What Happens When Students Feel Ownership for Their Learning? For Girls in STEAM After-School Enrichment, the Results Are Strong, Entertaining & Memorable

In 2012, Sadie and Zoe’s school leadership and faculty committed themselves to being a STEAM school. When their principal offered my course in the STEM of Fashion Design as after-school enrichment, Sadie and Zoe went to work creating design concepts for a school T-shirt that would capture this new identity. Their principal, teachers, and community members became their client.

But the girls had competition.

Determined that their design concept be the winner for the school T-shirt contest, Sadie and Zoe gave up lunch periods to produce the video ad below. In the fifth grade at the time they created this work, Sadie and Zoe, with help from their friend Cassidy, capped their design pitch with this piece, which they titled “Simply STEAM.” (See this definition of STEAM.)

When Students Take Ownership for Their Learning, the Results Are Better than Anything We Could Have Required

As with all great advertising, the video emotionally connected with its audience. The content appealed to the adult judges’ sense of humor and made them laugh out loud. Through laughter, the judges physically connected with Sadie and Zoe’s work.

What did the competition create? We can’t remember.

Here are two points:

(1) The goal presented to the girls was to design a T-shirt concept and to work with their client, the school, to help communicate the new school identity. The assignment appealed to the value the girls held for fashion design, representing their school, and winning. And because the work was aligned with what they valued, giving their “all” was a slam-dunk.

(2) The girls’ investment of time, creativity, and love for their work showed off the ownership they felt for the process and its outcome.

Questions for Creating an Experience in Which Students Can Be Inspired + Own Their Learning

Remember that origin of the word inspire means to breathe or blow into. In other words, what of a person’s surroundings serves to give her the breath of action, thought, creativity, genius? What is the “air quality,” if you will, in which we ask young people to do and be and perform?

Consider the brilliance and musical output of Alma Deutscher, who is being hailed as “Little Miss Mozart” (in interviews she points out why this label is not appropriate). Now 8 years old, Alma lives an inspired life and inspires others.

As with Alma, when we are inspired, we inspire others. When we are interested, we are interesting. But because school can feel obligatory and uninspiring to students, we also have to discover where their values lie. Here are questions to help any educator begin.

  • In what ways can you uncover what your students value? Periodic in-class questionnaire? One-on-one conversations? Close observation of how they physically show up in class?
  • How do you appeal to and respect those values in the classroom?
  • What are the qualities of the class assignments most likely to spark student inspiration and ownership for their learning?

What questions and ideas can you add to this list?

Back to Sadie + Zoe’s Video: Girls in STEAM Learning + Entrepreneurial Competition

The video below was the brainchild and production of Sadie and Zoe. The project came from their hearts and minds. I did not know the girls had taken these extra steps until a few minutes before the design competition was to begin. The video is an example of what comes from young people doing what they love, loving what they do, and owning their output. Is there any better way to learn?

In addition to the video, they created a slideshow in which they outlined their hard costs, wholesale price, and choice of fabric for their design. This was important because they had sourced organic cotton, a more expensive choice than conventionally grown cotton, and they wanted their client (the school) to understand the thinking behind their decision-making. The content gave the adult judges hard facts, supported by numbers, analysis, and critical thinking.

The fact that the work was created by 5th graders is beside the point. The more important point is this: the work shows what happens when learning collides with what young people value and love.

Sadie and Zoe’s work is professional and reflects their respect for themselves as young entrepreneurs. (To hear more from Sadie on girls in STEAM and the business aspects of fashion design for young entrepreneurs, see this interview with NBC affiliate KUSA 9News Denver.)

Because Sadie and Zoe enjoyed the creative process, we all may enjoy the result. Here it is.