Building a transformative learning space

Over the seven years of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at the University of Edinburgh, we will be welcoming 80 Undergraduate and 60 Postgraduate Scholars to Edinburgh through full academic scholarships. In addition to studying on degrees across the University, the Scholars will be participating in a leadership program which will challenge them to reflect upon their journey to Edinburgh, their ambitions for themselves and their communities, and how they can make a positive impact on their return home.

As Program Manager of the Scholars Program and now in our second year, we have used the start of the Scholars Program to understand the experience of the students to design and test how we can best hold the space for their learning journey and support them in their development as authentic transformative leaders.

It’s been slow and hard work to develop the Scholars Program at Edinburgh into an ecosystem that complements Scholars’ full time studies and helps them further develop and reflect upon the attitudes, skills, and knowledge of a transformative leader. While it has taken time, it’s proven to be a useful case study into incorporating a more collaborative student-centred approach to building educational learning spaces in higher education institutions.

The Process

From the start of the Scholars Program, we have placed a great deal of value in the process just as much as the product.  In the spirit of this, we have approached the development of the Scholars Program 2.0 as an opportunity to build a community with as much importance as building a program.  I was keen that every contribution by the Scholars, team and partners (through surveys, workshops, testing, and other methods) was important to the development of the program and was always part of a wider aim – not just a workshop for a workshop’s sake. Our key areas of work included:

1. Design Day | Vision Backcasting. Using Kaospilot’s Vision Backcasting Tool – we facilitated a Design Day for our Scholars to build the Scholars Program starting from a shared vision.  You can read about this process here. 

The vision backcasting framework allows you to develop any educational program, learning strategy or curricular framework of any length for any vocation that aspires to deliver equally and authentically on not only skills and knowledge, but also attitudinal & mindset necessary for personal growth and development of the participants, staff, clients and even the wider community. This model helps educators to be more aware of what and how they are teaching and the potential to inspire their attitudes about content and delivery. – KaosPilot, Aarhus Denmark

This process is centred around the vision and the actual skills, knowledge and attitudes Scholars wanted to gain from the learning space. From here, the different groups of Scholars mapped out the stages they wanted to cultivate these skills, knowledge, and attitudes through the Scholars Program and what content activities would do this.


2. Synthesis. We took the different iterations of the vision backcasting framework to create a master list of skills, knowledge, and attitudes and the development of these over the course of the Scholars Program. While different groups of Scholars completed the vision backcasting tool, it was amazing to see the overlaps in the thinking about how the approaches to learning journey were quite similar.  From here we created three phases of the Scholars Program – understanding, practicing, and embodying transformative leadership. We talk a bit more about these different phases later on.

3. Program Blueprint. Using this master list of skills, knowledge, and attitudes, we created a blueprint of how these will be delivered year upon year.  While student numbers increase dramatically each year, Scholars will be participating in different phases of the Scholars Program while the capacity of the team will remain the same.  Developing the blueprint and the final Scholars Program package allowed us to think about the service we create around the program and where resources need to be used more effectively.

4. Testing prototoypes.  On top of designing the Scholars Program, we also spent a great deal of Year 1 testing different ways of facilitating the ecosystem. From small groups, large groups, individual sessions, long thin solutions, short and fat opportunities – we tested numerous realisations of the the Scholars Program. This allowed us to understand how our activities could meet the needs of our Scholars and test the capacity within the team. One of the most useful places to experiment was the Edinburgh Summer School which focused on transformative leadership. As a four-week immersive school, we used it as a place to play with different models of co-design, reflection, mindfulness, and ways to work with partners on applied learning frameworks. You can read more about the Summer School here and the design here.

Final Product

As mentioned above, this work allowed us to shape the Scholars Program into three phases of transformative leadership journey based on a shared vision.

Scholars’ vision for the programme| With this programme at the University of Edinburgh, young people courageously change narratives, transform lives, and make a positive impact locally and globally.

  • Understanding Transformative Leadership |  In addition to introducing the concept of transformative leadership, the first phase of the transformative leadership journey on the Scholars Program will focus on understanding strengths, reflecting on Scholars’ journeys, identifying ambitions for moving forward, and gaining practice in working effectively within diverse teams.  This includes the Edinburgh Summer School, Reflective Coaching Sessions, and the discussion groups on gender, identity and leadership.
  • Practicing Transformative Leadership | This phase of the Scholars Program will build off of the Scholars’ understanding of transformative leadership, the self and teams.  It will focus on further exploring and practicing transformative leadership in different settings and contexts both in the UK and in their home regions.  This stage includes work-based and project-based placements and their support packages, the Africa-based summer school, giving back opportunities, and action-led learning opportunities which run throughout the year.
  • Embodying Transformative Leadership | As the last phase of the Scholars Program, this will bring together all the work from the previous year/s and focused on facilitating pathways into enterprise, consultancy, employment, further education, and any other opportunities. Scholars will focus on packaging up their transformative leadership journey and learnings in order transition effectively into life beyond the scholarship and Edinburgh.

You can see the full breakdown of skills, attitudes, and knowledge in each phase in our slide deck here – Scholars Program 2.0.


Despite the hard work up to now, we will continue to value the process.   We are seeing every year as an opportunity to further test and iterate on the Scholars Program package.

Reblogged from Scholars Lab.


A graceful goodbye

We talk about how to start - how to make an idea big, beautiful, and important. How to ideate and prototype and iterate. We talk about business model canvas, cash flows, and communication plans.  We talk about gaining confidence and now failure - how to do it, embrace it, and run with the lessons. We talk about new, more, and growth. 

I never once thought about the exit strategy - about letting go. Thinking it was negative, I never thought about how I would walk away from an idea.  How do you have that conversation with yourself that your heart isn't in it any more and that by sticking around - you are no longer breathing life into your work? If anything, you are taking it away. No one really talks about this bit amidst their inspiring ideation sessions.

I said goodbye to TEDxPortobello and CycleHack at the end of last year.  Anyone that knows me knows that these two wonderful spaces were built into my professional and personal narrative.  They gave me countless special moments and people and led me to where I am today.  The decision to move on lived in my belly for months and I refused to acknowledge it was there for a long time. I refused to think that I might be a 'quitter' or that by not having enough on my plate meant I wasn't working hard enough. This was a big thing - to me, if I wasn't 'busy' it reflected badly on me.

It made me think about letting go and how much we don't talk about it.

As a kid, we talked a lot about the graceful exit as a way to manage transitions and values.

There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over — and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.
— Ellen Goodman

I've tried to be true to this mindset in a lot of my life but it wasn't until the past year that I felt the true meaning of the graceful exit in terms of my work.  Not other people's work - but my own 'roll up your sleeves and create something new and great' work. 

From this both painful and exhilarating process - I learned a lot about myself and how we need to talk about walking away. We need to talk about how letting go is okay.

Just because you are leaving doesn't mean it wasn't great.

Just because you are leaving doesn't mean that your contributions and takeaways are any less important. I will always have the wonderful memories of CycleHack and TEDx.  Making the Kickstarter film for our very green idea to the masterclasses where speakers shared their talks in progress - these moments will always be true. My involvement in their growth will be true as well.

You aren't quitting.

This was a hard one for me. I was raised in a family with superhuman work ethic and trained as resilient athlete - I don't quit things. I finally came to understand this isn't about joining or quitting - this about transitions.  Your business, project, or idea is ready to grow in a new way and it doesn't include you (which is hard at first, but I promise it gets easier). For CycleHack - Matt and Sarah have used the opportunity to grow the business is a more meaningful way. For TEDx - the new team is dynamic and creative. Their ideas are flat out better than mine and that will make the community stronger.  Maybe your project will stop. This isn't failure - this is a transition that means something great (which you might not know about yet) will come of it. Sometimes the project will go on, sometimes it won't - but it's a transition for the better nonetheless.

Gratitude is central to the graceful exit

There is a great deal of peace in gratitude. As letting go of something brings up all kinds of feelings - a fear of regret, guilt, uncertainty - navigating these emotions becomes an art in itself.  You just gotta go through these bits. But the grace of a goodbye is finding the gratitude for all that is happened (good, bad and the ugly) and carrying that with you like precious cargo.

Approach a new venture with intention.

When you start something new - take time to think about what's important to you (not just your business), what you value, what gives you energy. Share this with your team.  Think about this often and check in - make sure you are being true to yourself. No one likes to think about an ending at a beginning but it's a crucial part of any start.  This isn't negative or pessimistic - it's being true to your idea and will make it big and strong if it needs to be.

Your work is only as strong as your heart.  

I guess this doesn't always have to be the case - you can do your work without heart.  You can do your work without your full attention and care.  This isn't how I want to commit my time. If you are tired and lacking the love - your work will suffer greatly. Cultivate the passion and energy for your business outside of to-do lists and if you approach your work with intention, it's easier to feel the shift and transition.


A friend of mine gave me some great advice one day and I think about it often. Think about your idea, business, and work as a partner - as a pal, boyfriend or girlfriend.  If your work /idea/business was a person - would you want to meet it for a beer? Does it give you a sense of worth and challenge you to be a better version of yourself? Does it inspire you and give you energy? If you explained to your best friend how it made you feel - what would you say? If for the most part it doesn't do these things often (and let's be real - it won't always will all the time) - ask yourself the tough questions.

Be honest with your partners and colleagues but more than anything - be honest with yourself. Every exit is truly an entry.