Time Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year profile paints a portrait of Greta Thunberg, one of the most well-known members of a new generation of youth activists. September 2019 saw 6 million people follow Thunberg’s call for a climate strike. And Thunberg herself was inspired by students working to counter gun violence through March for Our Lives, one of the biggest youth protests since the Vietnam War.

It’s hard to ignore the irony that while some education leaders wring their hands about an engagement problem in schools, youth activism appears to be on the rise. How can we learn from the motivations of student activists to improve students’ in-school experiences? 

First, understand how students define the progress they want to make.

All people, students included, find the motivation to act when the circumstances of their lives create a compelling desire for progress or change. One insightful theory for understanding motivation calls these sets of circumstances Jobs to Be Done. Just as people hire contractors to help them build houses, people search for something they can “hire” to help them when jobs arise in their lives. 

Most students hire school by showing up, but some students aren’t hiring. In August 2018, Greta Thunberg “fired” school—and hired a solo strike outside the Swedish Parliament that has grown into an international movement. Clearly, Thunberg reached the conclusion that school was not helping her accomplish an important Job to Be Done.

Of course, because school is compulsory in the US, most students don’t have much of a choice about whether to attend school (though homeschooling, dropping out, or striking remain options). But even when students show up at school, they’re not necessarily making the more subtle “hire” to engage or fully participate in the learning experiences school has to offer. A series of Gallup polls have shown that only about half of students are engaged in school. Too often, schools are striking out when it comes to nailing students’ Jobs to Be Done.

So how can schools do better at helping students make progress on their own terms? In Blended, Michael Horn and Heather Staker hypothesized that students hire experiences that help them have fun with friends and feel successful. The rise in student activism suggests there’s another powerful job (or set of jobs) motivating many students these days. Perhaps Thunberg and other young people hire activism to feel consequential or relevant, to take part in something bigger than themselves, or to feel less powerless in the face of crisis. 

One challenge is that we don’t have a clear sense of the primary jobs that truly motivate students in different circumstances. An actual Jobs to Be Done study involving student interviews would undoubtedly reveal important nuances in making sense of student behavior. Without a formal interview, it’s impossible to know what those jobs are with certainty—and we’ve learned that Jobs to Be Done interviews can surface unexpected motivations behind people’s behaviors. 

Next, integrate learning experiences around students’ jobs.

Until research uncovers specific student Jobs to be Done, educators can rely on hypothesized jobs such as the ones listed above. How might schools offer a compelling product for students to hire—one that more reliably delivers on the kinds of experiences that some young people hire activism for? Solutions may involve rethinking instructional models, curriculum, staff arrangements, scheduling, technology use, and so forth. 

It’s important to note that a Job to Be Done represents what students actually demand as seen by their behavior, which is not necessarily the same thing as what they say they want or need. Integrating around students’ jobs doesn’t mean catering to their every whim. It does mean, however, designing learning experiences that help students make progress on their own terms, in addition to what adults have determined they need to learn. For example, while some schools may oppose students’ desires to skip school for a climate strike, those schools should avoid simply telling students they’re required to be at school because their education is more important. Instead, consider what experiences would help students accomplish their Jobs to be Done in the same way the climate strike could.

As one possible approach, researchers at the Institute have long hypothesized that project-based learning (PBL) could be better than conventional instruction at nailing students’ Jobs to Be Done. In PBL and other related approaches—like experiential or maker-centered learning—students often anchor their learning in a big question about the world that they have some personal interest in, and produce something or take action as part of the learning experience. 

Finally, push the boundaries for where learning happens.

There are challenges on the road ahead to scale high-quality project-based and experiential learning. Nailing a Job to Be Done requires not only figuring out the student experience, but aligning a school system to optimize for creating that experience more reliably. Recent research suggests that deeper learning (often reached through inquiry- and project-based methods) is more the exception than the rule in high schools, held back by factors like accountability systems, teacher training, school schedules, and the like.

While activism doesn’t typically take place in rows of desks, many youth activists are learning through their experiences. In an interview with KQED, one student activist said her work outside school is helping her learn to be organized, speak publicly, and develop leadership skills. “All of this is stuff we’re learning on the go, which I think school is trying to teach us, but it’s just so much slower at it.” The student’s comments call to attention an irony: tangible skills learned in the real world often go unrecognized by schools trying to teach real-world skills. 

On the other hand, some schools are finding ways to award credit for learning that happens outside the classroom. At Gibson Ek High School, a public district school that is part of the Big Picture Learning network, students work with advisors to develop learning plans aligned to the school’s competency framework with a focus on internships and other interest-driven activities. Mal Haynes, a senior at Gibson Ek, was able to connect their advocacy in the state Capitol and organizing in local elections to the competencies needed for graduation. 

Greta Thunberg’s school strike should be a wake-up call for educators who want students to show up at school not just because it’s required, but because it’s helping them make progress on their own terms. By better understanding what motivates young people’s behavior, we have a chance to build education systems that actually deliver on what students demand.


  • Chelsea Waite
    Chelsea Waite