where one of our main goals is to engage students in a meaningful unit of study that is completely based on student interest and ends with creating something authentic to be used in the world.
One of the things that made me connect so strongly with Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner was the importance of authenticity in schools. These innovative young people were not innovative when completing their worksheets. They didn’t display their empathy for the world in the isolation of a simple report. The question or problem was one that the teacher did not already hold the right answer to.
The teachers that were featured were outliers in the sense that they saw themselves as peers of the students in the creation and learning process. So how about we try that in our new middle school? Here’s what I’m thinking:
We create an interdisciplinary unit that is similar to the genius hour or 20% time. Every Wednesday (seems like a good day) we have the students working together in groups to investigate and solve their problem. Teachers are available in their rooms throughout the day for students to have a chance to get feedback and just-in-time learning if needed. The students are able to move from the science lab where they are creating something to the English room when they need to write a letter or prepare for a speech.
What are the questions or problems? Ed Carryer of Stanford’s Smart Product Design Laboratory has one problem for his students to solve in his course. The example from Creating Innovators was “The world’s most dangerous jobs.” Students designed boats for crab fishing that harvested the crabs and brought them back to the dock to unload them. The project had competition, innovation, and fun, or “whimsy” as Carryer called it. One group played the role of Greenpeace and tried to set all of the crabs free! Here are some other examples from Stanford which are high level, of course, but it might give you an idea.
It might be a good plan to start our unit with all students working on solving a problem together in order to learn how to think this way. It takes a change of culture to get students to be more innovative. Any ideas of a problem or question we should use to start?
Eventually the students can identify their own problems that they want to fix. Let’s say that the chairs or desks that they are sitting on are uncomfortable. A group of students might choose to develop a chair that is more comfortable and still cost effective. Math and science would be necessary for the design angles and weight distribution as well as the costs associated with the chair. The English teacher would be a help in marketing the chair as well as writing any letters and applying for patents. And the history teacher, although probably not her area of expertise, could help in the research of chairs for inspiration. That last one might include the art teacher a little more, but go with me here. I imagine students pitching their questions/ideas like that one to the class and recruiting their group. When the project is over, students could create their own TED Talk to showcase their genius to the world!
Think of the engagement that a project like this would offer! To create something and make someone’s world a better place is the reason people want to learn and innovate. The hope is that our classroom walls are no longer the limits. I would imagine this would lead teacher to continue to expose our students to other parts of the world in order to see what the needs are all over.
This could be done as a competition where ideas and projects are presented to a panel. Picture Shark Tank or The Apprentice coming to your classroom. One class even presented to fourth graders to be their judges. Students receive feedback and continue to grow and learn. The best part? There are no wrong answers. We try and fail? So what. Try again!
When I mentioned a culture change earlier, failure is a part of our culture that needs to be looked at. Students feel like they failed when they know there is no chance to try again or to use what they learned in order to improve. This type of system encourages failure as a learning tool with feedback and time to try again. And when the end result is something authentic that can help others, there is a reason to keep trying.