In a season when we are making every effort to make sure all possible topics, scenarios, and equations of state assessments have been covered, we sometimes forget to teacher or encourage the middle school/high school (and sometimes elementary school) student’s innovative mindset. There are many strategies for incorporating innovation with our lesson plans, and that is extremely important, but today I want to talk about focusing on encouraging innovation and creativity without subject specific content as a background.

I believe that everyone has an innovative side. It is that trait that is triggered when we don’t have all of the ingredients we need for our favorite recipe, and we improvise by substituting one spice for another or we use cornmeal because we cant’ find the flour. We use innovation when the entry hall light bulb goes out and we realize that we don’t have any new bulbs to replace it with. In an instant, we mentally inventory which lamps in the house we don’t use very often, and then we place the burned out bulb in the lamp (you know you do it) and put the good bulb from the lamp into the hall light. We are an innovative species.

I love that in elementary, we allow student to be innovative by allowing them to create awesome works of art, really cool paper airplanes, groovy paper dolls, extraordinary play dough foods, and amazing telephones made from two cups and a piece of string. And if that isn’t enough, we allowed them to go outside and use their innovative minds to transform themselves into astronauts, cowboys, princesses, knights, pirates, and football heroes. Back then, they were allowed to tap into what Webster’s Dictionary defines as, “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods” …i.e. innovation. By being innovative, they rose above the many stresses of the world and designed an awesome reality that was unique and reflected their own personality and learning style. Why is then that we take that away as soon as they enter middle school?

Lately, I’ve been attempting to encourage that same creativity and innovation in my middle school students that used to be a major part of the learning experience back in elementary. I want to encourage innovation so that the students can tap into his or her innovative side and begin to design ideas, concepts, and solutions that will benefit them and others. Enter the Design Challenge.

Original Design Challenge Model

The Design Challenge is a simple way that I’ve found to encourage innovation in my students and get them used to thinking outside the box. The original process had me giving each student 3-4 different items and having them create something useful…either for himself/herself or for someone else. Notice I said, “something useful.” The students are not allowed to create a “piece of art.” I want them to design something that can be used to make life better. I want them to identify a problem and solve it…making a piece of art, although enlightening, does not solve a problem.

They were not given any form of instruction as to what to make. They were simply given supplies and encouraged to “create.” The ideas that came to fruition were awesome! Flowerpots, games, toy cars, dollhouses, birdhouses, automatic plant watering devices, and coasters were just some of what the students created (see examples below).

I would give each student items like red Solo cups, straws, rubber bands, pipe cleaners, string, and Popsicle sticks. Each student would get the same amount of the same exact items as every other student. A level playing field if you will.

Unfortunately, I’m a teacher…and as such, I have very little “extra” money to spend each month. Although these items are relatively inexpensive, keeping an inventory of all of these items proved to be costly and a dent to my personal budget.

So I modified the lesson just a bit. There is a word we teachers need to learn to embrace and employ…pivot. When we hit a wall, we need to pivot, change direction, and figure out how best to proceed to the intended goal. Pivot.

Now…if you (or your school) have the resources to purchase items for this task, I encourage you to do so…a full-fledged prototype of a design is awesome.

Newest Design Challenge Model

My pivot was innovative (see what I did there?). It’s not as hands on as the above-mentioned process, but it is just as effective at encouraging innovation, and the students seem to like it just as much. The new process has the same outcome: create something that is beneficial to society in some way, using only the few resources given.

How it works is simple, both in implementation and in preparation. Instead of giving the students actual items, I go online and find picture of whatever it is that I want to include today and include it on a PowerPoint (example below).
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Students can then design something that can be made using the items they see by either drawing with pencil and paper, or creating a word document and using the “shapes” option to draw their design. The designs and creations are awesome. Students are very clever and creative…don’t underestimate them.

As far as time, I usually take around 10 minutes. I give them 6-7 minutes to create, and 4-3(ish) minutes to present. Presentations can be done via gallery walk or by allowing students to stand up at their seat and explain their design. I try to get them all in, but sometimes that’s just not feasible because of time constraints or because not all renderings are “presentation quality.”

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The main thing is that students are allowed to freely create and explore their innovative selves. You may need to adjust the length of time to meet your classroom schedule, but the feedback I’ve received from students, and other teachers who have tried this strategy for incorporating innovation in the classroom, has been extremely positive.

For elementary, I encourage the paper and pencil method as they may not be as comfortable with using, or have access to, computers. For middle and high school students who have access to classroom computers, laptops or tablets, I suggest using some form of technology-based method…but paper and pencil is just as effective. Using shapes in Word is fun for the students (it’s like an educational form of doodling), but you can use Sketchpad online, which is free, or Photoshop if your students have access to such technology. In my classes, we use this as a form of virtual journaling. Students save the Word Documents and add notes that explain what they made, and how they made it (See Picture Below).

At the end of the day, any opportunity for students to explore their innovative side is a great thing. Students need to return to the days of yesteryear when designing and creating was huge part of who they were. We need to implement a little more playground and little less lecture hall in the classroom.

~ Mitch

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