While private and charter schools may provide many of the flexible proving grounds for the brushfires of innovation, traditional public schools, which at least for now represent 90% of education in America, will be the field on which we succeed or fail.
So it was great to meet up via phone yesterday with teacher Don Wettrick of Franklin Community High School outside of Indianapolis. Don teaches media at Franklin, and a while back had a brainstorm: if we think the “Google 20% time” model makes sense, and want to provide students an opportunity to stretch in that modality, why not create time/space for them each day, one period out of their daily class schedule? (If you don’t know what Google 20% time means, goggle it!) What would that do for enhancing creativity, student-ownership of the learning space, and that all-critical key to learning, passion? Don pitched the idea to his principal, and this year kicked off the Innovations class.
I won’t even try to report on the waterfall of information that Don poured out over the phone, but here are the basics. Students in this year-long elective come up with their own ideas of projects to pursue, and then use social media to connect to resources outside of the school, in the community, the region, or anywhere in the world, to leverage meeting their project goals. One student is pursuing ideas related to autistic learning and iPads. Another is working on a blended fuel project. A third is now helping to negotiate contracts and installation of a solar system at the school. A few students are struggling to merge projects and passions, which of course one would expect in an authentic program.
The project has caught fire and attention. Dan Pink has Skyped in. Forbes has checked them out. Don received the Microsoft Innovator Educator award for Indiana, and has made connections in the tech world of Seattle and with at least one major marketing firm on the East Coast. He and the students are receiving proactive contacts from all over the world from people and businesses that want to help or want to tap into what the class is learning about the effective outreach through social media for launching these kinds of youth-driven projects.
I saw a number of similar projects at independent schools on my trip last fall, but I am really intrigued about this taking shape in a traditional public school. My big question: how does this class help meet “the standards”? His answer may be groundbreaking. As part of their project development, the students themselves figure out how their project will apply to standards, what credit they can achieve in math or social studies or art by researching the standards and designing the projects to meet them. Each is different, but the project does not go forward if it does not also meet some state standards for which they will receive credit. I think this approach is brilliant, and this alone makes the program exportable by definition. Standards may be different at a school in another state; let the students own the adjustments, but use the basic class approach of merging passion with student-led, externally focused project development.
Don is getting a lot of requests to speak on the project, and rightly so. This course is in its absolute infancy and they are going to experience some growing pains that I discussed with him. Can they offer it to all students? What about students who want to try but struggle to define a direction of passion? Will they teach the skills of design thinking and creativity to those who have had those skills removed from their DNA by 10+ years of sit-and-get education? How will this work in a low-resource school, or one that does not have a Don Wettrick ready to take it on today?
These are great questions, and they will be answered as this pilot explodes. But the big one, in my view, has been answered at Franklin, just like it has at other public schools: Townview Center in Dallas, Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, Albermarle County Schools in Virginia, Mapplewood Richmond Heights in St. Louis, Denver Green School, and Brecknock Elementary in Lancaster, PA. We can meet standards with engaged, authentic, student-centered, student-owned, passion-producing, bust-the-walls-of-school learning. It takes the idea, some courage, and good leadership.
Follow Don on Twitter at @DonWettrick or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And here is a YouTube video that was made of a radio interview Don gave about the course. It is a bit overly focused on the use of Twitter by the students to expand their social media footprints, but you get a sense of the new ground this course is plowing.