From GPS Learners to Compass-Guided Leaders

Dr. Kerry Priest is a faculty member at Kansas State University. She’s also one of our speakers at Growing Leaders. She teaches in the school of leadership studies. I asked her to blog about what she and her department are doing in Manhattan. Enjoy…

Recently I asked a small group of first-year college students in my introductory leadership class, “What did your high school leaders do that really prepared you for college?” Their responses were positive but technical; for example, providing helpful checklists for graduation and college admissions, or encouraging them to go on campus visits. Intrigued, I probed further by asking, “Now that you have been at college for a little while, what do you wish you had been more prepared for?

This question released more emotion in the group. The students described their own unpreparedness – and some anxiety – for learning tasks like note-taking, studying, and how to engage in and manage group projects outside of the classroom.

My initial interpretation was this: While caring adults provided these students a detailed “road-map” for successfully navigating their transition from high school to college, they entered higher education feeling unprepared for the less structured, more self-directed learning environment.

photo credit: Janitors via photopin cc

photo credit: Janitors via photopin cc

Perhaps the most significant observation I made as the conversation continued was that the students themselves described their college learning experience thus far as a series of tasks to be mastered, rather than a journey or growth process. Courses and assignments are reduced to a “point-management” system with the end result being a grade on their transcript or a line on their resume.

Reflecting on my own role in these students’ development forced me to ask myself a critical question: Am I perpetuating a “road-map” mentality, or am I fostering their growth as self-directed learners and leaders?

To gain some perspective on this question, I looked to one of Dr. Elmore’s Habitudes for the Journey: The Compass vs. the GPS. This Habitude emphasizes the need for students to develop a personal compass (strong sense of personal values, critical thinking, and self-directedness) when entering new or unknown territories. A GPS or Google Map is only helpful when the “roads are paved”- that is, when the landscape is clearly marked and there is a “right way” to go.

compass on map

This gets tricky for educators. My colleagues and I have discussed at length the constant tension between providing direction and fostering discovery. Both approaches can lead to learning, but learning for what? The educational landscape itself is changing, so what is our compass on the journey?

As a leadership educator, my compass is a firm belief that the purpose of education is to prepare students to be leaders – not only in professional roles, but also through active engagement in civic life. It is a reality that many graduates may not start out in formal leadership roles or positions, but they all have the capacity to exercise leadership – to mobilize a group of people to make progress on the complex social, political, economic, and environmental issues facing our world.

There are many ways to help students develop their personal compass through the college experience. Here are two ideas we use in my learning community:

1. Identifying personal values and strengths

There are a variety of assessments and inventories to help students identify and clarify values, talents, or abilities. Beyond simply understanding their own values and strengths, we challenge students to acknowledge and appreciate the diversity of values and strengths that exist in groups. Group projects include intentional discussions around competing values and strengths-based team development. Our observations are that students who have these conversations build stronger, self-directed teams. They are better able to delegate tasks and manage interpersonal conflict.

2. Engaging in service-learning

A service-learning approach helps students connect the concepts they are learning in class to real challenges facing the community. For example, our students partner with a local “breadbasket” as they seek to make progress locally on the social issue of hunger. Through the experience of working in teams and with multiple stakeholders, students gain a greater understanding of the complexity of exercising leadership. We design intentional reflection exercises to help students articulate and make meaning of their learning, and critically evaluate the impact of their service. We have found service-learning helps many students develop passion for a particular cause, or more generally, gain a sense of purpose around helping others.

When students can align their talents and passions with a sense of purpose, and they see how they are uniquely gifted to contribute to the common good, that forms a powerful compass for the kind of leadership that is needed in our companies, communities, cities, and countries.

I encourage you (and your team) to extend this conversation to your own context by reflecting on these questions:

1. How are I/we helping students transform from GPS learners to compass-guided leaders?

2. How do I/we balance the tension between providing clear direction and guidance (a “roadmap”) with fostering self-discovery?

Kerry Priest is an assistant professor in the School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University. She teaches undergraduate courses on leadership development and peer leadership. Her research explores the intersections of teaching and learning pedagogy and leadership development in higher education.

Interested in having Dr. Priest speak at your event? Email Chloe: [email protected].



hbjFor additional ideas on preparing “career ready students,” pick up a copy of Habitudes for the Journey.

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From GPS Learners to Compass-Guided Leaders