What should learning look like when schools reopen?

Over the last few months schools and teachers have had to drastically change teaching and adapt in real time to school closures. As summer approaches and schools start planning for the next year, they are yet again faced with the possibility of full or partial closures. However, the pandemic is also giving us an opportunity to try different models of learning that can be beneficial even in the long-term. 

Covid-related school closures have created a situation where in-person interaction has become a precious resource. Maintaining adequate physical distance, temperature screenings, and frequent deep cleanings are all adding a significant expense to normal day-to-day interactions that we had come to take for granted. We now need to treat classroom time as a precious resource―by conserving it and using it mindfully where it’s most effective. For example, a teacher giving a lecture to a classful of students is not a good use of classroom time as students could do that just as well remotely. 

The most effective way to structure learning would be to prioritize classroom time for building skills that require interaction and can’t be developed in isolation, while leaving individual work for offline.

Skills that need active interaction time with peers and teachers primarily fall under the 21st century skills umbrella – skills like creativity, critical thinking or collaboration. So it makes sense to “flip” learning along the boundary of 21st century skills and academic content. Here are some activities that would benefit most from in-person time, where the teacher plays the role of a coach or facilitator in helping students develop critical skills. 

Creativity and Collaboration

A key thinking pattern that underlies creativity is associative thinking―the ability to combine different ideas into something meaningful. When students discuss and build on each other’s ideas toward a common solution, they are exercising their associative thinking. The same skills also build healthy collaboration – instead of students trying to compete with each other to make their idea “win”, they try to include everyone’s ideas as best as they can. Teachers can help build these skills by observing how students interact with their group members, and guiding them to include all voices and focus on joint problem solving. 

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is when an individual improves the quality of their thinking by applying intellectual standards. It includes underlying skills like reasoning, evaluating, analyzing, judging, inferencing and reflecting. 

Socratic questioning and classroom discussions are a good way to discuss open-ended issues and build critical thinking. Critical thinking can be done both online or face-to-face, but there are differences. In online discussions students tend to use more evidence based reasoning as they can research before making their argument, while in face-to-face mode students listen to other ideas more and expand on them due to the spontaneous nature of the discussion. A blended model that capitalizes on the advantages of both models, can be a useful way to build critical thinking.  

Project Based Learning

Project based learning provides an avenue for students to be engaged in active, real-world problem solving. For students to gain most from PBL, they have to encounter and struggle with key concepts and skills behind the project. They build their thinking and knowledge in an experiential manner as they actively problem solve, by themselves or within a group.

The pandemic is causing significant disruption to the learning process and will require restructuring of lesson plans to address additional closures. Prioritizing 21st century skills for in-person classroom time can help stimulate students to think, engage in discussions, stay connected with their peers and learn from them. 

The full version of this article appeared on edCircuit

3 indoor activities to build creativity

With current school closures and approaching summer holidays, most parents are worried about the impact of extended breaks on learning for their children. While most of us associate academic work with learning, there are many different ways for children to learn and build crucial skills during these times. Students learn as much, if not more, from play and social interactions than with pure academic work. 

Here are three different ways to stretch your child’s thinking and build cognitive skills like creativity and critical thinking, in a much more stress free way.

Reframe challenges as opportunities

One powerful way to build an innovation mindset is to reframe problems as opportunities that are just waiting for a creative solution. The easiest way to find problems is with day to day activities and chores that children engage in. 

Ask your child what activities and chores they find inconvenient and how can they improve that experience. When posed as a challenge, children can come up with clever ideas. One of our students, who found cleaning his pets’ cages gross, came up with a clever idea of a new kind of trash bag with drawstrings all around that can be used to line the cage. When you need to clean the cage, you just have to pull the drawstring and all the mess gets caught in the bag.  Another student came up with the idea of a remote controlled mechanism to take out regular trash so you don’t have to carry a stinky bag for a long time. 

While not all ideas will be immediately helpful, it helps children to start thinking of problems as opportunities that they can find clever solutions to.   

Join the imaginary play

Young children can spend, what often feels like, an inordinate amount of time in imaginary pretend play. However, pretend play is also a child’s cognitive playground – where they can freely practice how to think and problem solve in different situations – and in the process build a deeper understanding of the world around them. 

In more elaborate forms, pretend play can grow into fantasy worlds or paracosms, where a child constructs an entire imaginary world with its own rules and systems. Michele Root-Bernstein, Professor and creativity scholar, found that engaging in building fantasy worlds as a child was indicative of creative accomplishments in adulthood. Highly renowned people across different disciplines like the Bronte siblings, Nietszche and Mozart invented imaginary worlds, as did a large number of MacArthur genius award recipients. She believes that the creativity involved in building fantasy worlds, equips children with skills like imagining, empathizing, modeling, problem solving and rule-breaking that are essential for any creative work. 

Pretend play and paracosms also provide an opportunity for parents and other family members to help stretch their child’s thinking. You can join your child in their fantasy world and co-create situations that need to be addressed or problems that need to be solved. In doing so, you give them a safe space to experiment with ideas while building a deeper understanding of society. 

Add counterfactual thinking to reading time

The benefits of reading books with your child, from cognitive to social emotional are well known. In a study designed to understand the effect of reading in toddlers, children were assigned to an intervention group or a control group. The intervention group received age appropriate books and additional reading time compared to the control group. The results of the study showed that families in the intervention group that did shared reading with their toddler groups, and not just reading aloud, showed significantly larger vocabulary scores compared to the control group. 

Parents can give an additional boost to shared book reading times by adding counterfactual thinking, which builds both creative and critical thinking. Save some time after reading a book together to discuss the book and pose additional questions. You can create different counterfactual questions by modifying or adding an event in the story or by changing characters and settings. For example, what would have happened if Dumbledore never gave Harry Potter the cloak of invisibility, or what would the story of Snow White look like in modern times? Sharing your ideas to the same prompts after your child shares theirs can help improve their ability to think in more diverse ways.  

The original version of this article appeared on edCircuit

We’ve partnered with Belouga to grow creativity globally!

Our popular How To Be An Inventor course has been selected to join Belouga’s collection of educational resources and is now available to educators and students around the world through this global learning platform. Belouga provides students and teachers with meaningful learning experiences, sourced from the most reputable learning organizations across the world. Belouga’s mission to build community and foster curiosity makes them a perfect partner to build an innovative mindset in students all over the world.  

Technological advances like AI are making routine jobs redundant and radically changing the nature of our workforce. Jobs that require creative problem solving are growing, while predictable jobs decline sharply. It’s not surprising that LinkedIn’s data shows that creativity is the top most skill employers look for. Now more than ever our educational system needs to adapt in ways that foster creativity instead of stifling it. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, noted psychologist and expert on creativity, puts it succinctly, “In the Renaissance creativity might have been a luxury for the few, but by now it is a necessity for all.

Our approach, reflected in our How To Be An Inventor course, is to build underlying thought patterns, like associative or reverse thinking, that lead to creative ideas. The course takes a hands-on, minds-on approach to learning and engages students to think both creatively and critically. Over the last few years, we have run different versions of the course and have had several of our students win national level awards for their ideas! Needless to say, we are excited that students and educators all over the world can now access the course through Belouga and build critical 21st century skills.  

The course is available on Belouga as a five-part series to fit within the platform’s collaborative online learning environment. It provides more than two and a half hours of content to increase creativity and innovation for students globally. 

About Belouga

Belouga was founded in 2017 with the mission of making education impactful and accessible on a global scale through peer-to-peer and classroom connection, communication, and collaboration. Realizing the rapidly changing landscape of technology and education, the Belouga team looked to create a central location, which takes the heavy lifting out of global education, and provides teachers and students with a personalized learning experience through community and content without sacrificing creativity or curriculum needs. Learn more at https://belouga.org/ 

See the full press release here

How Play Helps Creativity and Learning

Some of the most groundbreaking innovations didn’t get their start from a serious effort to solve a problem but from much more frivolous, playful ideas. After the first music boxes were invented, people got interested in making programmable music boxes that could play different music when the cylinder was replaced. But this basic idea – that the behaviour of a machine could be changed – became the catalyst for more serious inventions like the programmable Jacquard loom and the general purpose computer. 

Most people tend to dismiss play as childish and silly. However, a playful approach to problem solving can bring out fresh, creative ideas that may not have surfaced otherwise. Not all environments encourage play, though. 

Mitchel Resnick, Professor and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT, uses the metaphor of playpen vs playground to differentiate the different kinds of play they support. A playpen is a restrictive environment where children have limited opportunities to explore, whereas a playground promotes open exploration, problem solving and creativity.

So how does one create a healthy playground? Here are a few ways to promote play in student work.

Tinkering

Environments that support guided and open exploration have been found to be more effective in student learning. To allow for more tinkering, allocate time during projects for students to explore different ideas or directions to pursue, even if most of them don’t lead to any success. Similarly, allocate time for students to iterate after they have chosen an idea and started developing it more. Asking students to explain the thinking behind their ideas also helps them discover shortcomings that they can improve as they iterate. The focus during tinkering is not to judge ideas, but simply to understand and help students elaborate the idea in as much depth as possible. 

Social Interaction

Most play has a social element that allows ideas to be exchanged freely. Creating a space and time where students can explore others’ work and bounce ideas off of each other also helps in improving creativity and learning. The best ideas in a group setting tend to filter to the top and get incorporated by different teams. While this may feel like “cheating”, it’s how most innovation works in real life – by merging bits and pieces from others into your own unique creation. 

One way to increase healthy social interactions, is to teach students how to critique others’ ideas and allow them to suggest constructive improvements to other projects. When done well, this builds both social cohesiveness as well as critical thinking. 

Intrinsic Motivation

Creativity flourishes in environments that foster intrinsic motivation and suffers under extrinsic motivation. When students are intrinsically motivated they are more likely to explore and take risks. A focus on grades or scores can push students from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic motivation. Instead of external grades that evaluate project work, use self-evaluation forms so students can assess for themselves what aspect of their project could stand to improve. 

Play can be a powerful way to bring out student creativity and enhance learning. By creating a low stress environment where students can freely explore their own ideas and share with others, some of the beneficial aspects of play can be incorporated into student project work. 

How To Build Creative Confidence

Albert Bandura, a psychologist and Professor at Stanford, who first proposed the concept of self-efficacy, discovered that people’s beliefs about themselves plays a huge role in how they feel, think and act. People with a strong belief in their abilities tend to take on more challenging tasks and persist despite failures. As Prof Bandura explained, “A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal well-being in many ways. People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided. Such an efficacious outlook fosters intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities.

However, self-efficacy can take some time to develop. Here are three ways to ensure students continue to build some creative confidence during the school year.  

Build Mastery 

Before students can build any confidence in an area, they first need to learn and become proficient in that area. A first grader is not going to feel confident about tackling double digit addition in mathematics, until he can easily do single digit addition. According to Bandura, building mastery is the first and the most important step in building self-efficacy. 

From a creative confidence perspective, that implies building creative thinking skills, like associative or analogical thinking, that can be used in problem solving. So starting with simple challenges that exercise the creative muscles, and give students a chance to master different creative thinking approaches can go a long way in building confidence. 

Stretch, But Attainable Goals

Before students can take on challenging tasks, they need to first feel confident about their abilities. Experiencing successes, even small ones, builds confidence whereas early failures can lead students to question their abilities. Only when students have developed a strong sense of self-efficacy, are they persevere through failures. 

To build skills and confidence, create sub goals that stretch students’ thinking a little but they are able to achieve their goals with a reasonable level of effort. For example, asking students to come up with at least one idea using a specific technique before challenging them to come up with several. However, if the goals are too easy, then students might come to expect easy successes and will not build the confidence to persevere through more challenging tasks.  

Supportive Environment

Students learn as much from others as they do independently. When students see their peers solving problems creatively, they are more inclined to believe that they have the same abilities. In a similar vein, when teachers (and others) encourage students to keep going despite setbacks and express confidence in their abilities, students start to believe in their own abilities as well. For example, if a student isn’t sure about how others might perceive their idea, let them know why you think their idea is cool and worth pursuing. 

This expectation maps to the social persuasion in Bandura’s self-efficacy model. In an encouraging environment with positive expectations, a student might conclude, “If others think I am creative, then I must be creative.”

Teaching students creative thinking techniques, setting appropriate goals and creating a positive environment and expectations as students practice problem solving, can build their creative confidence. Armed with this confidence, students will be willing to take on challenging tasks, persevere through failures, all of which will set them up for success both in the short-term as well as long-term. 

A Simple Technique To Generate Fun, Original Ideas

Daniel Kahneman, in his groundbreaking book based on decades of his research, used the associative nature of the human brain to explain different cognitive biases that we inadvertently succumb to. The same associative aspect can also be used in understanding how our brains think creatively and how sometimes we fall into an “associative rut”, where we keep going in circles with the same few ideas.

One way to overcome the associative rut is to find a connection between completely unrelated concepts, an approach that sometimes lead to very original ideas. Another simple, yet surprisingly effective, technique to generate amusing and novel product ideas  involves making an association map.

In this approach, the idea is to connect concepts that are related but not directly. In the examples used in the study, the researchers focused mainly on sensory attributes like sight and touch, which lead to more observable incongruities. However, we found that this approach works just as well with other attributes as well. 

In this approach, you start with an initial product – the subject of your innovation – which goes in the center of the association map. From there, you branch out with a few different attributes like “used with”, “material” or “similar to” to come up with the first order of associations. Since these associations are directly related to the object, they don’t really provide a chance for incongruence or novelty. However, once you start branching out more to the second order of associations, then things get more interesting. That’s where, when you make a  connection back to the subject, it’s not very obvious but at the same time not too hard for people to find the connection reasonable. It’s the perfect Goldilocks association!

Here’s an example, using a simple classroom supply. Suppose you want to make a more interesting ruler. So you start with the ruler in the center and choose some attributes like “used with”, “material” and “similar to”. Then, you list different values for each of those attributes like the material could be plastic or wood. This gives the first order of concepts that are directly associated with the ruler. The next step is to find another set of concepts, the second order concepts, that are associated with the first order ones.  Finally, you try to connect back the second order concepts with the original object and see if that helps uncover an interesting idea. 

For example, a ruler could be made of a flexible polymer and another use case of a flexible material is a slap bracelet. By connecting the concept of a slap bracelet with a ruler, one can imagine making a slap bracelet with ruler markings which a student can wear and use as a ruler anytime they needed one. With this invention, you always have a ruler handy (pun intended) whenever you need it!

The reason that the association map works well is due to the incongruity theory. When people notice an incongruity, they can either find it amusing or be disappointed. When people can tie the incongruity back to the product then it results in an appropriate congruity and the product feels more fun, interesting or amusing, but when people can’t find an underlying connection, the product appears confusing. 

In this example, a flexible strip of plastic material connects the concepts of both the slap bracelet and the ruler. So the incongruity between a slap bracelet and a ruler just seems appropriate and fun when connected together. 

So, the next time you are trying to come up with a new product idea, instead of using the typical mindmap, try making an association map and see if that leads you to some fun, refreshing ideas. 

Budding Inventors at the Nitzaney Ha Mada School

By Boris Serebro

(This is a guest post, contributed by one of our parents who collaborated with us to bring the “How To Be An Inventor” program in his school. Boris, not only championed to bring this in his school, he helped translate the material, coordinated with other parents, and found ways to enhance the program! It was truly a joy working with him and we are grateful for that.)

I think most of us already know that creativity and innovation are major contributors to today’s changes in the world, but not a single one of them is taught in schools. I was looking for ways to improve and freshen up the way my children learn, in order to prepare them better for a successful career and grown-up life. I happened to stumble upon a publication about this wonderful idea of “creativity is something that can be taught”, and saw the “How To Be An Inventor” course, and it fit like a glove!

The school my kids learn in, Nitzaney Ha Mada, has earned itself a reputation of a fresh and open-minded school over the last years, mainly due to the amazing work of the school director, Dorit Nadler, and her pedagogic team. They are working hard on inventing new ways to help the students reach newer heights, by bringing extracurricular activities and programs, such as  adopting a new teaching method of positive thinking and speaking the happiness language as a way of promoting personal excellence in students, and making the novel concept of “school without homework” a working example for other schools. 

So all I had to do is stitch the various pieces together. I first met with Pronita, the MindAntix founder and CEO and got her agreement. My spouse and I then met with Dorit and got her excited blessing and agreement of cooperation from the pedagogic team. Since the current staff was very busy with its own curriculum and extracurricular activities, and the fact that the material is in English, we had to gather a group of volunteering parents to teach in each of the four 4th grade classes. For all that to run smoothly, I also had to translate the material before each lesson.

Creativity Skills

The course is structured in a way that for almost half the duration students focus on learning different creativity techniques that can help them come up with interesting ideas for their inventions. Only after spending enough time with ideation, do students pick the most promising one to take further as their final invention.

Some of the creative thinking techniques that students learned were:

  • Association Map: How to use combine concepts that were one or more hops away to find product ideas that were surprising. 
  • Using Random Associations: How to combine unrelated ideas to get original and interesting ideas. 
  • Challenging Assumptions:  How to look out for hidden assumptions and reverse them to get new insights and ideas. 

Student Inventions

By the end of the course students had come up with many interesting ideas for their inventions and were excited to showcase them. Below is a small sampling of some of the neat ideas from the students:

  • A Scented Book: It’s a book that also comes with the smells of the story and upgrades the experience of reading a book. It was originally a book with lemon/orange smell to help to cope with nausea during bus rides, but the idea evolved over time.
  • Rubber Duck Vacuum: A rubber duck-shaped vacuum, to be operated by small children to help their parents.  While kids play with it, it vacuums and cleans the house. 
  • Seasonal shirt: A self-folding/ collapsible (into a small box, that can fit in a pocket) sweater for those times when the weather changes and you’re too hot / too cold. 
  • Climate control doll:The doll would detect the weather by itself and will operate its hands like a fan to cool you and even add some water splashes out of its mouth, to help you cool.
  • Juice box: A single bottle with internal compartments that allow you to store more than one type of drink, be able to drink and mix and bring it all with you on a trip.
  • An effective wake-up clock:  A clock with an arm, which is set to be activated after some time the user does not wake up (the inventor has difficulties waking up in the morning).
  • Smart closet: The closet is operated by voice commands, opens up and brings you the clothes you need with a telescopic hand. 
  • Airplane book stand: A retractable stand to help with holding an open book for reading, without the use of hands. The original intention was to help with nausea, but is also helpful in times when food is served or busy hands.

Overall Experience

The course material is very organized and contains very detailed instructions on what to teach, how to say it, how to present the examples and even how much time each part should take. So, as the teacher-parents we had confidence and a very good starting point to prepare for the lesson.

The course itself takes a methodical approach on how to teach children to be inventors. The course teaches the kids a few tools and methods to come up with new ideas. The kids were excited to learn those new methods and play with them. 

We enhanced these activities by bringing real-life examples of useful and funny inventions, to inspire the children and engage them in thinking. We also added additional examples to the course material, in order to let the children practice together before approaching the course exercises, so that they would grasp the ideas better. This was really important, as the children from various levels sit together in the same class. This was a method to bring them all closer to a more or less equal start. Another purpose of those examples was to better and graphically explain the concepts to the kids, who are used to learning from screens and powerpoint presentations. 

Some sessions took us longer than expected, despite us separating them into working groups. Some times when the students had difficulty grasping a concept, we had to adjust our pace, reinvent examples and modify methodologies (like do class reviews on peer work so that other kids would get inspired).

Later on, the course continued to show students the process of turning their creative ideas into reality. The kids got to learn about the process inventors go through, which is something we learn today only in universities, if at all.

Since some of the material was less relevant for us (for instance, our students didn’t have computers in the class to work on their online assignment), we decided to add our own material and went deeper with them on the process entrepreneurs go through. We added modern subjects such as crowdfunding, together with real-life examples of actual products that started there and became a reality.

The feedback we got from the parents and the children were amazing. First, the children would eagerly wait for this weekly lesson. The lessons are interactive, and almost all of them have some game that involves the whole class. Since this was a totally new and different material,  alongside games, this added to the excitement in the class. Second, the parents told us that “their kids always shared with them the new things they learned in the course”, and were amazed by the content and how interesting this program is.

In the end, we felt that the students learned at a much deeper level what it takes to be an inventor and had fun along the way. 

How To Improve Creative Collaboration

After decades of living in near obscurity, Einstein published his theory of general relativity a little over a century ago. He had toiled away for years on those problems, and when he finally figured out his theory, the rewards and recognition that followed completely changed his life.

But did he really deserve all the accolades? Many of his ideas were fleshed out through regular discussions with his long time friends, Grossman and Besso. Grossman, in particular, was a gifted mathematician who helped Einstein at crucial points. So was Einstein really a lone genius or just a smart collaborator?

The answer is both. Einstein was both a lone genius and a smart collaborator. While he relied on his collaborators for solving some key parts, he also provided the insights and ideas that led to the theories. Removing any of the two elements would have resulted in failure.  

All significant creative accomplishments are the product of both individual excellence and fruitful collaborations. And as the problems and challenges we face become more complex, the importance of collaboration is only going to increase. 

However, collaboration is not easy. For instance, several studies have found that group brainstorming is less effective than individual brainstorming. The challenges that get in the way of productive group work include social loafing, evaluation apprehension and production blocking. 

So the real challenge in creative problem solving, is finding ways to balance both individual and group work. Given the challenges involved in group work, here are some tips to improve the quality of collaboration:

Interleave Solo and Group Work

One way to improve the creativity in a collaborative setting is to allow for both individual and group times in the problem solving process. Asking students to think of ideas before presenting to the group avoids the problem of production blocking in the group setting. During the group session, ideas can be pooled and combined, and if followed by another solo session where everyone gets a chance to reflect on the results, the outcome can be much better than either solo or group work. 

Additionally, some kinds of tasks are better suited for individual or group settings. For example, solo work in the initial ideation phase produces better results whereas evaluating ideas as a group is more effective than evaluating individually. 

Assign Clear Roles

Collaborative work also works better when team members have complementary roles that all contribute to the bigger task. Team members are more prone to social loafing when they all work on the same task but when each team member had a separate task, they are more motivated to do their share. These results were true even when team members knew that their individual work is not going to be identified in the task. 

Increase Attention To Group Ideas

The advantage of collaboration from a creativity perspective comes from being able to combine different ideas in new ways, which is a cognitively demanding task. Simply sharing each others’ ideas in a group setting does not help as much. However, allocating time to listen to different ideas and asking students to reflect on all group ideas, with the intent to find ways to integrate multiple ideas can improve the overall creativity of the group. Having a more diverse group also helps in this case, as each person brings a different perspective to the table all of which could potentially be combined in interesting ways.  

Creativity requires both individual and group work to flourish. Truly creative ideas might start with an individual but really take wings when they meet other ideas and perspectives. Students need to build skills for both working independently and collaboratively, in a way that produces better solutions and learning. 

3 Reasons To Encourage Peer Learning In The Classroom

Lev Vygotsky, a highly influential Soviet psychologist, believed that learning in children is heavily influenced by social interaction. At the earliest stages, an infant’s unsuccessful grasping motion is (incorrectly) interpreted as pointing by parents and their subsequent response determines what the baby learns about that gesture. This kind of learning isn’t just limited to the infant stage or to simple tasks. Higher order cognitive processes, he believed, follow the same pattern – they start at the social level and are then internalized at an individual level.

Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism is also the underpinning of the more recent peer and cooperative learning. While adults like parents and teachers play a crucial role in learning, children’s conversations with each other play an equally important role. Through exchanging ideas, asking questions or offering explanations children can help each other build better mental models of the concept they are learning. 

The advantages to peer learning aren’t limited to knowledge building. Several research studies have shown the benefits of using peer learning that go beyond the cognitive domain. Here are three reasons why peer learning can be beneficial to students and culture:

Better Learning Outcomes

The biggest advantage of peer learning is the increase in academic achievement. Several structures of peer cooperative learning, like Student Teams-Achievement Divisions and Teams-Games-Tournament, have been studied and all of them consistently shown that students perform significantly better with peer learning than without. While the majority of these studies focused more on knowledge acquisition, there are indications that peer learning is just as beneficial for building higher order thinking skills. In one study researchers broke out tasks into “high cognitive level” and “low cognitive level”, and found positive achievement gains on the high level items. 

Positive Social Gains

A key benefit of peer learning is the increase in communication and social interaction skills among students. One study found that the gains in cooperative learning skills correlated with social gains both in and outside of the class. Students in peer learning have also reported more positively on mutual concern –  liking their classmates’ and feeling that their classmates like them too. 

Improved Racial Relationships

Cooperative peer learning has been found to be one of the best ways to improve racial relationships. Several studies have documented that students in mixed race groups, name more of their classmates from different races as friends compared to control groups. One followup study found that the students who had worked in interracial groups made significantly more cross-racial friendships several months after the study ended. 

In our programs, peer learning is a central component in both structured and unstructured formats. For example, in our “How To Be An Inventor” program, we teach students how to give constructive feedback to each other. Before students present their ideas to the group, we explain that the goal for the students is to improve each other’s ideas and make it the best possible version. With that goal as the backdrop, we often find that students ask great questions and offer concrete suggestions to improve each others’ ideas. Peer learning is also supported in other unstructured ways when students browse their friends’ solutions online or when they walk over and see how others are working on a problem. 

While there is no formal reward associated with being constructive peers, the social recognition that comes with it, is enough to cognitively and emotionally engage students. In addition, we often find that students build more confidence and start relating better to their classmates.

Summer Camp: Designing Board Games

We just wrapped up our multi-disciplinary summer camps this year, and once again had so much fun guiding our middle schoolers in their creative journey! Our challenge for students this year was to design original board games based on their own areas of interests. We partnered with Archimedes school, who taught 3D printing, so students could make meeples and dice for their games.

By asking students to design a game around their passion or interests, our goal was that they would bring their domain knowledge on the topic, without which they wouldn’t be able to make a sufficiently creative game. In addition, we expected them to be more engaged during learning and more incentivized to put in extra effort to create the best version of their idea. 

Game Design Concepts

To design a good game, students had to first learn some basic game concepts like game mechanics, victory conditions and tension. To make learning more relevant,  we brought in common (and a couple not-so-common) board games that students used in deconstructing the various elements. We also used other games like Rock-Paper-Scissors to demonstrate the concept of balance in a game (and it also gave us a chance to sneak in some math and logic). They figured out that a Rock-Paper-Scissors version with an even number of elements can never be balanced, and then had a blast designing their own balanced versions with more than three elements!

Creative Process

While planning for the camp we also designed how the creative process would flow. If you ask a student (or most adults for that matter) to come up with an original idea, it often stumps them. Integrating a creative process into the workflow can give students the tools and direction to think creatively, and makes the process far less intimidating. 

The two techniques we focused on for the camp were analogical and associative thinking, which we felt were best suited for this scenario. 

To start with students first picked a game they liked and created an analogous version based on their interest. As a simple example, suppose the theme is to teach children about nutrition and health, and the model game is Snakes and Ladders. After deconstructing the game into its elements, one could design a new board game where some spots, like eating junk food or catching a cold makes you lose spots while exercising might make you go forward more spots. 

At this point the game still looks a lot like Snakes and Ladders. You could then start associating  with other game elements and modifying the game. For instance, you could add chance cards (e.g. falling and breaking a bone that sends you back a few spots) or convert the game to a point based system. By using different game elements, the game now starts to evolve differently and takes a very different shape. 

Student Designed Games

It was fascinating to see the students come up with very interesting, and very different, ideas for their board games. Here is a sampling of the board games students designed:

  • Rainforest Exploration – A game that teaches you about different animals in the rainforest as you race to the finish. 
  • Sun Power: A game that incentivizes using renewable energy sources. 
  • Collect-It: An interior design game, where you race to decorate your room. 
  • Archi-tex: A game where you have to be the first one to build a 2,000 ft building. 
  • Prime Switch: A fast paced math game that tests your computationals skills.
  • Soccer Board Game: Score goals by answering soccer trivia questions. 

The most fun part, though, was to see the excitement and energy as students got ready for the final demo to parents. Almost every student found last minute mistakes or changes that they just had to fix, but eventually all of them were able to put their demo together! And of course, they all found several ways that they could have designed things differently. 

We hope they enjoyed playing their game with friends and family, and maybe even designed their next versions!