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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching
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A Radically Different Day at School

September 17, 2015

What would a radically different day at school look like? One with no books, tests or homework, just plenty of hands-on problem-solving? This question brought a team of TNTP staff to the Innovation Camp for Educators, a week-long mini-camp for teachers and educators interested in exploring a dramatically different approach to instruction. We wanted to build our understanding of what an alternative classroom environment could look and feel like—and we wanted to experience that as learners first. So we went to camp.

The Innovation Camp is run by NuVu, a small Cambridge school founded by MIT alumni that engages middle and high school students in rapid, hands-on design projects. Most students come to NuVu from local public, charter, and private schools, as well as home school communities. Some stay for a few months; others attend NuVu for several years. They are led by a team of architects, engineers, artists, computer scientists, and designers.

During our mini-camp, my team and two dozen teachers worked through a condensed version of the program for NuVu students and experienced a reinvented school day. In small groups, we tackled an open-ended design challenge: design a “body extension” (something that can be physically worn or used) that mitigates a social, mental, neurological, or physical condition.

The group brainstormed all kinds of “conditions,” ranging from the serious (a way for colorblind people to “see” colors) to the whimsical (ways to discourage texting while walking). Quickly, we sketched ideas and built prototypes. My partner and I settled on a futuristic iPhone fashion piece: a wearable headset for "hands free" conversations.

It’s no work of art, but at NuVu the process is as important as the end product. They believe in the idea that kids learn by doing, and our team learned quite a bit during our adventures in innovation. Here’s some of what resonated with us as learners:

Hands-on lessons stimulate creativity. Every two weeks, NuVu students complete a full design challenge, ranging from the practical (hack a wheelchair to better serve the user) to the conceptual (build your own sci-fi machine). With a studio full of high-tech tools at their disposal—like a 3D printer, a laser cutter, a wood working shop, and sophisticated software—students might program a circuit board, sew an elaborate outfit, make a short film, or engineer a piece of furniture in any given week.

This was a far cry from what many of us experienced in high school—and it got us reflecting on the role of creativity in classrooms. We all agreed that, somewhere along the way, “creativity” was pitted in opposition to skills, standards, and rigor. But what if we swapped out "creative" and focused on "creating"? What if we put students in the position of building, visioning, planning, and doing? Would that help unlock the entrepreneurial spirit of students who have the same innate talent as their privileged peers, but none of the access to experience and equipment?

In focusing on application, students may miss the theory. Since each project at NuVu is unique, each student covers different content. To build my headset, I needed to figure out how to make it fit my head (geometry), direct sound towards my ear (physics), and actually draft a 3D model (computer programming). This means I was undertaking a deep application of key math and science concepts, and developing ease and skill with technology at the same time.

But is that enough to actually learn core academic content? If I can use my 3D modeling program to figure out where the hat hits my head, do I also need to know how to find a tangent? While focusing on application first builds urgency, ideally, students could both describe the geometric concept and apply it in the real world. This is why it seemed to us that programs like NuVu might be an ideal experience for the junior year of high school, after students have already built a strong foundation of the fundamental academic concepts they will experiment with in the real world.

Learning means struggling—at least some of the time. NuVu's design challenges are fascinating—and frustrating. Like the students, we were new to their creative process and tools of the trade. We expected detailed instructions and encouragement. Instead, my coach showed me a few commands of a 3D modeling software and said he'd be back in an hour.

NuVu coaches have technical skills in spades—most hold advanced degrees from MIT—but no formal teacher training. They provide plenty of feedback but little guidance, giving students the space to struggle and solve problems. Like the students, we struggled. We built some things and broke others. But we stuck with it—and this was one of NuVu’s most valuable lessons. In our teacher coaching, we increasingly encourage educators to allow students to engage in productive struggle, and we felt the frustration that comes with it firsthand. But we also felt ownership, independence and pride, and left camp with a deeper appreciation for the power of perseverance and its role in learning.

So how will we bring the lessons of NuVu back to TNTP? As much as we'd love one, we're not going to own a laser cutter any time soon, nor are most of the schools we work in. But while NuVu isn't the future of school on its own, it has certainly pushed our thinking about the role of teachers, the structure of a school day, and the value of hands-on experiences that allow students to create, explore, and build. It’s also reminded us that for all of us who work “behind the scenes” in education, there are lessons to be learned by going back to school.

This post reflects the ideas of the entire TNTP design camp team: Vice President Dottie Smith (our fearless leader); Partner Ben Jackson; Project Director Jim Larson; and Senior Strategist Karla Oakley.