InnovateK12 is a national cohort of innovative schools that was started inside Minnetonka Schools in Minnesota. Most of the districts participating in that cutting-edge program are creating design challenges with their staff. Potentially, InnovateK12 gives voice to teachers and certified staff such as maintenance, paraprofessionals, food service workers, and bus garage employees. In a nutshell, participants submit ideas for school improvement to an online platform. Participants then vote on those ideas. Whomever submitted the winning ideas go on to get help in the form of Human Centered Design workshops and – maybe most importantly – money to fund their ideas. It’s a remarkable system and Minnetonka Schools deserves high marks for finding ways to spin the InnovateK12 program out to a wider audience.
When this program became available to us at Mason High School and Mason City Schools, many adults thought it would be best to actually use this to run a student innovation event. We already have a teacher-focused innovation program called Catalyst. We were looking for more ways to build innovative thinking in our students.
We knew we wanted this to model what we believed about Personalized Learning. It turns out that turning this program over to students was the best possible move. Our students have rocked this program in ways we did not expect. Making this shift wasn’t easy.
So what did our student leaders do with this program?
They marketed it.
This stretched their media creation skills. Some studnets chose to work on a video. Others worked on logos, graphics, and flyers. They created social media accounts. What they designed, the media they chose, and the social platforms they used were totally up to them. Why would adults be the ones to tell students the type of media they need to use? They know best to what they and their peers will respond. Students found the communication challenges and promptly solved them.
They announced it.
Once again, why tell students how to communicate with students? We presented the problem – we need to personally announce this to our 3600 students. How do we do that? They decided to show a video and then run a pep rally/town hall in each of our hallways. Student ideas, student decisions.
They built it.
The InnovateK12 program uses a great piece of software that the cohort developed. Our student leaders, however, identified a problem. They were worried about students having ideas they couldn’t execute for a variety of reasons like current workload capacity and even having too many ideas. So, students from our HackClub created a supplemental platform that mimicked a wall of sticky notes. Have an idea? Post it! Need an idea? Pull one down off of the wall. They created a custom web page shown here to guide students through the process. Once again, students found the problem. Students solved the problem.
If kids owned so much, what were our roles as adults then?
We are still on a journey toward personalized in our district. Thus, our students have mostly had a pretty traditional experience with adults telling them how to present their learning and designing activities for them. These kids needed to be re-assured and enabled to own this process. That required us, as adults, to see ourselves as coaches instead of instructors.
I do have to mention, we weren’t the first to enable these kids by any stretch of the imagination. They have had some amazing experiences in their school. They have worked in Integrated Media classes, a HackClub. They lead clubs and the student body. Even so, it helps to just keep coaching them.
Feedback provider was a big part of our role as adults. We either had to provide feedback or find someone – like an expert – who could provide feedback. Modeling feedback – asking for it and giving it – is incredibly important in a personalized learning environment.
Our students still need someone monitoring their learning. Teachers have the experience in assessing student progress. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving tests. Rather, in this case, we monitored their progress toward goals through actionable steps. Is the video ready? Do we have a script? It was much more of a project-management role than an ensurer of knowledge.
We also had to monitor the student-body in this process. We had to provide a safety net for the freedom to present ideas. We have had some ideas submitted that one consider trolling or inappropriate. This is a learning experience for those kids. Adults have to provide the safety net to help those kids to learn from those failures.
Our student-body at-large is currently submitting and reviewing ideas. Are there goofy ones? People making fun of the process? Students using it as a platform to be more of the class clown than the idea champion? Sure! But that’s part of their growth – they’re still kids!. We work on keeping ideas appropriate and positive. The flood of positive ideas certainly outweigh the less productive ones.
Soon, we will begin voting on these ideas. We have no doubt the best will bubble to the top! These students will then get the support they need to help take their ideas into action.
So, why in the world we empower our students like this? There’s so much ambiguity! So many things can go wrong (but haven’t). We’re doing this because our studnets are facing a world after graduation where they will make decisions. They will identify problems and solve them. We must include experiences where they make those decisions in our schools. They cannot be called college or career ready without having this type of experience. It’s hard to capture on tests given to us by the state or CollegeBoard. We know, however, that turning this work over to students and shifting our roles as adults is simply the right thing to do.