Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Our Innovation Day

A Puppet Show
Video Game Design
Break Dancing
BBQ Ribs
A 3D Minnie Mouse made of candy
A wood reconstruction of the Twin Towers
Stop-motion video
Comic Books
Three-Layered Cakes
History of the CIA
Sports Tutorials
Horror Movies
Golden Gate Bridge Models
Story Writing
Archaeology and Architecture
Battle Scenes
Model Making

After this list ask yourself two questions

Are these learned in traditional schools and classrooms?
Are these interesting and engaging topics for kids?

Unfortunately, a yes answer for both questions would be hard to come by. Surely, students find these topics interesting and engaging, but school is usually not a sanctuary for such creativity and thought. My school aimed to change that yesterday as we hosted our first ever Innovation Day. Innovation Day, an idea I borrowed and tweaked from Josh Stupenhorst, was meant to allow students the ability to foster passion, creativity, and enjoyment from learning. Students developed their own unique projects based on ANYTHING they wanted. The goal was for them to learn and hopefully create something unique. This was not a day of competition nor conformity, it was a day of excitement. The above list was a simple snapshot of some of the things our students studied and/or created. It was simply a magical day. The type of day that reminds us why kids are such precious creatures. They have an amazing fascination and curiosity of the world that came to the surface as they worked on their crazy projects.

And while the day was not perfect, the end results and pride the students displayed in their work left me speechless. Below are a few notes I took away from the experience:

Everybody can learn: When students are completely engaged in what they are studying and see value in it, students WILL step up to the plate. Teachers often complain that students are unmotivated or unable to learn. But maybe we should take a closer look at the task at hand. Do students see a value in it? Is it worth their time? Does it give them autonomy and a chance to work with others in a non-competitive environment?

Behavior problems were a non-issue: As I proposed the idea to my faculty a couple of months ago, some teachers were fearful that students would run around and abuse the freedom they were given. I promised them that if we actually gave them freedom and not the facade of it, we would not have to worry about it. Thus was the case. We had some students get frustrated because things were not going right, but a valuable lesson was gleaned as failure was seen as a component of innovation.

Students want to help one another: Once grades are removed, collaboration flourishes. Every time I looked around the school, students were their own teachers. As students were grouped by interest type and not levels, they enjoyed working on each other's ideas. Students would stop what they were doing to help a friend. Students would also stop to help somebody they didn't know. Students were proud of their peers. It broke down barriers and cliques. It exposed learning as a very social activity instead of a passive bore fest.

Teachers do not need to know everything: I was mainly helping tech students and I could barely help them as they designed video games, Sketch-up, or produced movies. Rather than the "know-it all" on the stage, I was a problem-solver who helped students help themselves. We were co-learners and nobody seemed to mind. Other teachers shared similar experiences.

Administration and faculty matters: The students would not have had this wonderful opportunity if my administration and fellow staff members spurned my idea. Although I had the idea to bring this to my school, it was a team effort. Without the support of the whole school, a day like this doesn't happen. Furthermore, the fellow teachers needed to keep the integrity of innovation day by really ceding control to students.

Learning does not fit into subject: You need math for video game design. You need to know statistics to figure out where  your "hot spot" is on the basketball court. Google Sketch-up is a lesson in geometry. To develop a movie on any subject you need language skills. Model building can take into account physics. Cooking is a giant chemistry experiment. A comic book takes art and writing skills. Why do we pigeon-hole subjects?

The process is more important than the product: Some of the projects went off without a hitch. Many others needed to be changed on the fly. Other more ambitious ideas needed to be adapted to the resources or time period we had. Many students saw their ideas evolve and change over the course of the day. A realization of the process of learning is important for metacognition.

Authentic pride and success is priceless: Students felt proud of what they did and what they accomplished. This success didn't depend on someone else's definition. Success wasn't defined by the grade received or accolades won. Instead, it was a sense of worth at completing what was important to them. This sort of intrinsic satisfaction must be duplicated.

Gender roles were slightly bent: Surely I would have liked to see more male bakers and females techies, but I think there was a start. Students felt compelled to study something that they wanted. We had some females study science related activities while males painted and drew. I think the more innovation days, the more likely students will step out of comfort zones and try something that would be considered "girly" or "manly"

This is how learning can be: There was a simple shift that happened yesterday. Kids WANTED to come to school. They were having fun and learning at the same time. This can happen. The more we push ourselves to do days like this, more students and parents will push for change. They are just looking for people to lead.

***If you are inspired to do this at your school/class I have a blog on some of the planning.

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