Making Room for Invention

Have you ever struggled with deciphering between which types of learnings environments spark innovation and which stifle it? Educators, myself included, are always looking for ways to spur students' creativity. Similarly, as students, we all want to be a part of learning environments that help us tap into our creativity and use it to create original work.

One common dilemma when planning a lesson or activity is how much autonomy to give students. Famous educational psychology researchers, Ryan and Deci found that autonomy was one factor contributing to students moving towards having higher intrinsic motivation. Through the years, I've learned that students need a balance of guidance, constraints, open-ended questions and freedom to create. The general structure of my lessons includes:

•  a hook to excite and inspire
•  a short demo to model
•  some time to create
•  some time to share
•  and reflection

The time to create is very important- it allows students to apply their skills while discovering the potential of their imagination. The autonomy to explore independently and with each other, without having stepped out instructions, creates the space for students to confront the power and beauty of their minds. I consider the time for creating as a time of slightly-structured creativity, when students work through the chaos of solving a complex problem drawing on focus inspired by a small set of guidelines. 

In Coding Club, after being shown the basics of building complete circuits using LittleBits, my third to fifth grade students were given a series of open-ended challenges. Their only constraints included sticking to the broad theme of the challenge, a thirty minute time-limit and using the available materials: LittleBit sets and crafts that were available in the room. The time limit was the hardest for them to adhere to, because most students wanted to continue to explore and iterate their designs. Students were allowed to choose their own teams, or work individually. These are some of my students' inventions:

Invent something that illuminates

Night Lights with Fans, in case it gets hot

Invent an electronic creature modelling an animal (animatronics)

It's a Bird!

It's a Bird!

Whinny Fish

Invent something magical

My Superpower- Light by Touch

My Superpower- Light by Touch

Students enjoyed the freedom they had to explore circuits and developed inventions that organically evolved from their explorations. They were energized and inspired by their own work. I know this because they were eager to share their inventions with each other and to return the following week for more discovery and creation. The autonomy that students had in designing the challenges gave them space to cultivate and test their ideas. I believe that seeing their ideas turn into something tangible translated to the motivation to continue learning and creating. 

When it was time to share, we celebrated the unique ideas that all the students brought to life.