Collaboration Outside of Class Inspires Learning

Eric Braun Blog

Students are used to learning in a certain way, because we train them to follow a predefined structure. This “traditional” structure helps certain students excel by mastering the system, while others, who do not master it, do not do as well. We should ask ourselves, “Is the intended learning outcome to have kids learn to learn the rules and then follow them or is it to empower them to discover knowledge and learn skills with guidance?”

Certainly, we do not want kids to grow up to be anarchists who do not follow any rules (Just a gut feel here), but don’t we want to encourage more creative thinking and problem solving by making the path to success less clear and more open to interpretation? I’m not advocating taking them into the woods without a map and asking them to find their way out blindly, but sometimes we seem to provide so many rules and so much structure that our students don’t even have to think about where to go and what to do.

One way I have found to motivate my students to be independent learners is to have them collaborate on a project with others outside of the class. The key is finding something that interests them to the point of taking action.

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It all began last Spring when I met a Tufts University graduate student at a startup event. Kiyomi was studying at the Fletcher School for international affairs. She talked about a class she was taking on making an impact with micro-finance. A few months earlier, I had met Mohammed Yunis at a UNH conference on social entrepreneurship, so I was very interested in what Kiyomi had to say. She explained that she and a friend, Cassy, needed to come up with a project to spend $100 to further a social cause — instead of buying a textbook.

“Wow!” I said. “That’s perfect! I’m trying to get my entrepreneurship students to incorporate a social cause into the startups they are creating this semester.”

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Aside: I teach an immersion class where students start with ideas and create a startup to pitch to a shark tank panel, all in 3 months. There’s a lot to do and a lot to learn, but I want them to think beyond just making money.

We talked more and came up with an idea together. Kiyomi and Cassy would create a competition for my students to propose how they could include a social cause into their startup companies and further the cause using just $100.

I was really excited about this idea, because it would get the students thinking differently and working with others outside of the class. In addition, it would help them think of how they can extend their bottom line to include helping people or the planet, not just profitability.

Last year’s project went very well, but we had only scratched the surface. My students had a hard time connecting corporate social responsibility with their startups. This year, three Fletcher students stepped up to do the collaborative project: Catriona, Emily and Olivia. To better prepare my students, the trio introduced them to a Harvard Business Review article on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The students read the article before class and prepared some talking points or questions. In class, Catriona, Emily and Olivia facilitated a superb discussion that wanted to take over the whole 3-hour time slot. The students were engaged and interested, and this energy gave many of them more ideas on how to extend their startup companies to include CSR.

At 8:15 a.m. this morning, I attended the Fletcher class and watching my 4 sophomore students walk into a strange room with 30 unknown graduate students peering down on them. FullSizeRender 6 After sitting gracefully for about 15 minutes, they were introduced and presented with confidence how their startup, BiteClub, would help local chefs and produce growers by matching them up with people who wanted a great catering experience without breaking the bank. Their all-around win-win concept made an impression on the graduate students who, I would like to think, were enviously thinking about how they could include entrepreneurship into their Fletcher studies on international affairs (which would be truly collaborative).

I noticed a few great things that my students had learned and accomplished:

  1. They creatively included something new into their startup: a clear vision of helping others. Even though they were already helping local chefs, they did not really think of it this way, and by thinking more about CSR, they were able to include a commitment to having the chefs buy at least 50% local produce for their meals.
  2. On their own, they went the extra mile to propose a solution and interact with the Fletcher students. My involvement was minimal and truly unnecessary.
  3. It seemed that the team commitment was greater once they had a higher reason for doing what they had started.
  4. They got up early, dressed up professionally and presented beautifully, not because anyone told them to do it, but because they wanted to do it.
  5. They did the extra work without anyone dangling the prospect of a grade over them, not even extra credit.
  6. Their actions made an impression on me, a classroom full of older grad students and on themselves.

At the end of their presentation, they smiled and thanked the audience, then walked out of the room with pride and poise. I have no doubt that this learning experience will be memorable to them forever. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

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So, ask yourselves, “How can you include some collaboration outside of your immediate classroom that might enthusiastically engage and inspire your students to take ownership of their learning and create something great?” I happened to do it at the college level, but you can do it at the High School, Middle School and even Elementary School levels. And when you do, drop me an email or send me a link, so I can pass it on to the world.

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