- Give students the basics, but keep it short. Students will always need some basic knowledge to get some traction on their projects, but the amount of information that the entire class will need is probably less than you would expect. Chunk this general information into organized blocks of 5-10 minutes tops, and deliver these in a mini-lesson at the start of class. If you find that you need more time, ask yourself if they really need the information you are delivering. If they do, ask yourself if the project they are working on is indeed an authentic problem and not your own learning objective disguised as a problem that the students really own.
- Model great research skills. If I have done a good job with the project design, students will get the vast majority of the information they need from their own independent research. For this to work, however, I need to coach them in good research skills, and I sometimes invite the librarians in to help. This research, which often draws from internet message boards, programming language documentation, sample code, and Wikipedia, is a slightly different skillset than the research that students might do for a history research paper.
- Scaffold complex skills. Tools like Makey Makey, Little Bits, Scratch, Tickle, and Tynker make it easier than ever for novice students to create authentic products that solve real problems. If you teach CompSci or electronics and you aren’t familiar with any of these tools, stop reading right now and Google them. My personal favorite is an Arduino compatible board called the Light Blue Bean, which can be programmed from an iPad using the block-based language Tickle.
- Check for understanding always. In a classroom focused on highly individualized projects, it’s critical that the teacher monitor what students are struggling with. Optimal learning occurs when students struggle with a problem that they believe they can find the solution to. If they crossover into frustration and confusion, they are at risk of giving up. Teachers should keep careful track of what students know and what they need to learn in order to successfully complete their projects. Using strategies such as “fisttofive” or “thumbsup” to check the understanding of the entire group after a mini-lesson is also helpful.
- Favor found and recycled objects. In his TED talk, Daniel Pink talks about the connection between creativity and what is know as Functional Fixedness—or people’s tendency to see only a single use for an object. Requiring students to fashion electric switches out of clothes pins, or building a robot torso out of a soda bottle, will help students to flex their creative muscles and think beyond the standard uses for everyday objects.
- Model mental inventory taking. Innovation and problem solving depends on having a great understanding of what you know and what you still need to learn. Build in components of your projects that require students to list the things they understand about their project and also to articulate as specifically as possible the things they still need to understand better.
- Whatever you do, don’t try to grade creativity and innovation. Grades work really well when there is a correct answer you want students to work toward. If you want them to own a problem and to produce a genuinely original solution to it, you cannot motivate that with a grade. In fact, when you assign a grade to something like creativity, students will often perform for the grade and not for the best possible solution. Thus, a grade for creativity, will often become an unintended disincentive.
Innovation isn’t a standard that you can teach to directly and then test for. Innovation is more like a habit of mind that is fostered through consistent attention to classroom culture and expectations. With practice, the eight guidelines above can help teachers cultivate such a culture in any classroom.
Trevor Shaw has worked as an ed-tech leader, speaker, writer, consultant, and classroom teacher for more than 20 years. He is the founder of the educational consulting firm, Genesis Learning and is currently the director of technology at the Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood, NJ. He can be reached at @gen_learn, and shawt at genlrn.com.