Author - Brandon Sanchez

Teaching Students to Innovate with Purpose

students working

“Is it going to be on the test?”

“How many points is this worth?”

Earlier this school year, my students asked questions like these whenever I introduced a new assignment and, needless to say, it was exasperating. At the same time, they were adjusting to having their own Chromebooks as part of the school’s brand new 1-to-1 digital learning initiative, part of a larger effort to equip students with 21st-century skills and shift toward a project-based learning environment.

The influx of new technology combined with a refreshed approach to teaching and learning was both exciting and frustrating. I was excited that students could easily access the information they needed, but on the other hand, it was disheartening to hear students continue to ask surface-level questions, many of which could easily be answered by a quick web search. I knew I needed to bring in relevance and purpose to get them to engage, but I was struggling to figure out how to do it.

I was starting to wonder if the problem stemmed from them or me, and I came to the conclusion it was a combination of the two: our students had been shaped by the No Child Left Behind era and had become accustomed to direct instruction and teaching to the test, rather than critical thinking and collaborative projects based on real-world contexts. But now we wanted them to be able to tackle more complex challenges and use powerful new tools. The problem was, we were asking all that from students who hadn’t yet developed problem-solving skills.

A new focus for the AVID program

When EdgeMakers came to our district and pitched its innovation curriculum to us, I jumped at the opportunity to try something new that might address the issue I was facing. I decided to implement EdgeMakers’ foundational Innovative Thinking course in my 10th grade AVID class.

The AVID program plays an important role at El Capitan, where 74% of students come from economically disadvantaged households. Students in the AVID program are typically those who are considering going to college but need some extra motivation or strategies to get there. In many cases, these students are the first generation in their family to pursue higher education; in other cases, they may not have a strong support network outside of school.

Implementing the curriculum in the context of AVID was a natural fit because EdgeMakers emphasizes the college-readiness skills and mindset that would serve them well, not only in higher ed, but also in their careers to follow. 

Creating a Safe Learning Zone

The first theme of the curriculum is Creativity, and the first objective is for students to set their own guidelines and expectations to establish a safe classroom environment—one where they felt comfortable taking risks. Students immediately became more engaged than they traditionally did when I used standard beginning-of-the-year icebreaker activities!

They also engaged in various brainstorming exercises to define creativity and outline the creative process. Soon after, they embarked on their first challenge: to identify something people don’t typically like to do and find ways to motivate them to do it. They came up with ideas to inspire students to get to class on time or ways teachers could make their lessons more engaging.

Through this activity, students were able to see that there was no such thing as a bad idea. My English language learner (ELL) students, who were normally reserved and shy about taking risks, jumped into the discussion to share their ideas. There was a real energy in the room, as students all vied to come up with the most creative responses.

Designing with Purpose

Later, when we explored the theme of Design, I was able to see how the Innovative Thinking curriculum could be applied across disciplines. We provide students with a framework to both define and solve problems, and it can be applied to anything students encounter in their education, in their community or at work. It also emphasizes learning by doing—to learn design thinking, students first had to identify a problem on campus or in the community and then design with purpose to solve that problem.

Once students identified problems they wanted to tackle, they were off and running, collaborating in a way I have always envisioned, using whiteboards to brainstorm and Chromebooks to research—all while having animated group discussions.

As I walked around the class, I was amazed at the problems students chose to tackle and the proposed solutions they were developing.  Here are some examples:

Problem: Students at El Cap don’t feel a sense of community with their peers at other high schools in Merced.

Solution: Organize and plan a music festival to bring them together.

Problem: Teens spend too much time idealizing bad celebrity role models.

Solution: Redirect their attention by highlighting positive role models around the community via social media.

Problem: Students are often late to class due to climbing up and down stairs in the school’s two adjacent buildings.

Solution: Advocate for a pedestrian bridge to connect the second stories of each building.

Problem: Teachers often present boring lessons, and classes can be derailed by disruptive behavior.

Solution: Solicit feedback from students about both issues, organize it and present it to teachers to help them run successful classrooms.

As part of the process, students gathered as much information as possible so they could develop a pitch that included several key elements:

  • Their research on their issue
  • Messages that would resonate with their target audience
  • Their efforts to create a prototype
  • An evaluation of their results
  • Ideas to improve upon their plan

It wasn’t always easy. Students encountered many obstacles along the way, but they learned to navigate those challenges and regroup when their initial ideas didn’t work.

Gone were the days of students asking me, “Will this be on the test?” or “How many points is this worth?” Instead, they were asking asking me for feedback on their ideas with questions like these:

“What do you think about having our music festival in the Spring in the back of the school?”

“Do you think that we could get money from community members through sponsors?”

This problem-based approach with an emphasis on collaboration was something I had read about and discussed previously, but until that point, I had no idea what it actually looked like in practice. It was liberating and promising to see students taking ownership of their learning.

Innovating to Effect Change

In their evaluation of the curriculum, it was clear students felt this had been a transformative experience. Many students said that EdgeMakers provided them with the fundamental steps to solve any problem — something they said they had not yet learned in school. In the process, they had developed a different, more innovative mindset, one that created a bridge from the type of instruction they had previously experienced to student-centered learning.

It was a game-changer for me, as well. It allowed me to maintain my focus on academic rigor, while bringing new excitement and creativity to the classroom. I had the opportunity to see how innovative and capable my students were, once they were provided with a framework for innovation and given a chance to apply it to issues that mattered to them. They were learning to activate their capacity to create, design, innovate, and, ultimately, effect change. That, to me, is what education should be about.

Brandon Sanchez BioBrandon Sanchez teaches social studies as part of the AVID program at El Capitan High School in Merced, California. EdgeMakers courses were recently approved as credit-bearing electives in both California and Texas. For more information, visit EdgeMakers.com and connect with Brandon on Twitter @coachbsanchez.