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Big challenge for the year: incubating innovation

August 18, 2010

I teach at a prestigious private prep school (read: pressure cooker). I’ve always taught at “prestigious” private schools, but somehow, students here take the cake for stress and extrinsic motivation. Often it seems that many students here follows the same well worn path by students everywhere: Take every AP, as soon as possible, complain about your work and stress as much as possible, squander your free time with facebook (where you can complain some more) and do everything you can for the only goal that matters: college admission to a top school. Everyone seems to buy this, and from my days as at a small boarding school, I know it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve always thought (and see it it happen) that if you can take the time to become deeply interested in something, and put in the requisite time, high school students can accomplish truly amazing things, and I don’t mean becoming a AP scholar with distinction. High school students can change the world—see here, here, here and here. Students are doing real things that are important, engaging, and make most everyone (including college admissions officers) step back and say “wow.”

This summer, I read the book How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less, by Cal Newport, author one of the best blogs about learning, school and success, Study Hacks.

First point: if you know a freshman in high school, buy him her this book.

When I read this book, I realized it was an exact manifesto for what I wanted my students to become, and Cal helped me to see the even bigger insight that doing amazing things like starting a company, or publishing original scientific research if often less stressful than grinding out answers to problem sets for AP chemistry. So here was my answer—kids can stress less, do more, achieve their goals and change the world. How can I get my kids to do this?

So today I gave this presentation:

My thought is to try to get a cohort of interested students, and then try to build some sort of “innovation incubator” a-la y-combinator that meets regularly to help kids define their interests, troubleshoot projects and hear from other students and adult innovators.

So maybe this will work. I really don’t know—it’s a far cry how the typical student at my school envisions his or her year. We’ll see.


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