with unacceptable trade-offs, see it as their job to create a new and better answer.
Transferring this knowledge to the young is critical, Martin says, “as success in the global economy depends on the ability to wade through ambiguous challenges, managing difficult trade-offs with flexibility and creativity."
The class at JPCI focuses on the development of leadership skills used in today’s innovative world, says JPCI teacher Rahim Essabhai, who is currently in his third year teaching the class. “Students analyze the role of a leader with a focus on decision making, problem solving, management of group dynamics, and thinking at deeper levels,” he says.
Roger Martin says the I-Think initiative gives students tools “to observe and evaluate their thinking processes when faced with opposition or difficult, ‘either-or’ choices.” This approach is also explored in Rotman’s MBA programs.
Reflection, bias recognition, social experiments, critical thinking, and problem solving skill acquisition are core to the class, says Essabhai. Using authentic, complex problems supports the development of critical thinking as reflected in today's 6 Cs and problem-solving as assessed by PISA.
Another key pillar of the class is the real world application of the Integrative Thinking model through the students’ work as consultants for a variety of clients. So far, students have consulted for non-profit organizations, including the North York Harvest Food Bank, neighbouring elementary and secondary schools and the administrative leadership team of the Toronto District School Board.
“The students’ efforts and insights have altered the manner in which these organizations tackle various issues and their recommendations have been implemented by the various clients they have consulted to,” Essabhai says.
One student group advised the North York Harvest Food Bank on how to improve the client experience using the food bank’s neighbourhood location on JPCI property. The students recommended improved and more visible signs and a mini outdoor waiting area to address some logistical challenges faced by clients, volunteers and food bank management.
“After the analysis was presented, some of the recommendations were implemented, which helped alleviate some of these stressors,” Essabhai says.
Students in the class also advised managers of the JPCI-based urban farm (a partnership with non-profit PACT Grow To Learn). The 2/3-acre farm creates upward of 6,000 pounds of organic produce in one season, offering healthier alternatives to the community, yet management didn’t always collect accurate documentation of what was gathered from the farm.
“At times, this caused some issues gathering accurate harvesting numbers and data for statistic purposes," says Essabhai, who stresses the manner in which some of the produce was taken was actually harming the crops' chances for future growth.
Students recommended the launch of a campaign to build more community involvement and ownership in the farm while teaching proper harvest techniques. A small, non-intrusive fence around the garden and a scale at the entrance were also recommended to create structure around harvesting. These recommendations were adopted by the farm.
Finally, students advised a neighbouring school on how to improve literacy in Grade 1 and 2 classrooms. That team created a video sharing their experience and recommendations which you can view below to the right of this page.
Some of the I-Think learning tools the students used to make these recommendations include The Ladder of Inference (analysis of how conclusions are drawn), System Mapping (analysis of connections between stakeholders, solutions, strategies and activities), Causal Modeling (analysis of causal relationships between variables) and creating Pro/Pro Charts (as opposed to Pro/Con charts).
“By acting as real consultants on today’s issues, students are able to gain valuable experience managing goals, teams, stress, conflict and motivation while gaining effective business communication skills through strategic use of technology, ethics and social responsibility,” Essabhai says.
The entire I-Think team deserves credit for the program's success, Essabhai says. "The team is amazing and are spearheading the curriculum and facilitation," he says. Members of the I-Think team at Rotman include Ellie Avishai, Jennifer Riel, Josie Fung, Nogah Kornberg, Darren Karn and Erin Carmody.
The Grade 12 course is just one way Integrative Thinking is being used at the school. So far, 16 teachers have been trained in the approach at Rotman, and have informally integrated the strategies into curriculum and lesson plans, principal Aiman Flahat says.
JPCI is a semestered school offering a full range of university, college and apprenticeship programs.
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