problem solving

Measuring Curiosity & Creativity in India

Many educational organizations want to know their impact in terms of test scores and quantitative metrics. I’m more more interested in the qualitative. Are children learning? Are they curious? Are they creative? Are they solving problems that matter to them?

In January I spent three weeks at the Agastya International Foundation, near Bangalore, India, observing educational programs designed to increase children’s curiosity and creativity via STEM. The government (public) schools in India are eager for supplemental science and math curriculum, which is how Agastya gets in. They send tens of thousands of teachers around the country in vans filled with science experiments with the aim of “sparking curiosity” through hands-on learning during science and math lessons.  

Screen Shot 2019-03-07 at 1.03.52 PM.png

Hamsa Latha, who leads the Impact Assessment team at Agastya, is seeking to assess the change in students’ curiosity after being exposed to Agastya’s hands-on science learning. Hamsa and her team have designed questionnaires for students before and after engaging in an Agastya program to see if they become more curious, more creative, more interested in the natural world. Last year they assessed 66,515 middle school students in 1,697 schools.  They found that on the whole, after completing an Agastya program, students believed that they learn best through hands-on experiments and model-making. Overall students showed 10-15% increases in awareness (of science in the world), curiosity, confidence and science knowledge. This impressive study is one of few being done in the education sector focused on traits and habits of learning rather than solely on content.

The Innovation Hub, one of many programs on the Agastya campus, focuses on how students learn, not just what. The aim is on solving community problems using technology, teamwork and innovation. Groups of students are led through a series of workshops that help them identify and rectify community problems, using a project-based learning approach. One of the brilliant innovations the children came up with is to  add pictorial symbols to village names to help illiterate family members know when to get off the bus. Another innovation deals with walking home from school in the dark and needing your hands to hold siblings hands, groceries, and books. Instead of also trying to hold a flashlight to be able to light the way, students created LED strips for backpack straps so that you’d have a hands free way of seeing if you’re about to step on a snake. It is projects like these that not only impact communities, but also teach children a way of learning. Children who complete a program at the Innovation Hub move through the world with the tools to change their world.

The Art Lab, another innovative program at Agastya, is designed as a journey of observation and imagination using nature at the medium. Students begin by drawing their idea of a tree and then spend days outside talking about the tree and what they see and notice. Who lives there? How does it change? What textures are evident? What shades and tints of colors are present? How does it move? What can and can’t you see? Students then make another drawing and compare the image in their mind with the one they’ve observed. The unit finishes with students designing their own trees, using creativity and imagination. Other units repeat this process with leaves, the sky, and animals. Through this process students really learn to see and observe. They begin to understand nature. They are learning how to learn.

Screen Shot 2019-03-07 at 1.06.42 PM.png

Sometimes in education we spend so much time focusing on content and forget to think about the process of learning and providing experiences for students to figure out how they learn best. By trying different methods like hands-on science experiments, solving community problems, and closely observing nature, Agastya has achieved their mission. Curiosity has been sparked.

What if students designed their own schools?

“When Sam Levin was a junior at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Mass., he realized that two things were in short supply at his school: engagement and mastery. He also noticed that he and his peers were learning plenty of information, but not much about how to gather or create their own data. And he noticed that students were unhappy. So he took it upon himself to design a school where students would feel fully engaged, have an opportunity to develop expertise in something, and learn how to learn.” (source)

The program Sam designed, The Independent Project, debuted in 2010 and is still going today. Students applied, proving that they could manage their time well. The majority of the semester is structured into half-days. For half of each day, per week, students choose a question to investigate and then share with the group at the end of the week. The other half of the day is filled with a semester long individual project that could be learning a musical instrument, writing a book, etc. The last 3 weeks of the semester the students work collaboratively to create a project for social impact. The only requirements of the various projects are “effort, learning and mastery.” There are no grades; it is pass/fail. 

This student-guided experiential education is the key! Parents of students at Sam’s school were concerned about not having letter grades for the project, but colleges were excited to read about students who did something different. Not only that, the project helped students develop skills: they were more proactive, self-motivated, good with managing time, focused, collaborative, communicative, curious, and engaged. 

For me, one of the unexpected positive outcomes of this project is that it has shown the teachers what the students are capable of, and has encouraged teachers (of regular school subjects) to give ALL of their students more choice- what to read, which topic to study, how to present. And through this process the teachers are also discussing their own roles in student education. Holy reflection, Batman! The teachers are trusting the students to make decisions about their own learning! 

“Students who have gone through the program ask more questions and have a greater awareness of how to answer them; construct their questions more carefully; became more thoughtful in the way they consider ideas and evaluate sources; and became better at managing their time.” Win. 

What if, instead of disciplining children, we helped them find the root of the problem?

I've been a big fan of Dr. Ross Greene for years. He teaches parents and teachers to talk with children about their feelings and experiences to solve problems collaboratively, eventually leading to self-regulation. This is instead of punishment and consequence that we see in many schools and homes, which address behavior but don't get to the root of the problem, and often make children feel bad about not being in control of their behavior. Instead, as Dr. Greene says, let's teach children to recognize their emotions and control their behavior. Habit begets habit, you know? What if adults could also do this? Wouldn't that be something? I know too many adults who have difficulty controlling their emotions and consequently act poorly.

What if we all had emotional self-intelligence? 


This article explains the effectiveness of Dr. Greene's approach with regard to teacher training, prison recidivism rates, and behaviorally-struggling children. The following are the highlights:

University of Rochester psychologist Ed Deci, for example, found that teachers who aim to control students' behavior—rather than helping them control it themselves—undermine the very elements that are essential for motivation: autonomy, a sense of competence, and a capacity to relate to others. This, in turn, means they have a harder time learning self-control, an essential skill for long-term success. 

Stanford University's Carol Dweck, a developmental and social psychologist, has demonstrated that even rewards—gold stars and the like—can erode children's motivation and performance by shifting the focus to what the teacher thinks, rather than the intrinsic rewards of learning.

You'd talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

If Greene's approach is correct, then the educators who continue to argue over the appropriate balance of incentives and consequences may be debating the wrong thing entirely. After all, what good does it do to punish a child who literally hasn't yet acquired the brain functions required to control his behavior?

The CPS (Collaborative and Proactive Solutions) method hinges on training school (or prison or psych clinic) staff to nurture strong relationships—especially with the most disruptive kids—and to give kids a central role in solving their own problems. For instance, a teacher might see a challenging child dawdling on a worksheet and assume he's being defiant, when in fact the kid is just hungry. A snack solves the problem.

The teachers and the student would come up with a plan to slowly get him more involved.

From Greene's perspective, that's the big win—not just to fix kids' behavior problems, but to set them up for success on their own. Too many educators, he believes, fixate on a child's problems outside of school walls—a turbulent home, a violent neighborhood—rather than focus on the difference the school can make. "Whatever he's going home to, you can do the kid a heck of a lot of good six hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year," Greene says. "We tie our hands behind our backs when we focus primarily on things about which we can do nothing."

Dr. Ross Greene's website: http://www.livesinthebalance.org/
Great books by Dr. Greene: The Explosive Child, Lost at School 

What if we reinvented the idea of family vacation and created an adventurous family lifestyle?

A young family takes their 4 year-old on hikes like the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, instead of school. Together the family learns about nature, to take care of each other, to persevere through tough circumstances. Over time they are closer, more at ease with each other. What if we reinvented the idea of family vacation and, instead of taking a leisurely holiday with minimal family interaction, created an adventurous family lifestyle? What's really important, making money to sit on the beach at a resort, or making just enough money for food and emergencies and a life of exploring? 

http://www.backpacker.com/special-features/kindergarten-can-wait/

What if all products had to be disassemble-able so they could have multiple lives?

What if we exposed children to the idea that resources are finite, and products become obsolete too quickly? What if we challenged children to create products from their previous counterparts? What if all products had to be disassemble-able so they could have multiple lives? Wait a minute! Children naturally do this! They takes things apart and put them back together and take them apart and make new things! This is a huge conversation that, I believe, we should be having with children. Let's inspire them to create not just from what we already have, but with the idea that what they create will not be an end in itself.

In this video they explore the idea that products should be made in a way that make them easily disassemble-able so they can go back to their manufacturer at the end of their life to be reused in new incarnations. I like the idea of companies re-hacking their own products. 

What if students engaged in their own community re-purposing, co-creating their environments through street art and getting to know their neighbors?


What if students engaged in their own community re-purposing, co-creating their environments through street art and getting to know their neighbors? 

I am so inspired by Candy Chang. She creates community forums in unused public spaces that bring people and ideas closer together. What if students were exposed to the following projects and challenged to engage their communities through unused public spaces? 

Here are my Candy Change favorites: 

Before I Die is probably Candy's most widespread project. It turns the side of an abandoned building into a chalkboard of wishes, dreams, and bucket lists. The project gained so much popularity that Candy designed stencil kits, in different languages, that she sends around the world, upon request, so that "Before I Die" walls can be recreated elsewhere. What a way to share with and inspire your neighbors and motivate yourself to follow your dreams! 

Neighborland is "an online/public installation tool for civic collaboration. Organizations can ask questions to their community about the places they care about. These questions are tied to real world projects so residents’ ideas and feedback will lead to change." Say what? The people have a voice? And someone wants to listen? Hell yeah! This project aims to solve local issues through community feedback. One example asked for ways to make a particular street safer. 

Community Chalkboards "provide residents with a free and accessible platform to publicize events, post jobs, ask questions, and self-organize... Inspired by a community chalkboard in Liberia by Alfred Sirleaf." What a way to repurpose the chalkboard! In small communities, particularly where not everyone has internet access, a community events chalkboard is a brilliant way to gather your neighbors and share. 

This installation consisted of a wall of post-it notes that were pre-stamped with fill-in-the-blank statements about the number of rooms in your apartment and how much you pay in rent. I love that this installation seeks information that neighbors are too shy to ask each other but really want to know. This was inspired by the Illegal Art "To Do" project, which created a mural of post-it notes in the shape of the words "TO DO" so that passersby could share their daily "to do" lists. After all, we all have them, right? 


What if schools engaged students in addressing community needs?


What if students were coached through design projects and taught how to choose materials and use power tools to alleviate an immediate social need like housing for the homeless?  

At Project H, children have built a 2,000-square-foot farmers market structure, iconic downtown landmarks, farmstands, playgrounds, school gardens, an obstacle course, public chicken coops, a school library, and a tiny home (for the homeless that is being made now). This purpose-driven project is engaging 9-17 year-olds in social responsibility through creatively solving current issues. And the students are learning physical as well as social skills along the way. 

What if school curriculums were focused around the communities they serve? What if there were no cookie-cutter curriculums, and instead students, teachers, and administration worked together to choose areas of study based on community need. Think of the impact! Think of the teamwork, resourcefulness, and learning that could happen! Think of the relationship that would be fostered between the school and community! Think of the changing role of teacher from a provider of information to a facilitator of social change. 

What if teachers were the most prepared people to do the teaching?

As a country we spend more money per child than any of the top performing countries in the world. When I say "top performing" I am referring to countries that focus on critical thinking, creative problem solving, and persistence as the gateway to deeper learning in academic areas like reading, writing, and mathematics. In these countries, while spending less per student, teachers have class sizes that are noticeably larger than here in the States and they have considerably less outside support for student's with special needs. And the students are still outperforming ours. How is this happening with less money and less individualized support? The reason is teacher training. In Finland, which is so often talked about as a model for better education, teachers spend 6 years training!!!! Teach for America and NY Teaching Fellows churn out teachers in less than 2 years and place them in extremely difficult schools. No wonder there are crazy high teacher attrition rates! In some countries teachers get a Masters in their intended field so they can become experts, and then they go to a teacher-training school for 2 years. In order to get licensed, teachers write persuasive arguments about how they would solve hypothetical classroom problems, instead of taking 3-hour multiple choice tests about content that's often not even related to what they'll be teaching. What if instead of pouring money into students we poured it into teacher training? 

What if social and emotional learning are seen as just as important as academic curriculums?

You learn your best when you are comfortable with yourself and have some self-awareness, as well as the ability to self-regulate. If you are struggling at home, you are thinking about those problems all of the time and are, therefore, not present to your learning. However, imagine this: What if in school you learned to know yourself, the kind of person you are, the kind of learner you are, your emotional triggers, strategies to help you cope in difficult situations, ways of expressing yourself to get your needs met, where to share your troubles? If your class role-played problems to discover multiple solutions imagine how socially savvy you’d be! You’d be confident, self-aware, and able to see the big picture, act as a leader, and take care of yourself. And then you’d be in a place where you could do your best learning. There are some curriculums and sources for this kind of learning already out there: Responsive ClassroomMorningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility