George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Four Innovators Challenge an Innovative Educator

June 22, 2015 Updated June 20, 2015

I’ve always tried to be an innovative educator. Long before laptops, the internet, or students with cell phones, I tried to make my teaching fresh, new, and different from whatever teaching looked like in the previous year or generation. My students needed to learn research skills in 1989? OK, let’s research the significance of the historical references in Billy Joel’s (then popular) song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” My students needed to learn how advertisers manipulate buyers with images and language? OK, I dubbed my students head of advertising for a fictitious paper clip company, responsible for creating ads that convince us to buy their not-very-exciting product.

As much fun as my students had with these assignments, my confidence in my “innovative” teaching methods has been shaken recently by some innovators who challenge us to consider the potential for innovation within our students. I couldn’t miss the common thread that I heard running through these stories:

  • Adam Braun, the founder and CEO of Pencils of Promise, asked a child in India, “If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?” The child said, “A pencil.” Coming face-to-face with the reality that education is not a guarantee for all children, Braun was inspired to start a nonprofit in an effort to make a dent in that global problem. Braun’s response to that child’s request for a pencil has led to the construction of 304 schools, over 31,000 students served, and more than 340,000 lives impacted in Ghana, Guatemala, Laos, and Nicaragua.

  • Dan Pallotta, inventor of the multi-day charitable event industry with the AIDS Rides and Breast Cancer 3-Days, says that “great innovation comes from great purpose - from a desire to move humanity forward, no matter what the industry or sector. Ultimately, great innovation comes from love.” It was Pallotta’s love for his friends, who were suffering and dying from AIDS, that motivated him to innovate the nonprofit sector: to dream big about how to inspire donors to do and give more than they ever imagined for causes like AIDS and cancer research.

  • Emily Pilloton, architect and founder of Project H, speaks on the “power of design and building to excite learning and citizenship.” Her Studio H classrooms look something like the woodshop classroom of my youth, but the challenges she gives her students are far more significant than the plant holder I built for my mom in junior high. Her first Studio H high school students designed and built a farmers’ market pavilion in Bertie County, SC, which which led to a Farmers’ Market Association, new jobs and a strengthened community for the students’ own town. Pilloton continues her Project H work in Berkeley, CA, where middle school students recently designed and built two tiny houses, one to donate to a transitional housing program and the other to auction off to fund the ongoing work of the Studio H program.

  • Kevin Brookhouser, teacher and Director of Technology at York School in Monterey, CA, challenges his high school students to a year-long project of their own choosing, one that not only teaches them, but also reaches a genuine audience beyond the classroom. Brookhouser says that true innovation comes from students when they have autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their work. But since most of their work is dictated by standards, textbooks, and teachers, students are rarely given the autonomy needed to find and solve problems on their own. Brookhouser says the 20% time concept (made popular by businesses like 3M and Google) not only inspires students because they are working on a project of their own choosing, but it provides the “student agency necessary to spark curiosity and drive innovation.”

So what is the common thread that has me rethinking my “innovative teaching”? It’s the passion behind the work. The courage to tackle something really big. The motivation, as Brookhouser says, to try to “solve wicked problems.” While my clever paper clip assignment may have engaged my kids for the duration of the lesson, their work didn’t have an audience outside the classroom, didn’t have a lasting impact, and didn’t extend to a real-life application of skills.

And this is my challenge this summer: figure out how to give my students opportunities to find problems that they are inspired to solve, as Adam Braun did when he was traveling in India; as Dan Pallotta did when he was grieving the tragedies of AIDS; as Emily Pilloton’s students did when they built structures that impacted their communities; as Kevin Brookhouser’s students did when they were given an entire year to pursue a personal interest and produce a genuine product for an authentic audience.

Have you found ways to engage your students in innovative, challenging and wicked-problem-solving learning? Please share below!

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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