Mark Lang: How to Prepare Students for an Innovation Age

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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c2e6df86fce7fae026b891b1a0b51e4f-bpfullMark Lang believes that, for a successful future, young people will need innovation and leadership experience as a meaningful part of their upbringing. The challenge is to make “room” for it — kids need to pursue their ideas but with time, attention, and support from adults in their lives. Mark played a key role in developing new methods and approaches to help entrepreneurs and advanced manufacturers grow innovative businesses that became standard practice nationally and even internationally. Now he is working on an exciting project with Lincoln Leadership Academy Charter School that integrates the skills of initiative, leadership, innovation, communication, and collaboration into personalized projects inspired by student interests.

Zmuda: What’s happened in the world that necessitates a shift in how we are raising and teaching our children?
Lang: A number of things have come together to create a very different world than the one in which many of us grew up and that shaped today’s education system. For one, technologies including the Internet have made just about any important piece of information available to anyone who is connected, and have also allowed us to interact with people across the globe almost as easily as those in our back yard. Add to this geopolitical changes that have led most of the countries in the world to participate in the capitalist free market (even if they are not are not entirely free), and to invest in their education and infrastructure to become more competitive in that market. Finally, international corporations have made it easy to do business globally by providing worldwide transportation, logistics, and financial services open to anyone, and suppliers have emerged to satisfy almost any need for even advanced technology components and services.
In this new world, a home-based business in the U.S. can create a new product, source any complex components from merchant suppliers, assemble the final product, and sell it through the Internet all over the world, shipped by common carrier and paid with simple credit card transactions. Of course, people in lower wage countries can also effectively compete for business that in the past had to come from local suppliers. In this world, goods and services quickly migrate to wherever they can be most efficiently produced, and new competitors regularly emerge out of nowhere.
Business has been through change before. In prior situations, however, if companies recognized the shift and retooled to deal with the new competitive dynamic, they could be successful in the new normal for many more years. Today the confluence of changes means that there will be no new steady state. Instead, the new normal is constant change. Skills to learn and adapt have become dramatically more important than ever before. Further, since the only way for a company to insure a leading position is to drive the changes in a given market, the ability to innovate has become the most valuable skill of all ― for almost everyone. It is not what one knows that is valuable in today’s world (anyone can find almost any answer), it is what one does with knowledge, and particularly how one leverages multiple perspectives and understanding to create novel new directions.
Zmuda: What has the response been when you have approached educators about infusing these skills into their classrooms?
Lang: I find that almost all educators sense a need to change. However, they don’t understand the situation well enough to know what to do, and the education system provides little guidance and support for them to change. With today’s testing regimens, they feel enormous pressure to teach more of the traditional subjects than the schedule permits already. So the response is: this is interesting but not realistic for me at this time.
Zmuda: So how have you been able to move forward?
Lang: My understanding comes from working with entrepreneurs for more than two decades. My initial success in teaching innovation came after I met an entrepreneur who wanted to help kids think outside the box and learn to find creative new solutions, which is what he believed is the essence of entrepreneurship. We became successful applying our combined understanding within one-week summer camps for high school students. We saw kids transformed, and we learned to never underestimate what they can do in the right environment. But we could only impact a few kids a summer in this way.
I started to reach out to educators I had met over the years and others seeking an opening to try the new approach in a regular school because that is where all the students are. I was given opportunities to speak to teachers, plan some potential activities, and even offer one course for local teachers. However, doors always seemed to close before we got far as the individual teachers or school and district administrators concluded they just did not have the time or resources to take on something so new and “unproven” with all the challenges they were facing.
The breakthrough came in meeting Sandra Figueroa-Torres, the Founder and CEO of Lincoln Leadership Academy Charter School. She founded Lincoln to offer parents and students another option to public education because traditional public education does not work very well for schools with more than 80% of the students living in poverty.
At first, we tried a limited afterschool program, which did not go too far because sports and other activities got in the way of any consistent participation. However, Mrs. Figueroa really wanted those innovation and leadership skills for her students. She was already heavily invested in creating a supportive, child-centered environment with high expectations, and she was determined to prepare all her students to lead in the 21st Century.
I proposed to Sandra and her team creating a project-based experience for all the students based around leadership and innovation. Sandra realized that she had become an “entrepreneur” by virtue of creating a new organization (Charter School) with its own governance and facilities AND simultaneously developing a learning and teaching environment to educate over 300 students. Unlike other schools and administrators, they were willing to invest the time, staff, and resources to make this project a reality ― knowing that we would have to learn and adapt along the way. It would be just one more “new and unproven challenge” fitting right in with the many challenges of opening and growing a charter school.
The vehicle has been Junior Seminar, a required class for all juniors at Lincoln. Two days a week are dedicated to the leadership activity, and the other days are used for college and career development and related activities. Students are guided to select a significant issue in the school or community that interests them, to recruit a team from other class members, and to develop a novel solution for their issue. Students continue the same projects into their senior year as capstone gradation projects.
I had the opportunity to work with Nikki Smith, an ESL teacher who brings excellent education skills and experience and has been very open and committed to try new approaches, as well as Stephen Rivera, Lincoln’s College/Career Coordinator, who brings complementary skills, experience, and relationships in the community.
There were 51 students this first pilot year. Examples of projects they selected include developing programs to teach social and life skills to orphans in the extremely violent country of Guatemala, educating immigrants about their rights and responsibilities in our country, creating new history curricula that turn boring facts into exciting stories told through comic book–style graphics, and creating the first dedicated park on the eastern U.S. coast for Parkour (sport) enthusiasts so that they don’t get in trouble doing it in people’s back yards and businesses.
Zmuda: What are the key lessons that you have already learned from your work with educators and students?
Lang: As expected, we have been constantly challenged to adapt based on how the students responded and where we wanted them to go. Some lessons we have learned are:

  1. Help students identify problems from their own experience that are meaningful to them. This often takes much time and effort because so many students don’t understand their likes, abilities, and interests.
  2. Create a safe environment to try and fail. Give students enough time and chances to pursue a given idea and team, then shift or abandon those choices—sometimes several times—for another. A few students will latch onto something quickly and jump in, but most need several chances because the experience is so new.
  3. Provide regular reinforcement. Teachers encourage students and provide feedback. We also invite a variety of successful business and community leaders to sit with individual student teams during class or sometimes at the business location. The business leaders ask students good questions and help the teams identify useful resources. This kind of interaction proves to be a tremendous confidence-building and learning experience for students.
  4. Provide tools to frame, without specifying direction, the work that is needed. Most students have never tackled a complex problem that will take months of planning and effort to solve. We provide guidelines and rubrics related to the project and skills, and we are creating tools as we go. We have recently incorporated a tool called the Business Model Canvas (actually used in graduate entrepreneurship classes at Stanford University) that calls attention to all aspects of the project and helps track progress.
  5. Constantly nudge students to be innovative, because the challenges and ambiguity will keep driving them to accept a proven answer.
  6. Make sure you have a supportive team of instructors who meet periodically to evaluate how best to maintain progress, particularly when students face challenges or setbacks.
Zmuda: From a student perspective, what does success look like?
Lang: That is an interesting question because, since we are asking the students to innovate, they cannot know exactly what they will have in the end. We teach them to focus on a particular problem or vision, and do their best to develop a novel solution ― adapting their solution along the way but always in service of the vision. The team focused on orphaned kids in Guatemala, for example, has a strong vision to do something meaningful for kids there. They started with the idea of opening an orphanage. After quite a bit of work and planning, they determined it would not be realistic to create a new orphanage within the time and resources they could muster. They made contact with an organization that already has an orphanage in the city they are targeting, and that organization encouraged the students to support the existing program by raising money. After some soul searching, the students decided their vision was not just to raise money but to create new value. This team learned that orphans in Guatemala often become repressed or defensive loners who don’t know how to interact with others, so the students developed a solution to engage the orphans in a sports program designed to be fun but also teach them social skills and make them comfortable working with and trusting others. Plans for that are underway.
It is, of course, very difficult for students to deal with the ambiguity of trying things without assurance they will succeed and then learning and adapting as they go. However, that is an extremely valuable experience that is only learned by doing it. Fortunately, they are motivated to keep working on their project until they can see value achieved toward solving the problem. Other skills include opportunity identification, initiative, managing a team to co-create, communicating to influence, and creative problem solving.
Students don’t fully realize all they are learning and how their confidence develops. We saw this when all the teams presented to an outside business panel at the end of May. Frankly, many of the teams were still a bit unsure of where all their work is leading, and our attempts to coach them on presenting were not that successful. However, every team ending up impressing a very successful panel of community leaders. While very nervous, when the student teams got up in front of the panel, and started to talk about their project, the personal commitment, creativity, and story of their self-directed actions just poured out of them. The panel was most impressed that each student team seemed to grasp the full measure of their issue and was dealing with the real issues, as opposed to the well organized but naive “solutions” that often result when students follow the model in a textbook.
Zmuda: What are your ideas about how to get it to scale?
Lang: Let me respond to that in two parts. First, the idea of using a capstone junior/senior project in a similar manner seems like a reasonable way for many high schools to introduce the 21st Century innovation and leadership skills that are so critical. The challenge is that the learning approach is radically different from what teachers have been taught, and there is little support for it. We plan to leverage our experience to create instructional outlines, example tasks, and supportive tools designed to help teachers understand and begin to implement this new approach in their own schools for a similar project course. We can augment those resources with a kind of virtual learning community over the Internet, and perhaps with professional development programs. In this way we should be able to help many other educators adopt similar project-based courses.
Second, we are convinced that the basic learning approach can be a model for broader changes in the K12 curriculum. This is a form of project based learning, just one where we have added the dimension of innovation. We hope to look further at how more traditional project based learning and our own experience can be combined with some of the other child-centered aspects of the Lincoln environment to create a highly engaging learning environment that permeates all of the curriculum. This is a longer term goal.
We know that the issues that have kept schools from trying approaches such as those described here are still in place. If anything, time and resources are becoming harder to find. Nevertheless, when others in both education and the community see what these normal high school students can accomplish, we believe it will be difficult for any school to not make the commitment. These kids will become the leaders we need to keep our country great. Just imagine what would happen to our country if all high school students were prepared to be innovation leaders.

Want to know more?

For more information on Lincoln Leadership Academy Charter School, please visit the website. For more information on the philosophy, approach, and tools of the innovation leadership activities, refer to Charter Partners Institute (CPI). I have created a special section on this site that summarizes the student projects and updates associated with our Lincoln partnership, and the site also has a number of resources and other examples.

Emails of the key players are Mark Lang (mlang@charterpartnersinstitute.org), Sandra Figueroa-Torres (sft@llacslv.com), Nikki Smith (nsmith@llacslv.com), and Stephen Rivera (srivera@llacslv.com). Finally, we are working with an entrepreneur about creating an open course that would be a kind of learning community using a new software tool called GoodSemester.com. There will be more about this on the CPI website as it develops.

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