Watching innovators at work

Watching someone else lead an activity provides an opportunity to observe interactions and reflect on cultivating innovation.

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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.

Some observations:

- 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?

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Photo of Jessica

Yes! "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?"

In your experience, what has worked? I know that I am intentionally a hands-off teacher but it's been hard convince some of my colleagues to be less structured and "this is how it goes."

Photo of Old

At the end of the year we did some engineering challenges. One was to try to build from index cards and a couple inches of masking tape the tallest tower possible that would hold a small stuffed animal. One of the kids commented that, "I wasn't very good at it, but I enjoyed it anyway" which I loved. I suspect many little things in their lives add up to a willingness to try a challenging task and to stick with it for long periods through the failed attempts.

I feel like the engineering part of the Next Generation Science Standards will nudge me to offer more activities to kids that challenge them to figure out a way to do something instead of being handed specific directions and that this will carry over to innovation in other subjects. For example, when we make compasses, instead of following the step by step directions in the text, we talk about what features it will need to work, then each kid or team can try their own design.

I have to consciously work at not rushing them or interfering. I find having students help as much as possible vs. parent volunteers gives the students confidence and avoids having adults in the room who over-help. Class meetings and ongoing discussions on how we work together are huge, so that student-to-student talk is supportive.

The kids have so many experiences outside our classroom - with previous and future teachers, parents, friends and siblings - that will affect their attitude. We can make an effort to talk up and let people see the benefits of encouraging innovation, but there will always be those experiences in a child's life that work against the message. On the positive side, the excitement of innovation is its own reward so even if we can't give them the perfect environment as often as we would like, we still have a good chance of hooking them.

A selling point to peers is that it is actually less work to run projects if students take more responsibility for things like picking up and returning materials and a few student helpers set up and clean up the materials table.

I re-read the task and a lot of the site content last night, wondering if I had correctly understood the focus - is it the teachers or students we are trying to encourage to innovate? I have to conclude that the goal would be for the whole school community - students, families, and staff - to embrace it. I tend to think first of what I want to see in the classroom, then back up and ask what habits we need to develop in our interactions as adults that will allow us to foster this type of climate in our classrooms.

Photo of Jessica

The focus is for the school, classroom, and teacher, but I am always inspired by how teachers innovate with each other and how they innovate with their students.

Thanks for sharing what happens in your classroom--honestly, I think that the same routines work with teachers and students.