When people think of the future of learning, they envision AI headsets and virtual touchscreens that hover inches from students’ faces; global teams managed by students who interact half-way across the world in digital interfaces that translate content into their native tongue.

What images come to mind when you think about future learning? Is it half AI, half human? Comprised of virtual realities that exist simply by strapping on a headset or double-clicking a built-in earpiece?

For most of us, this kind of future is light years away. And as harmonious as it sounds (and as worthy it is of discussion today), it doesn’t really address the realities we deal with every day. Meanwhile, back in our classrooms, we need strategies to engage the struggling learner, and tools to empower students to take charge of and deepen their learning.

That may or may not involve high-powered tech.

Webster’s defines innovation as “the introduction to something new;” or “to make changes.” Often, we don’t need unlimited funding or fancy high-tech toys to innovate. We just need to think differently. Here are five simple tech-free innovative learning experiences that will help you and your students think differently and improve learning.

Innovation #1: Going off the timetable to broaden student perspective and spur innovative thinking.

Schedules often confine innovation to 45-minute intervals, but that’s not how innovation actually works. In the real world, innovation happens at the intersection of a culture that prizes creativity and design thinking, and an informal conversation at a coffee shop or a unique response to challenges faced by the local community (either by businesses or by community members). Going off the timetable allows students to think in the same way.

Example 1: Design Challenge Day. Bring the students across classes together to address problems existing in the school. Perhaps it’s the lengthy cafeteria line or excessive food waste. Maybe it’s traffic that backs up for a mile because of one entry road. Agree upon the problem students will address and have students design solutions in mixed- grade level teams. Make interviews, surveys and research a required component of the process. At the end of the day, gather students together to present their solutions in a school-wide exhibition.

Example 2: Innovation Day. One day dedicated to innovation, where students drive the agenda. Students choose an innovation within a chosen field of interest-ranging from Rube Goldberg machine to fusion meals. Organize teachers to offer student support according to their own passion and expertise. On innovation day, students have one full day to create a prototype. At the end of the day, they exhibit their work in various rooms spread across school.

Innovation #2: Creating Flexible Space Design Challenges.

How ‘innovation-friendly’ is your classroom? Were students involved in its initial design? Sometimes a shift in furniture coupled with a reorganization of space opens up possibilities for more creative thinking and deeper engagement. Here are a couple of innovations you can explore along these lines:

Example 1: Classroom Re-Design. Divide students into various design teams. Present each team with the challenge of full class “make-over” or group them according to their interest. Distribute markers, flip chart paper, and/ or whiteboard space and have students begin envisioning their design. At the end of the allotted time have students present to class their plan and how it’s most conducive to learning. The team that receives the most votes gets to implement their plan and involve the whole class in the makeover.

Example 2: Classroom Gardens. Turn your classroom into an urban growing space. Inform students that your class has been tasked with growing herbs for the local cafeteria/student-run store (see innovation #3). Provide students with a budget and space parameters. Students explore various growing systems and present their ideas to the class. After growing the herbs, package and sell them at the student-run store.

Innovation #3: Establishing Immersive Community Experience(s).

Learning and innovation do not have to be confined to the four walls of our schools/ classrooms. In fact, it’s generally the school walls that confine our abilities to think creatively. With a few local connections and a supportive administration, you can create immersive place-based learning experiences that impact the local community.

Example 1: Local Apprenticeships. Every month, in Yunnan, China thirty middle school students journey from their campus in Shanghai to live on a village micro-campus over 200 miles away. They take part in local apprenticeships, alongside master cheese makers and other craftsmen. They must communicate exclusively in Chinese and blog daily about their experience. While traveling 200 miles might not be feasible, consider what vacant space exists in your community to explore this idea. Reach out to your parent community to see if they might be willing to share a trade.

Example 2: Field Education. Most of us don’t have to look far to find a local estuary, wetland or riverbed. When is the last time you visited these spaces with students? Immersing students in a central inquiry of preserving the local wildlife, or lowering the toxicity of their waterways will increase their engagement and get them designing innovative solutions to real problems. Teton Science Schools, for example, do a fabulous job of engaging student in these “place-based” experiences.

Innovation #4: Creating student-run school/ classroom stores businesses.

Nervous about taking students outside of school for a week? Start small and bring the real world inside of school by providing students with real adult roles and occupations.

Example 1: Student-run cafeteria/coffee shop. Who is in charge of lunch and snack at your school? More likely than not it’s an outside service provider. What if you tasked students with this responsibility? If you have open kitchen space, sign up for an available time and have students prepare their favorite treats. Likewise, you could run a coffee shop out of your classroom and task students with taking and delivering daily orders from teachers and administrative staff. Wellesley provides a great example of what that can look like in a college setting, but it’s definitely an option for K-12 as well (think One Stone).

Example 2: Student-run repair shops. One innovative school in Florida is giving students exposure to engineering through their inaugural student-run repair shop. Students bring in their damaged clothes, stuffed animals, toys, bags and electronics for their handyman peers to fix. If you have some vacant space at school, turn it into a kiosk and provide your students with the same opportunity. As students become more adept in the work, begin collecting a fee to go to other school expenses or to funnel back into the business. Some good ideas can be found here.

Example 3: Business Creation. Small business development exposes students to the kind of opportunities and challenges entrepreneurs face on a daily basis. Students must deal with uncertainty, shift products based on market demand, and decide on how to scale their businesses. Real World Scholars and Ed Corps are providing generous funding for classrooms to create their own products and student-run businesses in addition to a virtual marketplace with which to sell them. Students have made everything from soaps to fidget toys. Visit their website to find out how to get your classroom started.

Innovation #5: Establishing Student-Owned Time Periods.

In the real world, innovation often happens when people are ‘off the clock.’ The premise is simple: When companies provide employees with flexible time, they feel a greater sense of ownership in their work, and in turn produce better outcomes.

Example: 20% Time/ Genius Hour. When Google desired to increase creativity and ownership, it allocated 20% of the day to its employees to engage in an activity of their choice, provided it somehow benefited the company. Breakthroughs such as Gmail and AdSense were a direct result of this new “free time.” Schools have followed suit with programs such as “genius hours.” As part of genius hours, students have created handcrafts, take apart and rebuilt computers, and produced professional documentaries to post to youtube. To gain the most out of this 20% time in your own classroom, ensure you also allocate time to meet with students to check- in, set goals, and present their progress. One great example can be found in this YouTube video, with another coming out of one of Getting Smart’s recent school visits.

The Call to Action

Innovation doesn’t automatically happen by introducing a 1-1 laptop program or putting a 3-D printer in the corner of a classroom. It starts with us changing our approach to teaching and learning.

And while we have provided you with several examples, it’s up to you to take action. Pick one of the ideas above and explore what that might look like in your context. Think about how you structure student time and create more flexibility. Think about how you organize space, and create more student-friendly design. And, perhaps most importantly, think about how you organize learning, and make it more student-owned, fluid and reflective of real-world pursuits.

Finally, don’t go at innovation alone. Start working on engaging with a Professional Learning Network, and check out these 100 education hashtags worth checking out and following.

For more, see:


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