5 Steps To Create Your Own Recipe Of Unexpected Classroom Creativity

Michael Cohen
Feb 9, 2018 · 8 min read


When it comes to learning something new, I’m hungry. If a day or week goes by and I don’t learn something new, I feel like telling myself, “Michael, you’re doing it wrong.” I’m hungry because the openness to learn, to be a “lifelong learner,” means you’re never done, you’re never satisfied and you never become complacent. Complacency is poison. This refusal to continuously seek out new ideas, keep up to date on emerging trends, and know when to pivot and double down on personal and professional growth, is toxic. It’s toxic on an individual level and even more destructive on an organizational level because when you get to that level, then you have “Blockbuster vision”. If don’t know what Blockbuster vision is, it’s when you see a competitor (Netflix) disrupting your industry with a brand new way of doing things and you write them off as a fad. Then you go bankrupt. While some feel the point of school is to achieve mastery over reading, writing, and arithmetic, I believe that hunger to learn is what will help them master those but also achieve so much more. So I decided to develop and launch what I am calling The Entrepreneurial Spark Studio. One month into working at a new school as a Director of Innovation, I launched a course for entrepreneurship. Not a class on how to put entrepreneur on their Instagram profile, or how they could make the next Uber for cat-sitting, but a class that will make them hungry to learn and discover new things, and maybe cry a little bit too.


After launching The Entrepreneurial Spark Studio courses, I was initially shocked by two things. The first was how many students eagerly volunteered to give up their lunch hour and break periods during the week to take another class. The second surprise occured when observing the level of motivation and dedication these students had when learning on their terms. Just stop for a moment and think about that. These students are in school from 7:30am till 5pm with a 9 period block schedule and they chose to add another class. Why would they do this to themselves? The answer is simple. Students actually love to learn! Everyone loves to learn! The challenge is that “school”, in the attempt to teach the masses and ensure that all youth are provided with a good education, locked themselves into a factory-style process that makes any shift or upgrade to the system long and arduous. The result is a 10 year lag behind the real world and a level of scepticism against emerging or trending technology and methods.

The fact that we are still debating technology’s role in education in 2018 is proof in itself of the broken system — a system that still has cell phones banned and social media forbidden. Meanwhile, students spend the hours from 3pm-11pm (or later) hooked to Youtube and Snapchat doing, guess what? Learning. Maybe not YOUR definition of learning, and maybe not even mine, but what they’re doing fits the textbook definition.

Learning is the process of acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences.

Value. Education has decided what is valuable without consulting the client. What other industry does this? Students, the forgotten stakeholders.

So how can we captivate the minds of teenages and expand their creative capacity? The answer is “real world relevance.” Whether it’s skills, content, or the ability to acquire knowledge, we need education to shift their approach to one that is more aware of the world around them. Case in point — The World Economic Forum, a non-profit think tank founded in 1971. Their massive annual forum which hosts an audience including nearly all major world leaders, businesspeople, and innovators, is nearly unknown to teachers and students. Instead of spending a month reading antiquated texts, the discussions taking place at the forum, including climate change, education, and the world of business, should fuel the research, analysis, writing, and discussions taking place in the high school English classes. Does that mean dropping Hamlet and To Kill A Mockingbird? If it does, then that is part of a deeper systemic problem of “all or nothing” in education.

So how can we fix it? How can we design a solution to this challenge in an environment refusing to change? How can we boost engagement and motivation while still ensuring that students experience significant growth in understanding AND application? It takes an intentionally designed process that isn’t student focused, but human focused.

Design Thinking is HUMAN focused and that is what makes solutions sustainable.

Step 1: Survey Students Interests (Empathize to understand them)

Seems basic, but I offered them themes of interest to find out what intrigued them. My survey wasn’t a “pick one of my choices” exercise, it was “rank your interests” and if there were none, it was on me to fix that.

Step 2: Help Your Students Become Self Aware (Define the problem or challenge)

Are you self aware? How did you get there. It was mind-blowing for me, when using a simple, personal development plan, how confused students were when identifying their skills, how those skills might be valuable in a job, their values, or how others perceived their abilities. This plan gave them a roadmap on how to start a process of growth for themselves.

Step 3: Scale Towards Mastery (Ideate the plan or possibility)

Students live in moments. Chapters, units, semesters, and school years. When I challenged students to create an action plan to gain mastery of a skill, it was like riding a bike for the first time for almost all of them. When students found that most skills, like app development, product design, business management, took 20 weeks, 6 months, 2 years or more, they couldn’t wrap their heads around how they would achieve this in a semester. The answer was they wouldn’t, but that shouldn’t stop them. They should scale the full scope and look at what 12–16 weeks of growth would look like. Those goals would let them look back at the end of the year and see if they made growth and if not, why. This also creates an opportunity to understand failure, reflection, and how to pivot when things aren’t working. Sort of like life, right?

Step 4: Kick Perfection To The Curb And Start Doing (Prototype the potential you want to see)

Prototypes are not clean. They’re rough, flawed, and contain errors. They’re meant to lean from, to build from, and to ensure that 2.0 is better in every way from 1.0. This concept, borrowed from Computational Design, is all about learning from use and experience. We don’t need to perfect things on the first attempt because nearly every first attempt is flawed. This approach is at odds with traditional education and we need to fix that. Having students test methods to launch their company, learn a new set of skills, or team up with others to leverage their unique gifts are foreign to most students. I find students asking me questions like, “What if I get half way through the semester and realize that this isn’t the right direction?” or, “What happens if I realize that I can’t master this skill or launch my product?” My response is confusing, but makes sense. Stop, reflect, pivot. If you don’t want to be a computer programmer, maybe your new awareness of apps and coding will be of value in your future role. When students stop siloing experiences, they start to see how life is much more connected than we think it is.

Step 5: You Don’t Know Until You Try (Test towards clarity)

School does not put much emphasis on applied knowledge. I hate to say it, but memorizing facts and snippets of information might pique interest but it doesn’t lead to any sort of “doing.” No, a diorama doesn’t count and neither does a group project that regurgitates some curricular topic that is a near replica to the other class groups. Students need to experience making something that others use and interact with. As students began to prototype apps using Google Slides (Stay tuned for that project workflow), they understand that vision, ideas, and content mean nothing if the experience isn’t interesting, clear, and exciting. Creating a service is the same, and testing means not just accepting criticism, but actually seeking it out and looking to leverage the criticism to improve whatever it is that you’re doing.

*Bonus* Step 6: Do It To Bring Value To Others (Ship it!)

The end-game of learning is turning in a final product to the teacher. We need to shift our thinking of where the final learning product ends up. Whether it is bringing value to classroom peers, another grade level at school, your great community or beyond, students must see their hardwork and efforts as containing more value than just a “good grade”.

This is how I scaled my Entrepreneur Studio courses. This is how I helped students grow. This is how I leveraged the love of learning to get students to grow and develop skills and abilities in ways previously unimaginable. What’s even more mind blowing is the level in which they incorporated fundamental literacies and core curricular concepts into their work. Here is the breakdown:

Math — Product Design, App Develop, and Machine Learning — all required advanced problem solving abilities, the understanding of variables, and a significant attention to accuracy.

English — Elevator pitches, presentations, white papers, and research and development all required writing and communication to be accurate, original, and of the highest quality. If you think English teachers are unforgiving, you have never met a venture capitalist.

History — “If you don’t understand the past, you are doomed to repeat it” is not just a tagline, it’s reality. The ability to research and connect common threads of events and growth in an industry is Business 101.

Science — You want to see chemistry, physics, technology, and product design collide? Build a hoverboard. No joke. When it comes to biotech and other science technology mashups, there are so many ways to take science beyond the STEM scripted experiences

There are so many ways to take these core literacies and course subjects into the realm of real and relevant. What are you doing to design a recipe for disruption?

Michael Cohen

Written by

Cultivating Creative Practice in Education - Designer, Problem Solver, Storyteller, M.S.Ed, Apple Distinguished, Creator — The #EducatedByDesign Project