By Steve Figurelli
“I think that maybe I can do something big, something to affect my community . . . maybe even the world.” —Joyce C., Age 11
Human beings are problem solvers. From the moment we enter the world, we relentlessly explore, inquire, and investigate our surroundings, attempting to make sense of it all. But look inside a majority of our classrooms today: students sit passively, they are talked at by teachers, and few see the value of what school offers. A bit doubtful? Check out the Twitter feed of a high school student. School leaves a good number of our children disinterested and disheartened.
As a new administrator, I’m driven to change that. I’m driven, as Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem wrote, to light a fire that won’t go out. I’m driven to work alongside teachers and students to rekindle that passion, that engagement, and that love of learning that inherently lies within all humans.
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) provide this opportunity. The NGSS require students to engage in science by discovering, analyzing, and designing. Therefore, one of the first initiatives I embarked on was to merge the process of engineering with students’ passion. I have long been a proponent of the Genius Hour movement, which promotes setting aside a dedicated time in the classroom to empower children to explore content that interests them. This inquiry-based approach is grounded in the engineering design process and I believe it presents the perfect opportunity to leverage a student’s talents and aspirations and infuse them into instruction.
By facilitating Genius Hour through the context of engineering, we have created a truly personalized learning environment for all children that focuses on process over product and capitalizes on Daniel Pink’s theory of motivation by providing students autonomy, opportunities for mastery, and a purpose larger than themselves. During Genius Hour, students get to identify a problem that is meaningful to them—for example, texting while driving, severe sports injuries, or combating poverty—and its local and global impact. They research causes of the problem and brainstorm potential solutions. To do so, they often connect with experts in the specific field they are investigating to learn more. Finally, students design prototypes of products that aim to solve the problem and change the world for the better.
And all along the way, students reflect on the learning process. They document successes, roadblocks, and new ideas as they systematically attempt to solve their problem. But even more than that, the teachers on my team model the power of this metacognitive process by also reflecting. Some teachers choose to reflect on a personal challenge they are confronting while others choose to reflect on how they facilitate the Genius Hour process.
Truthfully, I’m not sure how things are going to ultimately turn out . . . and I’m OK with that. As a teacher, we ask students to take risks in our classrooms every day and accept that learning is messy, that failure is ok, and that we will grow from our missteps. As an administrator, I ask the same of my teachers and expect the same of myself. Modeling the risk—the vulnerability—is very important to me. It’s what drives me to be better.
What I do know is that we have crafted an environment for students that not only fosters future-ready skills (creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration) but also places value on an inherent love of learning. We have asked children to apply the engineering design process in a transdisciplinary context that is authentic, meaningful, and completely student driven. In the end, the experience is personalized, open ended, and bigger than the four walls of the classroom. It’s a chance for students to see that their voice matters. It’s a chance for us to light the fire.
To close, I offer you a portion of another student’s reflection on being introduced to the project: “I can work on issues that I’m passionate about and solve underlying problems. I feel that this gives me a huge opportunity to make a difference and serve the community.” In that brief testimonial lies the true essence of what education is all about.