As part of our relaunch of North Rowan High School, we created a hybrid course where Design Thinking, Design, and Challenge Based are integrated into a core course for students. This extraordinary creation was the ideation of several ideas and “failing forwards” of our principal. She initially sought to form a Health Science Academy as part of the school’s innovative relaunch. While we can always benefit from increased interests in Health Science by students, this idea was simply a recycled idea of what schools in our district had done but packaged differently. The principal described how the idea of a Health Science Academy literally fell apart in a 24-hour time span. In retrospect, it was one of the best things that ever could have happened. It brought out the best qualities of North Rowan High School and its students with one of them being resiliency. Resiliency is ubiquitous for the North Rowan experience. Due to the many challenging circumstances that our students and community have faced historically, they have developed the ability to circumvent obstacles and move forward.
Our administration could easily have just thrown their hands up when the Health Science Academy idea fell apart. It would have been understandable but not acceptable. Instead our staff dug down deep to find a better way. In doing so, they lived the experience of Design Thinking. By taking the time to clearly understand the needs of our students, our administrators demonstrated empathy. Further they took the time to clearly articulate and define the challenge that our students lack necessary skills for an ever-evolving world. While there are many skills and competencies that are needed, these “Master Designers” identified critical thinking, collaboration, communication, student agency, and creativity as the important focus areas.
After spending significant time ideating how students may best experience these core competencies, a model was created where all 9th and 10th graders would take a double course and that is where I enter the equation. As one of the four teachers charged with our “Design Challenge” course, I had to unlearn and relearn many things. One of the things that I am most amazed by is the transformation from a teacher-o-centric classroom where I, as the teacher, set up the classroom, dispense the information, manage what students learn, and assign “winners and losers.” By that, I mean I have to issue grades. Those who adapt to the teacher-o-centric are typically students who do school well and get good grades. Those who don’t adapt as well often find school less than empowering and earn lower grades. In our relaunch though, we eliminate many of the traditional ideas of school where we reward those who do school well and frustrate those who do not adapt to our model.
In our relaunch, we have created a learning experience where students are truly leading the way in what they are learning. In this “Student-O-Centric” model, my role has evolved into a true facilitator learner where I assist students in their learning while learning along with them. It has been a challenge to shift from the traditional paradigms I learned as a teacher into one where I am a facilitator of learning. It is also a model that has equity in that all students have an opportunity to be successful at a level appropriate for them. While some of our students may have deficits with various skills, we are able to meet them where they are, assist in building their capacity, and valuing their thoughts and creativity. It has been amazing to see the growth that many of our students have made over the course of a semester with this “new” way. I have seen students who would barely even acknowledge me create poems that they read proudly to middle schoolers. I have seen students work in groups to create remixed stories that add value to the original. Our students have created amazing programs and opportunities to combat poverty in our community. Our students have done all this while learning forward.
By creating a student-o-centric learning experience, we have been able to inspire many of our students to see that they can make a difference in this world and contribute in positive ways. We have been able to help students explore their passions and learn their strengths. In essence, we have created a classroom where students drive their learning much like Piaget described. It is extremely gratifying to see students creating their own knowledge. While we still make mistakes and a lot to learn, our work matters as it helps all students have the opportunity to be successful. I applaud our principal for being willing to fully embrace the Design Thinking mindset to create dynamic learning experiences that serve all students and celebrates their inherent gifts and creativity. What we have created for our students at North Rowan High School is so important and truly innovative.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.