A Cross-cultural Study of Student Leadership
in Round Square Schools

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Principal Investigator
Dr. Ewan Wright
Assistant Professor
and Research Fellow of APCLC,
The Education University of Hong Kong
Prof. Allan Walker
Research Chair Professor
and Co-Director of APCLC
The Education University of Hong Kong

Dr. Darren Bryant
Associate Professor
and Associate Director of APCLC
The Education University of Hong Kong

Prof. Lee Moosung
Centanary Professor of Canberra University
and APCLC Senior Research Fellow
of The Education University of Hong Kong
Funding Source
Round Square (2019/20)
Project Duration
2019/20 - 2020/21



Leadership is an important educational goal for young people in 21st-century societies with economic, social, and personal benefits. It is important for three main reasons. First, there is a growing demand for young people with leadership skills in complex knowledge-based economies. Second, an education that builds leadership has social significance as young people can be change agents to highlight problems and drive improvements in societies. Third, leadership skills can have personal benefits for young people by providing positional advantages in admission to leading universities and the labour market for high-status jobs. At the same time, there are concerns that schools worldwide are falling short in enabling students to build leadership skills due to a focus on standardised testing and narrow teaching and learning experiences.

Despite the importance of leadership skills for young people, research on youth leadership in schools is thin on the ground. Most of the research in educational leadership has focused on adults by examining leadership amongst principals, middle leaders, and teachers. There remains a lack of understanding about how students articulate, experience, and perceive leadership, especially from a comparative, cross-cultural perspective. It remains unclear how students build leadership skills through activities inside and outside the classroom beyond participation in formal leadership roles. A missing lens on youth leadership is significant, given that it should not be assumed that adult leadership theories and perspectives are applicable to young people.

Round Square schools provide a critical case to investigate how students around the world engage with leadership during their school years. The mission of Round Square schools is closely aligned with youth leadership. Inspired by the work of Kurt Hahn, Round Square schools share a commitment to character education and experiential learning built around six “IDEALS”, including International Understanding, Democracy, Environmental Stewardship, Adventure, Leadership and Service. In this respect, the schools are not typical, but rather they provide opportunities for rich insights as they have an explicit focus on building skills that prepare young people for leadership positions. Moreover, Round Square schools cover 200 schools across 50 countries. The global network of schools is, therefore, appropriate for a cross-cultural investigation of how students engage with leadership across a diversity of contexts.

In response to the research gap on student leadership in schools, the study seeks answers to the overarching research question: “What approaches are most effective in developing student leadership in Round Square schools?”. The research will focus on student leadership in Round Square schools in diverse cross-cultural contexts worldwide from China to India to the United States. The findings will lead to recommendations for how schools can develop student leadership in their context.

The study has four objectives:

  1. To identify how young people conceptualise leadership as an abstract concept;
  2. To examine the practice of who, how, and why students engage in leadership;
  3. To investigate the experiences and reflections of youth leadership; and
  4. To analyse how youth leadership varies across different cross-cultural contexts worldwide.