Leading the Way
A new approach to empowering young entrepreneurs
A lifestyle brand featuring clothing accessories with stylish illustrations of modern Muslim women in hijabs. Pick-up soccer games offered throughout Toronto for recent immigrants and underserved communities. A non-backlit monitor that makes it possible for concussion sufferers to continue working on their computers.
These are a few examples of the student projects incubated within Ryerson University’s Zone Learning model. In Ryerson’s ten learning zones – such as the Digital Media Zone, Fashion Zone, Social Ventures Zone, Biomedical Zone, and many others – students work on original projects, enterprises, start-ups or services with the support of peers, mentors, industry experts and the deep resources available at a leading university. It’s a model of experiential learning that allows students to tap into their creativity and entrepreneurial drive to solve real-world problems. And it’s a model now in place for BSS students.
This past September, BSS launched its unique version of Ryerson’s zone approach: Signature Learning. Currently a Junior School initiative with the potential to grow in the future, Signature Learning immerses BSS girls in a dynamic and collaborative “doing” environment scaled to their age and interests. Like Ryerson’s zone members, girls learn how to work through the two major stages required to bring a concept to realization. At the ideation stage, they conceive of possible projects and then work through problems, solutions and potential opportunities. The second stage – incubation – then involves taking the most viable of those ideas further into development, testing and a final launch into the world. Both stages are collaborative and supported by peer and teacher feedback.
So what exactly are BSS girls doing in their sessions, which occur once in every eight-day cycle?
“We started with a ‘design jam,’” explains Mary Anne Van Acker, Assistant Head, Innovation Development and Technology at BSS. “We focused on our new building, as we are all getting to know it and exploring its possibilities. Junior School grades were split into groups and headed out into various spaces with some provoking questions. What does the space feel and look like? What can you do in it? Is it missing anything? Our question really was, what’s possible here? This was the spur for ideation. Student groups recorded possibilities on paper, on iPads and with photographs. Eventually, their ideas were shared with their class.”
Catherine Hant, Principal of the Junior School, worked with the teachers to identify some themes from the student documentation. There were ideas related to the environment, energy, food, community and health. The question was, which would carry on to incubation? The process of deciding was collaborative.
“We encouraged the girls to think about what will have an impact on others, either within our community or the community beyond BSS,” says Ms. Hant. “In some cases, those ‘others’ were other species! For example, one group of Grade 3 and 4 students had witnessed a bird fly into a glass window while they were working on ideas for the new building. As a result, they focused on creating a way to prevent bird deaths. It was truly an authentic learning moment. They were faced with a problem, came up with solutions, and found a way to make a difference in their environment. That’s what Signature Learning is all about.”
Pursuing another topic entirely, a group of Grade 1 and Grade 5 students found out that they shared an interest in board games and joined together to generate ideas. Eventually, the Grade 5 girls focused on how board games could be used with seniors for social interaction and brain health. They looked at the research on mental deterioration and applied it to game development. Real-world testing through The Russell Hill Retirement Residence is one opportunity students could explore, given the school’s ongoing relationship with the home. With feedback from users, the games could then be redeveloped. These later stages in the project are some of the defining features of incubation: design, test, refine and launch.
Students rarely get to experience that level of self-direction in their learning.
“Signature Learning puts the students at the centre of an open-ended process,” says Head of School Judith Carlisle. “Certainly students are working within a structured system – as in university incubators. They are provided with guidance and resources. But it is up to them to decide what happens at each stage along the way. The girls have to make choices, each of which eliminates other possibilities. They have to work together, follow through, overcome obstacles. There is risk involved. Some ideas aren’t viable and some ventures won’t fly in the end. There are failures from which to learn, and that’s a powerful form of learning.”
Ms. Van Acker agrees: “You try things. You see if they can work. You adapt and modify. In the end, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. Our girls feel the thrill of success and the sting of failure – all within a context that values creativity, collaboration and ongoing learning. Even the failures are wins. There are no penalties. Instead, there’s excitement at the prospect that your next idea could be your best yet. That’s a very motivating way to live and learn.”
How do the girls feel about Signature Learning? When you ask, their responses are bursting with enthusiasm.
“The best part is that the teachers let you put all the ideas in first,” says Grade 3 student Charlotte G. “Then we eliminate some of them. It makes it fairer. Some ideas are better. We can only have one or two ideas that we can do, so we know the reason for picking some.”
“Signature Learning helps me share my ideas with others and lets others add on to my ideas,” adds classmate Valentina N. “I like getting my idea bigger and getting other people interested in it so it grows.”
Monica Jako, Director of Community Engagement and Social Innovation at Ryerson University, sees the same level of interest and engagement in zone members. A valuable resource for BSS, Ms. Jako hosted a university visit, helped work through the implementation steps, and has stayed connected to the initiative.
“From my perspective, Signature Learning is modeling innovation and entrepreneurial behaviours,” says Ms. Jako. “Very few schools, public or private, nationally or internationally, are challenging its administration and teachers to be entrepreneurs. What an amazing learning experience for BSS students. Not only will this support the development of a new skill set, BSS girls will discover new ways to make a difference in the community.”
If you want to inspire girls to be fearless, they need to dare to innovate. If you want to educate girls to be leaders, they need to drive the process. That’s what it is all about.
Karen Sumner, Ph.D. is co-owner of the freelance writing company Sumner & Lang