Building Innovators | I wonder

Yesterday, we hosted a coffee for parents and students currently enrolled in Innovation Diploma. It was such a great morning to share the work our kids have been engaged in for the past few months, and it was an opportunity to talk with parents about the why and the how of what we do every day in iDiploma. We began the morning trying to define the word innovation and decided that while there are countless definitions, essentially all definitions include two common themes:

  1. a creative or new idea
  2. adds value

I think sometimes people confuse the idea of creativity with innovation.  While one is about developing great ideas, the other is about translating those ideas into action and creating value for an organization or a group of people. It can be a struggle at first to realize that just having a bunch of really cool ideas isn’t enough or that taking action on the ideas is an imperative for your idea to become an innovation. It also be difficult to realize that an idea you have might not add value to lives of others. These are all some of the early learnings of our iDiploma cohort members, which can be really tough lessons to learn.

The next question we worked through was “what skills do innovators need?” Some of the skills that came out of the conversations between the parents and the students were words like open-minded, flexible, collaborative, observer and empathic – those are complex skills. How do you actually teach someone to be open-minded? What experiences or exercises could we offer to help someone hone the skill of observation? How do you actually assess whether someone is growing their empathy muscles? These are questions we wrestle with as a teaching team and they are what drive the decisions we make every day.

I shared the Steven Johnson RSA video, which is one of my favorite videos, where he posits that innovation doesn’t just happen in the head of one person; innovation is a collection of ideas or “slow hunches” that sometimes don’t mean anything until you make the connections. This video is a strong example to show how over a three or four year period of time in iDiploma, our students engage in a lot of projects or as we call them, ventures, with a variety of teammates.  Each of the ideas, insights or prototypes they create are all parts of a bigger story. And the mixed cohort setting of grade 9 through grade 12 students working fluidly on these ventures is intentional. It is at the connection point between and within ventures and teams that there may be a new possibility or innovation  – it simply takes intentionality and keen observation to uncover it.

One of the comments that struck me as powerful was when one father talked about how important it is to not take everything at face value and to really question why things are the way they are – just because something has been done a certain way for an extended period of time doesn’t mean it’s right. And sometimes finding that opening of what could be different helps you crack an even greater problem. I loved hearing this comment because this is part of why I feel so compelled to lead the iDiploma program in a way that mirrors the real world rather than what school tends to look like.

My favorite part of the hour long session was when I turned it over to six iDiploma students to talk about their journeys. In such poised, convicted and compelling ways, these cohort members talked candidly about the struggles and successes of being part of and leading such a pioneering program. While we talked briefly about what each might say, I didn’t coach them because I wanted their stories to be their own. After the coffee, a handful of parents came up to me to share how impressed they were with these stories and with the speaking skills of each presenter. While this was not entirely new news to me (iDiploma members are notoriously praised for their ease with presentations), I’ll admit I was and still am proud.

The last two pieces of our morning session was a discussion around how we assess in the program – which I have written a great deal about in past blog posts – and , finally, we talked through the details to our upcoming work with Stanford’s d.school.

Anytime I have the opportunity to talk about iDiploma and why I believe in it so much as a valuable learning community for our students, I have the tendency to lose track of time. Just like this blog post, I can get wordy because it’s complex work that we do with these students. People understand that the world needs innovators. Most can agree our educational system needs an overhaul. And who wouldn’t agree to have students engage in real world problem solving? What that looks like in practice is what tends to stump people. I have had an incredible team of educational leaders and designers who, like me, feel energized and deeply responsible to be the ones to put this into practice. We believe that this generation of students absolutely deserves numerous opportunities to be changemakers now – and if that means questioning some deep-seated beliefs (including our own) about assessment, schedules, course structures, credit hours and disciplinary learning, well, we’re up for the challenge.

I’ve included both a letter I sent to parents in December as well as the slide deck from yesterday’s session.

Dear Innovation Diploma Families,

As we wrap up the first semester for the 2015-2016 school year, I would like to take a few moments to highlight some of the work we’ve been immersed in with Innovation Diploma and invite you to join us on Thursday, January 14 from8:00-9:00 a.m. for a casual coffee-talk with the facilitators of the program.


In keeping with the module structure we use to organize our learning, below is a snapshot of our journey over the past few months.


As a program intended to empower learners to make real world impact and create innovations, we spent some of our early months setting those conditions and habits. Through readings, talks, and Harkness style discussions, we delved deeply into what it means to be an innovator, establishing group norms through intentional teaming — within and across cohorts.


Through our design thinking module, we were able to tackle real-world community-based challenges stemming from student observations. These design challenges allowed all learners to begin putting their innovator skills to test. For our Jobs Cohort, who are newer to design thinking, they were able to learn the process of design thinking (in all its glorious messiness) and for the Disney Cohort, they were able to exercise their experience as design thinkers and practice their leadership skills through facilitating some of their team’s work.


One unique experience afforded to our Innovation Diploma students is the ability  to be part of the program team to develop and lead our Council on Innovation event, which took place in October. We spent a week and a half gearing up for that event, which put iD students alongside influential business leaders and community stakeholders, so that we can continue to blur the lines between school and the real world.


Currently, the 25 iD students have enrolled in one of four pathways based on their level of experience, interest and skill as innovators. Most of the Jobs members are involved in a Product Innovation Module where they are learning and using 3D CAD design to create prototypes, and they shared these prototypes with the entire cohort through a presentation. This module stretched them as designers, makers and communicators as they worked toward building a stronger understanding of the processes and pitfalls innovators must navigate. Most of our Disney cohort is partnering with S.J. Collins Enterprises on a design brief that has our students developing a piece of real estate in Chamblee, and is also a part of a large retail space with Whole Foods serving as the anchor store. Our client, Jeff Garrison, was here this past week to provide feedback and weigh in on some of the cohort’s early user insights and design inspirations. His feedback was both candid and encouraging, and ultimately provided the students a reminder of how their work is impacting the community of Chamblee, which left them feeling both inspired and more determined to do their best work. Lastly, a group of four students, who are a mix of Jobs and Disney, met with Bert Jones, a venture capitalist that funds various business startups, mostly in the biomedical and environmental fields, to talk through their product, a vertical trash and recycling receptacle that is made solely out of recyclable material.


The work we do with these students is audacious. And we know that. However,  we think it’s imperative that learners work on projects and ventures that can manifest far beyond the walls of school, and that the potential impact from their work doesn’t end with a number in the gradebook. We use a system devoid of grades, but heavy on feedback. Through one-on-one advisory meetings, weekly metacognitive exercises, clear learning outcomes tied to specific rubrics, narrative feedback and informal, conversational feedback, we have developed a system that tracks growth and progress over time, and that students are able to view regularly through their Haiku dashboard.


We are thrilled to be deepening our relationship with the Stanford d.school, the mothership of design thinking, as we work to co-create the flow of our week from February 28 through March 5. Recently, the students voted on the design challenge focus, which revolves around building community, something that both Jobs and Disney cohorts have identified as a challenge worth tackling. The outcome of  our week at the d.school will be that we influence the d.school student body in a positive way, so that we can leave a positive mark on their community.

Building Innovators | I wonder

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