“We have a long history of not building walls.” I guess once host Kim Saxe, Director of Innovation at Nueva School told me that, I could have just driven to the airport, satisfied with a key lesson for the day. But of course I did not, and was privileged to spend a couple of hours at a school that has integrated student-directed, cross-disciplinary, open-ended inquiry into its program for many years.
Nueva is currently a K-9 independent school, founded in the hills south of San Francisco in 1967. They have just opened a high school near the shores of The Bay, which, when full through 12th grade will add 400-600 students to the school. Kim admits that at its founding it was a “hippie school” with multi-grade classes and fluid movement of students and teachers. I don’t know when the building with a sod roof was built, but it fits into the hillside as a testament to a long-standing testament to environmental sustainability.
My visit was focused on Nueva’s famous I-Lab, a destination of many educators who participate in Nueva’s summer workshops and always sold out bi-annual conference. They get 20-25 visitors a month for tours of the I-Lab, so I was honored to get extended time, chats with a number of the faculty and students, and a spur of the moment visit with Head of School Diane Rosenberg and other administrators.
The I-Lab is designed to engage all members of the Nueva community-from kindergartners to administrators and parents. We felt that each group should feel at home in the space and all members of the Nueva community should feel free to adapt and reconfigure the space to fit their needs.
Outside of the lab I interrupted three 9th grade girls working on a project they had created that “allows stress to be your friend”. After seeing an inspiring TED talk, they decided to create a lesson plan on managing stress for teens that they can give to other schools. The project is part of Kim’s required freshman class “Science and Design Engineering”; Nueva student also take courses like “Science of the Mind” and perform year-long “Quest” projects that allow them to pursue areas of personal passion either alone or in groups. I asked the 9th grade girls what traditional subject studies they might be sacrificing in order to make room in a high school schedule for these projects and collaborations; all they could come up with was the lack of mandatory on-campus PE.
All students at Nueva from grades 2-9 spend time in the I-Lab every week. The obvious artifacts of creative design are there: materials, supplies, tools, and a healthy mess of projects in various stages of construction. An outsider was giving a short workshop on how to think about re-designing a toothbrush. Prototype birdhouses and wind machines sat on shelves and took up floor space. But this is not just an updated version of a woodshop or even a makerspace. Some students, like the girls I met outside, worked on projects of the mind, not of “things”, and this work is every bit a part of the creative mindset that percolates at Nueva.
The I-Lab faculty includes a computer scientist, a robotocist, and two mechanical engineers (one was a graduate of my ex-school, Francis Parker School in San Diego; I was so honored that his brother, who was in my third cohort of The Falconer, still cites the lessons he learned in that seminar more thana decade ago!). Students spend 1-2 hours a week in the I-Lab; some come in for free time during lunch as well.
Most importantly, the skills that the students develop in the I-Lab have completely percolated through the rest of the school. As I interviewed students and faculty I kept asking this question: “How does this design innovation approach manifest in your other work?”, and I got consistent answers. Teachers throughout the school have adopted a more creative, open-ended approach to their classes, and in their own work. Students as young as 1st grade understand the roles of design, prototyping, and observation in everything from writing to science. Teachers have rebuilt engaging curriculum around their own passions, and that allow students to design, not just consume, projects and learning. Kim said that they do not get hung up on the language of design thinking or any other strict method of developing creative thinking. “We are not proscriptive. There is no cookbook. I think of this kind of learning like a martial arts: it is a constant flow of ‘doing’ and then getting mentally back to the basic balanced position, ready for the next action.”
I asked how they have successfully developed this mindset throughout the school:
- Developing trust between students and teachers in order to nimbly negotiate a highly individualized learning path.
- Developing real curiosity amongst the students. (As a private school they are able to admit students based in part on their predilection or demonstration of curiosity, so this is an area that needs real further work when we deal with a more typical student population.)
- A hands-on culture of experience and investigation that cuts across all grade levels and disciplines.
- Creating deep understanding of the needs of others through shadowing and developing the skills of empathy.
- Incorporation of generative questioning and thinking routines, reflection, and methods to get “unstuck”.
- Routinely seeking negative feedback
I met students working on the most amazing array of projects from a belt that uses brain neuroplasticity that might help dementia patients to origami that lights up. It is easy to focus on brilliant kids being given reign to pursue their passions, to find the next Jack Andraka in every cohort of students. But my key takeaway from Nueva is that the students very naturally adapt and convert the skills of a design-focused creative workshop to a math, science or writing class. They leverage their natural intuition, metacognition, and freedom of mind to truly develop the tools and mindset of “self-evolving learner” that I think must be our goal for this, or any generation.