By Tedd Wakeman, Co-Founder and Director, the Sycamore School (CA)
As trends continue toward “rigorous,” standards-based educational practice, those of us on the front lines of reimagining education continue to explore the power and efficacy of developing competencies, mindsets, and essential skills. It’s a pursuit that requires a new process for decision-making that honors student engagement and agency while staying true to the educational outcomes you aim to achieve. It’s a pursuit that requires risk-taking and the belief that relevant experiences for students provide the most powerful learning opportunities.
Student-generated ideas and “fly by night fads” can be incredibly disruptive to an educational system. Kids can be bad at thinking about unintended consequences, taking multiple perspectives, and thinking deeply about the broader impact of their ideas. As for the school, these pursuits are traditionally viewed as non-essential and fall outside the walls built to protect prescribed learning time. “They can design that skate ramp on their own time. School is for serious learning!”
While it’s fair for educators and school leadership to take these challenges into consideration, the typical solution for disruptive thinking is to simply shut things down, often without question. This has been the answer to wild and wooly student innovation for decades and usually goes without protest from educators and parents. Enthusiastic students, on the other hand, find disappointment and disillusionment as a result.
The issue seems to be that interest-inspired ideas from students involve some tricky navigation for adults. However, they also present incredible opportunities for relevant and engaged learning. They are the perfect arena for students to develop the essential competencies of communication, collaboration, observation, critical thinking, and problem solving.
Let’s look at an example:
Realizing her fellow classmates had taken a real liking to “slime,” one young student recognized an opportunity. She’d been wanting to save money for an expensive iWatch and began making, packaging, and selling her own slime varieties at school. For a while, it went smoothly, and we heard nothing from educators, parents, or students except for how cool it was that this kid had shown such initiative. However, calm waters led to stormy seas and eventually the concerns began to rain down. “We want to have a business too!” said other students. “Why is my child asking me for money to take to school?” said the parents.
And here’s where it happens; that moment when administration is faced with what appears to be a very easy decision to SHUT IT DOWN! We often become entangled in community concerns around activities we view as being outside the boundaries of “rigorous academic learning.” We then take the stance that these activities are becoming disruptive and we simply end them. We tell ourselves that this allows busy educators and administrators to continue to focus on the “serious” work of educating kids.
The problem with this approach lies in what’s being lost. Student interest, ownership, creativity, and initiative are all on the line in these moments. These are a part of the very competencies we value and wish to generate in our students. We cannot consistently sweep them under the table because they cause some disruption and force us to take on extra responsibility. This is especially true if we plan on asking students to go out into the world and use these competencies as strengths in forging a pathway forward for themselves and their communities… and we will definitely ask them to do that.
So, what did we do? First, we all sort of agreed to shut down any and all student-run businesses on campus. That’s the easy decision and was honestly our first instinct. But it didn’t sit right. It couldn’t be that easy. We began to check ourselves and started asking critical questions. “Is this good for kids?” Is this decision in line with our core values and philosophical beliefs about education? What message does this send to our community about these values?” The answers to these questions were troubling. It was getting harder for us to follow through on shutting things down.
We reflected upon examples where sticking to our instincts had served us well, like a few years ago, when fidget spinners took over the elementary world and schools across the country were banning them from their campuses. Rather than banning them, we decided to embrace them. We bought a bunch of ball bearings, made acute observations about the essential aspects of fidget spinners, and allowed our students the chance to design and build them. We seized a valuable opportunity for students to engage. We refused to do the easy thing because the alternative, while more involved, was better for students and more laser-focused on the competencies we value.
We quickly realized that the right choice in this situation was to stand up for these businesses. We believed a wealth of positive outcomes would surface. So we shifted into problem-solving mode. If we weren’t going to eliminate businesses, how were we going to manage the parent concerns and potential disruptions while extracting the invaluable lessons waiting to be learned by our students? After much discussion, we arrived at the idea of requiring all interested parties to apply for a business license. We laid down some ground rules. Students would need to write proposals and apply through the newly formed “Sycamore Business Licensing Office.” They would need to include the name of the business, employees and roles, salary descriptions, proof of a ledger, and a sample of their product. We determined that all products needed to be homemade, not merely resold. We typed it all up on official letterhead and made a presentation to the student body. It was met with an incredible amount of excitement.
We received five proposals the very next day.
After declining some proposals for insufficient information, the Shaggy Critter Co. was the first organization to receive a Sycamore School Business License and began its operation on campus. The response from parents was enthusiastic and validating. This bit of effort on our part to go beyond our initial instinct and open our minds to something potentially sticky — was paying off. Student discussion around the challenges of starting a business was rich and productive. Learning became evident as we received feedback from the groups.
The Shaggy Critter Co. reported, “We decided that everyone has to pay up front for their orders because of several orders being cancelled upon delivery, which cost us around 13 hours of work.” Not sure a forced discussion about this concept would have had any impact. The authentic nature of its ascent is what made it powerful for kids. Down the road, more issues arose. How do we manage employee behavior, deal with dissatisfied customers, and navigate a small market with new product ideas? The learning seemed endless.
The bottom line is that encouraging student engagement means betting on them from time-to-time. We understand that pursuing these moments can create extra work and possible stress, but the learning that arises is profound and well-worth the effort. “Managing” students and parents in a school setting is certainly a full-time job. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun and interesting. Find places to say “yes,” and create opportunities to validate those things in which students show interest.
These are the principles we embrace here at The Sycamore School. We are dedicated to leadership decision making that values student input and keeps us honest about our mission. Our goal is to continue to have an impact on reimagining education through the development of growth mindsets and the pursuit of skills/competencies for both students and educators.