Cultivating innovation

Regular readers of my blog know that I’ve been doing an open-ended, problem-based assignment with my students this semester.  At the start of the semester, I laid out an instructional design plan utilizing the ADDIE model that would help guide my students’ work.  As the semester comes to end, we’re entering the final phase of the ADDIE process:  evaluation.  While I wait to hear from my students regarding their assessment of the effectiveness of the instructional materials they created for a local school district, I thought I’d take a few minutes to reflect on what I’ve learned through this process.  As I described in a blog post a few weeks ago, learning can be messy.  This is especially true when we open our students to authentic problems that don’t have clear solutions.  If you’re entering into a problem-based assignment with your students, here are a few lessons I’ve learned that might help you navigate the rough waters ahead and cultivate an environment of innovation in your classroom.

1.  Be patient.  Innovation and learning can take time.  If you give your students an open-ended assignment, there will be times when it seems like students are going down a wrong path or doing something unproductive.  Wait it out and let situations develop.  While I definitely tried to facilitate students’ development throughout the project, I also realized that students needed to learn some lessons on their own.  I patiently allowed some situations to play out so students could benefit from their experiences and learn from their pitfalls.  Their work was stronger and more creative after they had navigated some setbacks and some moments of failure.

2.  Help identify the problems and involve your students in solving them.  The last week of our class has been pretty hectic.  Even though we had reached the end of the project, we encountered a major problem that initially seemed like an insurmountable hurdle.  While I started out trying to solve the problem myself, I realized that my students needed to play a role in crafting the solution.  They needed to see that even the best laid plans often go astray.  They needed to experience the stress that I felt and help me figure out a workable solution.  I walked into class, outlined the situation and had the groups generate solutions.

3.  Trust your students.  The vast majority of my students this semester embraced the process and its messiness.  At the start of the project, I outlined my motivations and explained that I couldn’t predict what would happen.  Even if the assignment was a complete failure, I said, the process would be educational and we’d all learn a lot from the assignment. I realized that I shouldn’t have been so pessimistic.  The students bought into the project and really impressed me.  Trusting my students more would have definitely saved me some sleepless nights.

4.  Model risk-taking and celebrate it when you see it. This entire project was a huge risk for me.  I was working with a local school district and I secretly worried whether my students could live up to the challenge.  In class, I explained to my students the risks involved with the assignment and how important it was as a learner to take risks and learn from the process.  As their instructor, I wanted to demonstrate that I was still embracing risk-taking and learning from the process.  As students took risks in class, I celebrated their work even if they failed.  This helped to show that while I was interested in the outcomes of their labors, I was more concerned with students learning from the process.


2 thoughts on “Cultivating innovation

  1. I think combining problem based learning with collaborative learning is a great challenge – both are messy on their own; together the level of ambiguity and frustration can be overwhelming. And yet this combination offers some of the most intense and lasting learning opportunities students will ever encounter. I’ve learned that helping students develop group skills is often just as important as helping them develop problems solving and critical thinking skills. Providing them with a simple model of group development (e.g., Tuckman’s classic (1055), forming-storming-norming-(then) performing) can be helpful. It is also important to assess and provide feedback on the group process itself. Surveying individual group members concerning their own experience and perspectives on the group and its activities can provide invaluable insights. My point is that students have many of the same tendencies we do: they tend to focus intently (and sometimes obsessively) on “the problem” and “the process” and ignore the social context in which both are situated. We need to be intentional about increasing their awareness. Best wishes for continuing success in your important and innovative work. Cheers, dave

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