The Power of Process In Deeper Learning: A Case Study in Scaffolding

Key Points

  • Like Hillbrook students, the school is living its own undertaking, an entrepreneurial endeavor to launch a new high school with a deep extension of the SIL process rooted in the downtown community of San Jose. 

  • It’s reaffirming to see a school live these values of entrepreneurship and dream of shaping the future of education.

Image via Unrulr

I walked into an 8th-grade classroom engaged in introspection, reflection, and metacognition. Let me repeat myself, I walked into a classroom engaged in introspection, reflection, and metacognition. I don’t need to tell you how rare that is in a school setting. This classroom was filled with student inquiry, as learners reflected on the field trip they had done the week before on a community farm. They were pouring through multimedia evidence of the experience, tagging their competencies, and sharing with their peers using the learning tool Unrulr. Teachers were actually giving students time and space to think about their experiences, growth in skills, and how they formed new understandings of the world around them. In this classroom, inquiry and learner agency reigned supreme.

Here in the 8th grade Social Impact + Leadership (SIL) Program at Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, California, I am witnessing a different form of entrepreneurship curriculum and programming. Here, process and scaffolding are celebrated and not rushed. Here, learners are given the vital time to grapple with and share out what they’re learning, what resonates with them, and how they are growing as young social entrepreneurs. My takeaway? When designing and implementing social entrepreneurship programs in middle school and high schools, learners must not be rushed to “solution mode” too quickly. They need the proper grounding in understanding the landscape and market they are creating/iterating in. And they need to have an understanding of the technical skills, content, and ethos required to build products, services, and policies that help the world around them. We, as educational communities, need to enshrine the process and make it just as important as the products our learners create in entrepreneurship and deeper learning programs.

I’m a big believer in product-based learning. Learning communities where the products students create become the focal point of the curriculum and structure of classes and programs. This allows for classrooms to be rooted in the passions, interests, backgrounds, and growing capacities of its learners. These products become the conduit between learners and external subject matter experts that act as consultants and mentors. I became such a believer in the power of product (cue up an image of the ring of power from Lord of the Rings) that I lost sight of the importance of process. I was guilty, time and time again, of over-focussing on the product and not ensuring that there is enough time (the ultimate currency in schools), rubrics, or final presentations focussed on process.

This image documents faculty preparation and PD. The culture is being created!”

What I am witnessing at Hillbrook is a hyper-focus on process and the results are remarkable. Hillbrook was put on my radar by its deep commitment to social entrepreneurship education. In 2017 the school launched the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship, which in turn helps to run their 8th grade SIL program, a culminating capstone experience. Annie Makela, the Founding Director of the Scott Center, describes SIL as rooted in, “this intersection of joy and activism, students taking risks, being curious about not only things impacting them individually but what’s going on and impacting the world.” You can see why I am spending so much time here! This year SIL built a process-oriented first-semester structure:

  • Content area exposure
  • Experiential learning field trips
  • Relevant and purposeful technical skills

Content Area Exposure

Laying the groundwork for understanding the landscape of Social Entrepreneurship, 8th grade SIL teachers divided students into four topic area groups: Indigenous Issues, Farm Workers’ Rights, Art and Activism, and Equity and Sports. Eden Maisel, SIL Teacher and Secondary School Counselor reflects, “Before we chose those topic focuses in the spring, we as the 8th grade team brainstormed which content 8th graders would connect with, what matters to them, and what they haven’t been exposed to.” The 8th-grade team of SIL teachers also chose these topics based on their own personal passions, interests, and expertise, in turn modeling deeper learning to their students.

This classroom was filled with student inquiry, as learners reflected on the field trip they had done the week before on a community farm.

Aaron Schorn

Experiential Learning Field Trips

Students then went on field trips across the Bay Area to meet and connect with social entrepreneurs who are creating impact in their communities. They visited an employee-owned farm, city murals, a printmaking business, an indigenous food collective, and more. Each trip connected to the four topic areas, giving students examples of social entrepreneurs solving meaningful problems. Program and Research Lead, Dr. Vanessa Fernandez, reflects, “Students are experiencing our definition of social entrepreneurship, meeting possible mentors and adults who are demystifying process and product. We want them to explore, and see what is possible, and we want that to be local.”

Now here is where it gets awesome. Students were documenting (via multimedia and writing) while out on these trips, and doing retrospectives on the experiences when they returned to campus. They were capturing their process! Each following SIL class was a recap and retrospective of the last field trip, students were given time to reflect on their learning and the impact it had on them. When the last field trip was completed, they looked at the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) and where they fit into the experiences they just had. Students rounded out this time period by finding further social entrepreneurship case studies; organizations like Tech For Good, Goodr, and Microbyre. They now had a nuanced understanding of the field and hopefully a greater sense of belonging and confidence as young social entrepreneurs.

Relevant and Purposeful Technical Skills

Over two weeks students went through a technical skills rotation, priming them for the next semester when they dive into their independent projects. In Maisel’s words, “This experience is born out of a need to train students on the different modalities (tools and materials that you can use to do your social impact work) before they have to commit to something without having done it before. This is about getting your feet wet, your hands dirty, gaining some exposure. Even if students don’t produce anything, it’s super valuable as they are getting a taste of creating in these modalities. It’s that ripping off the band-aid moment.”

These were class periods taught by other teachers across Hillbrook’s middle school. The areas of focus were: Podcasting and interviewing, Finance, Building and Making, Artistic Expression, and Videography. Maisel reflects, “Time constraints force us to build these skills into the whole middle school curriculum.” Hillbrook pulled from its curricular strengths as a school and introduced a new set of mentors and advisors to SIL students. Partnering with Hillbrook’s Director of Teaching and Learning, Ilsa Dohmen, SIL collaborates with middle school teachers across the core disciplines. The English department provides space every Wednesday morning for students to do journal reflections based on their SIL experiences. SIL is now baked into the whole student experience, it is not just a culminating project, but provides a real-world space where the skills of different classes can be demonstrated, iterated on, and shared with the world. The essay writing that they are learning is integrated into what they are doing and being challenged on in SIL, how they connect to the UN SDGS (what matters to me, what they care about). SIL connects their classes. Everything feels even more relevant!

Some Final Tips and Tricks

1. Understand your landscape, limitations and personnel. Hillbrook reinforced that when building process-oriented deeper learning programs schools must first work within the constraints of their schedule structure to define what is possible in that time limit, and determine how many teachers/admin can be involved in the program.

2. Have a lexicon, competencies and goals you are shooting for. Marinate in these things, don’t jump to your project before co-creating resonance and definitions with your students. Experiential learning is crucial here.

3. Have students document their process. Build in time for student reflection, retrospectives, and personal growth

4. Off campus field trips or video calls with community stakeholders can become personal case studies of social entrepreneurship. These entrepreneurs can also become mentors and consultants for student projects.

5. Fall in love with the problem space, not the solution.

6. Integrate your program into the tapestry of your school. Partner with departments, scaffold technical skills and content knowledge.

A Look Forward

The word “Entrepreneur” is derived from the French word “entreprendre”, which means “to undertake. Hillbrook SIL 8th graders are now moving from project ideation, to ongoing research, to product iteration. They are undertaking the mighty task of connecting their passions, interests, and “dawning capacities” to action and problem-solving. I cannot wait to watch how their process unfolds. In the first semester they planted the seeds and now they are watching them emerge from the earth searching for sunlight, water, and visibility.

Like Hillbrook students, the school is living its own undertaking, an entrepreneurial endeavor to launch a new high school with a deep extension of the SIL process rooted in the downtown community of San Jose. It’s reaffirming to see a school live these values of entrepreneurship and dream of shaping the future of education.

Aaron Schorn

Aaron Schorn

Aaron Schorn is the Head of Growth and Community at Unrulr, Program Director at the Nalukai Foundation, and former K-12 Capstone Coordinator at Hawai’i Preparatory Academy. Follow him on Twitter: @aaronschorn.

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