I've been going to a local science museum weekly this summer and to an event the museum ran at my local library. It is informative to observe how activities are structured but even more interesting to watch how various people interact. A typical activity has a wide range of materials and some kind of building challenge - such as designing a boat from reuse materials. Sometimes a model of a possible solution is offered.
- If no one is helping and there are limited directions, some kids jump right in. The hesitant ones get more comfortable the more opportunities they have to explore.
- Some parents pretty much stay out of their kids' way, building their own project or not, some build in collaboration with their children, and some take over with a mission to make the project "the right way." Some do this by giving directions, others by actually taking over the materials themselves.
- The activities seem to be designed to encourage exploration and innovation, but if there are a lot of volunteers/staff members around, they sometimes can't resist offering advice even when it doesn't seem to be needed or sought after.
- Most of the kids in this environment did not know each other and did not interact much with one another.
The experience leads to some questions: How do we cultivate comfort with open-ended activities and willingness to try? What role should adults - staff and volunteers in the classroom and adults working with children outside the class (parents, child care providers, etc) - play? What kind of interaction among students do we want and how do we guide them to develop those skills? How do we design activities with the right balance of guidance and freedom to innovate?
While science may be the most concrete area in which to promote innovation, the same issue exists in every subject. What part of the math, writing, social studies, reading, art, or PE assignment is a must, and for what aspects of the assignment are we encouraging the student to innovate? How much are we willing to let go of control?