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.