Tim Hayes, the owner of Cardboard Helicopter, held up a plastic Tyrannosaurus with a deep groove in its back and told us, “This is Taco-saurus Rex. It’s our biggest seller.” He tilted it so that we could see where one could rest a taco in it.

“And this is Triceri-taco, and here we’ve got Nachosaurus,” he said, holding up two more plastic dinosaurs with grooves for tortillas and chips.

The students were scribbling notes in their notebooks. Tim went through each of his creations: a small plastic cylinder you can use to infuse water with different flavors; a kabab with a built-in slider so that you can easily knock all your meats and veggies off the skewer; a self-propelled scooter. He had a whole garage full of toys and gadgets with sketches of different inventions all over the walls. The kids started raising their hands, venturing questions about how he came up with those ideas and what else he’s working on at the moment.

The students all needed to know about Tim’s process, because they were about to follow that same process – to design a toy from scratch that could be marketed to children who were eight-to-ten years old. They would work in small groups to design a toy, to prototype it, and to propose it to the owners of Cardboard Helicopter, who would be visiting Hawken’s campus at the end of the three-week challenge. If it was a good idea, Tim might just use it as his next piece of inspiration.

We returned to Hawken’s main campus, the students were all broken into their groups, and they were given piles of sticky notes to begin brainstorming what possible ideas might work as a toy for a fourth grader. A couple of days later, they were set up on interviews with fourth graders from the lower school to interview them about their favorite toys and play experiences. They read a series of children’s literature and some nonfiction texts on why play is necessary. They watched TED talks on child psychology, the need for active play, and how too much screen time impacts cognitive development.

Once they nailed down their ideas, they started drawing, revising, and researching. One group wanted to make a sled with removable wheels that would work on pavement and snow, so they did a physics lab on friction to better understand what kind of a braking mechanism they would need. Another group designed a mix-and-match cardboard fort, and they needed to learn how to calculate the weight that cardboard could support, so they needed to learn the basics of structural engineering.

All along the way, each group learned how to use design programs on their laptops, had discussions with their peers about which idea would work the best, figured out production costs, and presented their progress regularly to a panel of teachers who gave them lots and lots of feedback.

At one point, as my colleague and I were watching them work, I turned to her and said, “I really wish I could do this project.” I don’t say that about most of the work I assign to students. I bet most teachers don’t.

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How to Learn when the Test is named Tim

It’s a little weird, I think, the kinds of things we assign to students in a classroom that we wouldn’t put up with as adults. I’m remembering all of the faculty meetings I have attended where the teachers are slumped down in their chairs, surreptitiously texting under the table and shooting snarky glances to their colleagues, while the administrators explain the most recent change to the schedule or the dress code.

All of us hate it when someone makes us sit in a chair and absorb information, especially when it’s at a time that we didn’t choose and about a topic that we don’t value. The only thing that would make it worse would be if the teachers in that meeting were graded on their participation – maybe their paychecks could be tied to their ability to engage enthusiastically in discussion.

We do this to kids all the time.

We control everything they do, and then we are baffled when they don’t want to keep doing things our way during their free time. Instead of continuing to do things that way, I think we should give kids a good reason to work on a real-world task, and then let them choose how to go about doing it. We should keep the expectations extremely high but let them figure out how to get there. That kind of autonomy is exactly what people say they value in their adult jobs, so my thinking is that young people will respond well to that same structure.

Back at Hawken, when the three weeks of the project were up, Tim came to the classroom, and the groups got up one by one to show him what they had designed. He praised each group for the ideas that worked, and then questioned them on the things they hadn’t fully considered:

  • “Did you think about making it stackable so the sled would be more cost effective to ship?”
  • “Did you think about 3D printing that model to make your idea clearer?”
  • “What kinds of materials do you imagine using to get that effect?”

The questions were all totally fair, and some of them stumped the students. They sometimes had to improvise an answer based on what they did know about their work so far, and Tim would usually nod and jot down a few notes of what they said.

Once it was all over and Tim had left the building, the students all breathed a big sigh of relief and then congratulated each other on their successes. Some of them were a bit stung by their inability to answer all of the questions Tim had for them; some of them grumbled that next time they didn’t want to get stuck in front of a “real person” not knowing how to answer his questions. One of the students asked if she could keep working on a project idea that she came up with along the way but didn’t get to fully design. Yes, of course, we said, and she set up some after-school time to work with the physics teacher to design this electronic bracelet that would make the game “tag” more fun.

This is unusual for a school project. Normally no one wants to talk about a test after they’ve taken it, unless it’s to learn what grade they got on it. And normally no one wants to keep working on a unit of study after the final assessment is over. I don’t think I’ve ever had a student turn in a paper and then ask if they could write a paper on another topic that came up while they were writing.

Why Audience Matters

The key to all of this is the authentic audience. Tim was the one who posed the challenge for the students at the very beginning. It was a challenge that he was genuinely interested in – this was a problem he was really trying to solve. It wasn’t a hypothetical problem dreamed up by the teachers, and there was no answer at the back of the book. Tim had deep knowledge of the field of design and marketing, so he could ask them real-world questions about their real-world solutions, and that meant that the students needed to have deep knowledge of their products.

This also changed the role of the teachers in the room. Normally, teachers are the people who pose the task, give the students the tools all of the tools to accomplish the task, explain how to go about accomplishing the task, and then judge the product at the end.

With this new model, the teachers were more off to the side, willing to help out when a student had questions and there to give critiques along the way. The teachers became advisors who could push students who were lagging behind, or who could suggest resources for students to use. We still did things – we set up interview time with fourth graders, we ran physics labs, we discussed literature with them – but there was no answer to the project that we were withholding to see if they could figure it out.

There are some risks to this kind of teaching. It’s important to find partners like Tim who are willing to give their time and attention, or else the task the students work on might not be meaningful. Students need plenty of time to try out new ideas, test them out, and then try again, and that means that the schedule has to include big chunks of time. And, most importantly, teachers need to be comfortable with letting go of control of the classroom.

That last idea was tough for me – I’m the sort of teacher who likes to have every little detail planned out before I begin a course. But I have been pleasantly surprised at the ideas that students will come up with when they get genuine freedom to solve a real-world problem.

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Dan O’Connor

Dan O’Connor

I graduated from the College of Wooster in 2002, and went on to get a Masters in the Teaching of English from Columbia University, Teachers College. I teach Humanities here at Hawken. One of the big reasons I went into teaching high school is that I had a crummy time as a high school student myself, so I want to redesign a learning environment that is enjoyable and enriching at the same time. School works best, I think, when students choose to learn, so I like to give my students meaningful choices in the classroom that they can make every day.