IdeaLab, a high school course taught by a distributed teaching team

All the world over, the experience of attending school has a lot to do with sitting and listening. It’s no secret that this passive approach to learning is not effective. In schools, students often learn about things but do not often have rich opportunities to engage deeply with real life problems.

Enter IdeaLab, my project in A305 Deeper Learning for All: Designing a 21st-century School System. I was asked to propose a way to introduce deeper learning into today’s schools. My proposal calls for the creation of a new type of high school course.

The IdeaLab course gives students the opportunity to learn design thinking skills in the context of entrepreneurship. See video for the full story→

The problem: A system designed for shallow learning

Former Harvard education professor David Perkins described engaging learning experiences as those that allow students to “play the whole game” (Walker, 2009). Think how demotivating it would be to show up to your first T-ball practice and be told, “This year we’ll be focusing on pitching and next year on batting. You should be ready to play your first game in 5–7 years.” And yet this is exactly what much of our school system can feel like — rote practice or memorization activities divorced from their context.

In his recent TED talk Jal Mehta explains how the current education system arose in response to society’s needs for factory workers and childcare. In his talk, Mehta refers to a five-year study of American high schools carried out by his colleague Sarah Fine and himself. Encouragingly, the study highlights teachers across the US education system who push back on the system to create room for deeper learning, especially in elective courses and extracurricular activities (Mehta & Fine, 2018).

From my own experience and conversations, I believe many American adults can recall a teacher who created this type of experience for them. These memories, though, seem to be the exception rather than the rule and usually require superhuman effort from a committed individual who could often have a more lucrative career in another industry.

I asked, given the constraints of today’s schools, how could we create and spread deeper learning opportunities without requiring superhuman effort from classroom teachers?

My proposal: Introducing hands-on learning into high school classrooms via the distributed classroom

My proposal for this class is a high school course called IdeaLab. IdeaLab gives students the opportunity to learn design thinking skills in the context of entrepreneurship. Both design thinking and entrepreneurship are in-demand skills not usually taught in high school settings. IdeaLab makes this learning possible by incorporating a “distributed teaching model.”

In this model the classroom teachers in the high school are not solely responsible for the work related to course design, content curation, and project feedback. Instead, this work is spread among a team of people inside and outside the school building including course designers, regional support team members, volunteers, and the students themselves.

This idea was inspired by my courses at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which during my first year of study were moved online because of the pandemic. The switch to online opened up some new opportunities for me as a student. One useful opportunity was the chance to interact with teaching assistants living outside of the Cambridge area, some of whom had significant career experience.

The idea is also inspired by Georgia Tech’s Online Masters of Science in Computer Science. In their recent book, the program’s director, David Joyner, and the college’s dean, Charles Isbell,. They describe the affordances of a “distributed classroom” including the ability to create high quality video and other learning materials that can be used to serve thousands of students for years.

Overall I think there are three things I like about the IdeaLab proposal.

  1. The course is designed by a team, not a busy individual.

Anyone who has done design work knows that it’s not easy to do it alone; design requires you to constantly check your assumptions and see through the lens of others. In typical high school classrooms, teachers have to design their own curriculum but don’t always have the time and resources to do so. The IdeaLab course is designed by a team of people and updated each semester based on feedback and data. This makes possible the type of iterative design improvement sometimes described as learning engineering, which is currently only a dream for most high school courses.

2. Synchronous teachers are not solely responsible for sharing content or grading and feedback.

IdeaLab asks outside participants to provide feedback for students instead of placing this burden solely on teachers. This has the cool effect of putting the synchronous teaching team (called “coaches” in my example video) on the same team as the students. Additionally, there is evidence that when teachers take on the role of co-investigators with students — as opposed to the role of experts — students are more likely to take on the identity of people within the studied discipline (e.g. historian, entrepreneur) (Tabak & Baumgartner, 2004).

3. The course gives students the ability to interact with many professionals and business people

Giving students the opportunity to interact with professionals would, in my opinion, help more students see themselves in business roles. What’s more, as someone who has worked in product management, entrepreneurship, and marketing for several years, I think many professionals would enjoy the opportunity to volunteer in this way as long as volunteer opportunities were designed to be meaningful and short.

Let’s talk

I created this proposal for a school project, but it seems like something that really should exist in the real world.

Do you know anyone who teaches design thinking or entrepreneurship in a local context they know well?

Do you have ideas or feedback to make this idea better?

Please contact me, I’d love to hear from you (fenthughes at gse.harvard.edu).

References

  • Dede, C., Richards, J., & Saxberg,B. (eds). (2019). Learning engineering for online education: Theoretical contexts and design-based examples. New York: Routledge.
  • Isbell, C. & Joyner, D.. (2021). The Distributed Classroom. MIT Press.
  • Mehta, J. & Fine, S. (2019). In Search of Deeper Learning. Harvard University Press.
  • Tabak,I. & Baumgartner, E. (2004). The Teacher as Partner: Exploring Participant Structures, Symmetry, and Identity Work in Scaffolding. Cognition and Instruction, 22(4), 393–429. https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532690Xci2204_2
  • TEDx Talks. (2021, October 5). Less Schooling, More Learning: A Better Approach Is Hidden in Plain Sight | Jal Mehta | TEDxMarin [Video]. Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGJ6V8iVcPU
  • Walker, R. (2009, January 1). Education at bat: Seven principles for educators.. Usable Knowledge.

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