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Innovation in Education, Lessons from the Business World: STEAM at Swain

August 3, 2012

In a recent edition of Independent School magazine, outgoing NAIS president Pat Bassett published an article titled The Innovation Imperative.  As he has been preaching for years, in this article Mr. Bassett urges independent schools across the nation to immerse themselves in a paradigm shift.  He argues that our prevailing educational model was built for a previous generation, and – if we are going to educate our children to be leaders in a changing world – we must adopt educational practices that foster creativity and give students opportunities to problem solve.

In his article, Mr. Bassett references several authors from the business world who have written about ideas for generative thinking.  In a recent New York Times Op Ed piece, writer Jon Gertner maintains, among other ideas, that putting creative people in close proximity to one another inevitably produces unexpected conversations.

An article titled “A CEO’s Guide to Innovation in China” states that “ameliorating the ‘fear factor’ in inculcating a culture of risk-taking [occurs] by shifting the risk away from individuals to teams.”

In yet another piece from the business world, economist Edward de Bono in his book Six Thinking Hats contends that one of the “hats” necessary for generative thinking is the “green hat” (i.e. green as in go).  Wearing this “hat” – given time, space, and simplicity – subjects focus on growth, creativity, and alternative thinking.

With all due respect to scholarship, none of these ideas alone are groundbreaking.  Yet, in aggregate, these ideas from the business world provide a roadmap for a thriving educational future.  What we are talking about in layman’s terms is arranging people in teams, giving subjects a bright, open space to learn, and providing them with time for ideas to emerge through conversation and problem-solving.

After all, Bassett contends, this is the model that Google utilizes in their workplace.  Google “hires smart people who can collaborate and communicate, puts them in an open-space office environment…and gives them 20% of their time each week to do whatever they choose.”

As one enters our new STEAM lab at Swain this fall, you will see these conditions at play.  STEAM – an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art, and math – is a new program that will be launched this September for seventh- and eighth grade students.  Organized by a team of three teachers, the STEAM lab will be in a bright, open classroom.  Students will be arranged in teams, and meeting times will be in 85-minute blocks.  The centerpiece of the eighth grade program will be robotics (LEGO Mindstorms), while the seventh graders will explore the field of biotechnology using digital microscopes (seventh graders will also be exposed to robotics).

The concept of STEAM is simple: provide the time, space, and equipment for emerging adults to participate in generative thinking.  After all, developing new ideas to solve global issues is what is needed out of future generations.  We cannot simply wish this to occur; instead, we need to develop the conditions within our educational institutions for this type of thinking to be practiced.

Pat Bassett also references The MacArthur Foundation, one of the nation’s largest independent foundations supporting “creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just…and peaceful world.”  The Foundation summarizes the changing structure in education as “The Big Shifts:” from knowing to doing, from teacher-centered to student-centered, from individual to team, from consumption of information to construction of meaning, from schools to networks, from single sourcing to crowd sourcing.

Across the country in the independent school world, these shifts are taking hold. At Swain, we are developing and tweaking programs to position ourselves squarely in the middle of this paradigm shift in education.  In fact, offering a STEAM program in the middle school – within school hours – positions Swain at the forefront of this movement.  All change in schools ought to be thoughtful and without a dogmatic approach.  The field of education is too important to simply follow current fads.  Rather, through an exploration of best practices, attending workshops, and visiting like-minded schools, here at Swain we are navigating what is right for our students at this given time and place.

From Guided Reading, to STEAM, to eighth grade independent study projects, to Faculty Cohorts, to our focus on global education, we move forward with hope, engagement, and focus.  The educational bedrocks of reading, writing, and math will never diminish, nor will the need for simply acquiring a certain body of information, but we must blend these tenants with an educational purpose that meets the coming landscape.

“If you give people tools, [and they use] their natural ability and their curiosity, they will develop things in ways that will surprise you very much beyond what you might have expected.”

                                                                                                                             –  Bill Gates

I hope everybody is having a great summer!  Stay cool, read a good book, and celebrate with the wonderful people in your life.  See you in September.




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One Comment
  1. judy fisher permalink

    Good article The STEAM program sounds very interesting.

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