Meredith Williams, Principal NRHS
Ninth and tenth graders at North Rowan High School spend 25% of their school year solving real-world challenges through challenge-based learning (CBL) pedagogy in our design labs. Concerning this school design, we typically hear two questions:
Question 1: How do you select which students get to take design class?
Answer: We don’t select. Every student in the 9th and 10th grade takes design as part of their curriculum because we believe the essential skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking are essential to EVERYONE!
Question 2: Don’t students eventually get bored or tired of doing this kind of work?
Answer: At first we weren’t sure. But the truth is students come to us in high school already bored and tired of school in general. The typical factory model – forcing every student to receive a standardized education that prepares them for jobs we know are being eliminated by technology – is less than inspiring.
Happily, we have found that our students’ engagement in challenge-based learning has increased as we have moved through the year. We attribute this to several factors.
First, our design students solve problems that are meaningful to the real world. Our ninth graders just finished prototyping actual schools that could be sent anywhere in the world in shipping containers. Before they prototyped, they researched needs and talked with expats and nationals in schools abroad to design the schools specifically for that country or location. The tenth grade is currently prototyping designs to improve efficiency and ease of work for various individuals around our school such as custodians, cafeteria workers, and administrative assistants, following the example of the highly successful company IDEO.
Secondly, our design students present their work to an authentic audience. Consider your daily work. How often do you complete work simply to turn in to a single person for their one-time feedback, only to move to the next task? You don’t. In the “real world” your work is evaluated by an audience (employer, committee, or team) whose feedback dictates changes and modifications you must make. The world of social media alone speaks to the wide audiences our students access on a daily basis to share their work and ideas.
We find that the more authentic and wide the audience our students are responsible for sharing their products with, the more engaged they become. Our ninth graders are currently working on products that will become the basis of our school’s marketing campaign. We have seen with this group our most engaged and productive work sessions yet, as students know their work is meaningful and will be shared with the entire Rowan County community.
Lastly, our design students can approach challenges through their unique gifts and talentswithout concern for one “right answer”. When our students had an opportunity to reflect with executives from Apple recently, they explained that the open-ended nature of the challenges made the work harder, but also more rewarding. One student commented, “Before, my thinking was limited by my classes, but in design class my thinking is encouraged.”