The way Bo Adams tells it, a couple of weeks ago they had a large group of visitors touring the iDiploma Hive at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School, meeting with one of the student cohorts who are working in teams on various self-selected, long-term design and development projects. A cell phone range and one of the students looked at her phone and apologetically said, “I am so sorry; I really have to take this; it’s my client, ATT”. Has that ever happened at your school with one of your students?
The Mt. Vernon iDiploma program is one of the most truly innovative steps in education I have seen after visiting and working with nearly 150 schools around the country and in several other countries. Many schools are now seeing the value of engaging their students more deeply and authentically with community partners, mostly as interns or in interest-based capstone projects. This is GREAT; a powerful and inevitable breaching of the artificial classroom and campus boundaries that have separated “school” and “world”.
iDiploma students have taken the next step; they are value-added collaborators with their community partners. These partners are, in fact, “clients” of the students. In addition to the group that was tasked by ATT to research, design, and develop a new app, one group has attracted the attention of Porsche; another designed a community park for the local parks and recreation department; a third is doing a study on how to reduce traffic in their neighborhood; and a fourth is working with the Atlanta-based non-profit Frazer Center to imagine uses for their 39 acres of forest land.
The multi-year program teaches the basics of user-centered design, and then allows students to live that skill set. Teachers are there to mentor the skills, and then to help students find their own pathways. In just one hour I overheard three groups of students asking lead teacher Meghan Cureton some version of “how should we…” In each case, Meghan responded with some version of “have you asked each other that question? Have you exhausted your own collaborative thinking and resources on that yet?”, before giving her own guidance.
Many of the 9th graders enter the program without a background in design-based thinking; they are learning on the fly. They are breaking old habits of “doing what the teacher tells us to do”. One student enthusiastically staked his claim as we walked by: “We are not a class; we are a start-up!” If that is what we want from our students, let’s start treating them as start-up entrepreneurs, not empty vessels we are trying to fill with our own wisdom.