For a couple of high school students, Jack Hostager and
Ian Coon have some pretty big ideas about the education system.
They’re the founders of the Iowa Student
Learning Institute (ISLI), whose mission is to “revolutionize Iowa’s
approach to education through the power of the student voice.”
Hostager and Coon, both 17, organized the first ISLI conference in October 2013, and
it was such a success they decided to make it an annual event.
The second ISLI conference is set for Nov. 8, when over 200 attendees
are scheduled to show up.
The vision of the conference is to overcome the “passion gap,” Hostager said.
“You can’t learn anything unless you want to learn or you’re passionate. It’s
about putting trust in students to take ownership of their education.”
Promoting student voice in education
Hostager and Coon met virtually in February 2013 during an edcamp
Iowa conference. When they discovered they were the only two students
participating, they knew they had to do something to get more young people
involved in education.
“We came to two conclusions,” Hostager said. “That, by and large, students
are not invited to be involved in the process of shaping the future of school.
And that most students do not see themselves as having the responsibility to
take a stand on issues they care about and effect positive change in their
schools and larger communities.”
They connected on Twitter, where their friendship — and their shared interest
in education reform — grew. But they didn’t actually meet face to face until
last year’s ISLI conference.
Developing a passion for ed reform
Coon, a junior at Waukee High School in Des Moines, said he’s wanted to be
an educator since he was in elementary school. His desire to change the
education model emerged when he entered middle school and encountered a more
structured approach to education.
“I just wasn’t a fan of it,” he said. “I like to make my own choices and be
flexible in how I learn.”
Hostager, a senior at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, said he became
interested in education policy when, as a freshman, he was appointed to the
state Learning Council, a student advisory group that provided feedback on
education reform to the state Department of Education. It was a positive
experience and allowed him to connect with other students interested in
education issues. But he grew frustrated by the slow pace of change.
He decided to create a blog to share his thoughts on education with the
world. That’s how he connected with a teacher who encouraged him to attend
That was the moment “where I went from thinking about the policy part of it
to the passion part of how we do education,” Hostager said. “It got me excited
about the idea of changing the system.”
Planting the seeds of change
After connecting at edcamp, Coon and Hostager hatched a plan to get students
more involved in education issues. Supported by a cadre of adult mentors who now
serve as board members, they decided to plan a conference modeled after edcamp
Iowa — except that it’s focused on students.
“What I found remarkable,” said Michelle Hill, an ISLI board member, “besides
the fact that a freshman and a sophomore in high school were going above and
beyond to improve education and encouraging others to do so, was Jack and Ian
actually planned the entire conference remotely through shared documentation,
video conferencing and social media.”
They reached out to high school principals in Iowa, who helped them find
students with an interest in changing the way school works.
The conference began with inspiring speeches followed by students breaking
into smaller groups to talk about specific issues. This year’s event will follow
a similar format, though there will be separate sessions for teachers and
“Ultimately,” Hostager said, “we want adult attendees to leave with a greater
appreciation for the power of student voice, and we want students to leave
knowing that they have an important role in shaping the future of their
education and changing the world beyond.
“Students don’t think about education in terms of how we can change it,” he
said. “This is about changing it — what do you want to see? It was a different
experience for a lot of students there. They were excited about the thought of
Or, as Coon put it, getting students to change their thinking from
“surviving school to thriving in school.”
“A lot of it goes back to trusting students,” Hostager said.
Seeing positive change
Hill, an educator in Waukee, said she’s already seen a shift in culture in
the Waukee School District as a result of Coon’s and Hostager’s efforts —
specifically in assuring that student voices are heard in the classroom, from
kindergarten all the way up to district administration.
“Our educators and administrators really want to know what students think
about how we can improve and develop a real partnership in learning,” she said.
“I certainly think some of that change is in part due to Ian and Jack’s
That change in culture, that acknowledgment that students’ voices must be
heard, is key to improving education, she said.
“If we as educators ignore their interests, passions and concerns, how will
we ever be able to help them achieve growth?” she asked.
That’s something educators have long known, she said, but what’s different
about the ISLI movement is that it gives students the encouragement, and more
important, a platform for students to share what is really on their mind.
“They are encouraged to go back to their home schools and begin to make those
small changes that eventually lead to full-scale culture shifts,” she said.
At last year’s conference, the “Students of Iowa” adopted a proclamation that
reads like a manifesto. Among its many demands, the document avowed:
We demand that the adults leading our schools,
communities, and local and state governments put students at the forefront of
all educational decisions rather than politics, money, or the ridiculous ideas
of those without a vested interest in Iowa and your children.
We demand students be included as equal
stakeholders at all levels of the decision-making process.
Also among their demands:
- That the school day starts and ends fluidly, with a
limited amount of structure, enabling instruction to be highly individualized.
- That students get to learn about what we want, when
we want, with professional educators ensuring they learn important concepts
and content along the way — in short, a system that ensures students’
competency, not simply compliance.
- That students are expected to meet certain standards
and competencies, but at their own pace.
- That whenever and wherever students “learn”
something, it “counts.”
- That the teacher is a guide whose job is to ensure
that students are learning important concepts and ideas as they explore their
projects and interests.
- That students have opportunities for hands-on, project-oriented, relevant
learning, such as apprenticeships, that ensure students meet competencies and
It’s a tall order. But another board member, Shannon McClintock
Miller, is impressed with what Coon and Hostager have accomplished already.
“They took their passion and not only inspired all of us as teachers, but
inspired hundreds of students in Iowa and around the world,” she said. “I just
know that Jack and Ian will continue to do amazing things that incorporate their
passions with teaching, learning and student voice.”
Tim Christie is a freelance writer in Eugene,