Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Preparing For The Future of Student Innovation

With input from a few of my colleagues, I composed the following "letter" for our heads-of-school regarding out recent "Adventure Days!" experiment.  I've semi-anonymized it, in case of privacy issues. All pics by one of our 8th graders.

Curriculum at our school has always been student-centered, and - as we mature and flourish as a community - our curriculum is moving even more towards developing skills in meta-cognition, problem-solving, and systems-thinking for our children.  In contemplating how to deepen our students’ design and innovation thinking, the middle school recently conducted its biggest experiment yet in open-ended student-innovation curriculum - "Adventure Days!"  Inspired by Matt Bebbington's and Josh Stumpenhorst's experiments with innovation days, we - the teachers - challenged the middle schoolers to take full ownership of their learning and growth for two school days.  The implementation process was carefully designed and scaffolded to support students in pursuing big, deep ideas and creating innovative, passionate projects.  From introduction, through proposals, to planning, and finally two full days of whole-middle-school implementation, the middle schoolers demonstrated their abilities to take their ideas and passions to the max.

As Sir Ken Robinson indicates in his discussions of education and preparing children for the future, we don’t know what new careers and opportunities their futures will bring.  Preparation for new careers in global economies, sustainable communities, and advancing technologies have been driving the development of new standards - “21st Century Skills” - intended to support students in developing the skills they’re projected to need in their adulthoods.  During Adventure Days!, our middle schoolers completed an amazing variety of projects and addressed an astonishing variety of those 21st Century Skills, preparing them for an innovative, entrepreneurial future.  Two 6th graders invented a retractable holder for their laptop styluses, and finished the days with plans for improvements.  An 8th grader picked up a guitar for the first time Thursday morning, and performed on stage in front of the whole middle school on Friday afternoon.  A 7th grader sketched, outlined, and fully painted a 1.5m x 2.5m mural to decorate the ms science room. Another 6th grader planned and taught a lesson to a group of prekindergarteners, including seeking advice from our own primary division counselor in understanding early childhood cognition and communication.  More projects will be highlighted in the Adventure Days! documentary currently still in editing by two 8th graders, itself an Adventure Days! project.  The skills they developed ranged from collaboration to scaling to public performance to simply increasing their confidence that they can capably and independently develop a new skill.

In reflecting on the experience after Adventure Days!, middle schoolers articulated the deep and meaningful learning they gained in this open innovation adventure.  Students gave feedback like suggesting to future participants "Be ready to improvise because you might make a mistake, be creative, and keep an open-minded" and "Don't be scared. If you think that what you want to accomplish is to out of the box then you’re wrong because anything can happen and all you need to do is dedicate yourself towards your work and plunge through things with a positive attitude."  Another suggested: "Focus solely on what you've always wanted to do, because this is your opportunity to open up. If your scared, still try it. If you’re nervous, still try it. If you excited, try it! Overall, think if you will be proud and excited about your project when you complete. If you don't feel like it will make a positive impact, maybe think of something different."

More after the jump.

The experiment of Adventure Days! proved that our students are capable of achieving amazing results, as well as developing valuable "21st Century Skills" in innovation, design, careful crafting, and collaboration.  Through the scaffolding provided by the organizing team and all the teachers, even students who normally struggle to complete regular class assignments were able to plan out their time and meet their individual goals for the Adventure Days! projects.  In teacher feedback, teachers noticed student successes like "Allowed them to bring their passions (non-academic) into the classroom, overcome adversity/build resilience, positive interactions among different grade levels" and "Almost all of my kids grew, learned, and explored. I particularly thought the kids/groups whose ideas expanded, contracted, or changed DURING the adventure days, were the ones that got the most out of it. They were learning as they went; they got new ideas and inspiration as their project progressed."

For Adventure Days! success, students were spread out all over campus, and projects were often completed with tools and techniques that were less than ideal.  For this first experiment, much of the progress was cobbled together and hanging by shoe-strings!  Our community progress toward a new space - especially a space being carefully designed to support new, innovative programs - will permit more and more of our students to explore passions in these self-driven ways, and with more precise support from their teachers in purpose-designed learning spaces.

As we continue to process this experience as a staff, a team of middle school teachers have begun meeting to discuss how we can continue experimenting more with supporting innovative design and creation skills in our kids.  We're considering how we can begin moving design thinking, development, and iteration from stand-alone efforts like Adventure Days! to integrated features of our academic program as we move towards our new space, and how we can expand those ideas even more when armed with space, equipment, time, and staffing.  We've been investigating "Maker Spaces" and different ways that different schools, libraries, and other community spaces structure their time and physical space to support design and creation for their patrons - whether children or adults.  We're reflecting on our experiments, planning for tomorrow, and dreaming big for 2015!

The 8th graders’ epic documentary about February's first ever Adventure Days! is still under production, and we look forward to sharing it with the community when it is completed!

I'm excited to share our success with other educators, and learn more about how other schools implement student-driven innovative learning!  I'd love to get feedback and ideas, and am happy to share other logistics nuggets that worked for us.  The one biggest improvement we'll make for next time is to have a bit more time between planning/prep day and the actual full work days... 2 days wasn't enough turn-around time to get all the necessary materials kids identified.  

A few other resources I'd like to recommend are:

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