Flexibility, Freedom, and Failure: Extraordinary Students Offer Advice for Improving Schools

By Benjamin Herold — June 23, 2019 4 min read
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What lessons do extraordinary students have for K-12 educators and administrators?

On the opening day of the annual conference of the International Society for Education, being held here, two of the teenagers featured in Education Week’s 2018 Faces of the Future series shared their experiences and advice. Emma Yang of New York City and Jeremy Currier of Rochester Hills, Mich., were joined by Andrew Rodebaugh, a recent graduate of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy high school, for a panel discussion.

The students’ suggestions: More options for what to learn. More flexibility in the school day. An emphasis on a well-rounded education. And more space to embrace failure.

“Schools obviously aren’t able to teach everything, but the curriculum can become more flexible to allow students to combine their inside- and outside-of-school passions,” Yang said.

Here’s a breakdown of the four big lessons from Sunday’s panel:

1. Help students turn failure into a learning opportunity.

When Rodebaugh’s robot came out of the gate at a high-profile competition and promptly took an epic nosedive, the moment became a viral internet meme.

Now an 18-year old rising freshman at Drexel University, he’s able to laugh about such failures. But there was a time when they drove him out of school altogether.

Rodebaugh’s private elementary/middle school not only failed to accommodate his special needs, said Rodebaugh (who was born with a heart that lacks a left ventricle, leading to a series of health issues as a child and ongoing challenges with memory and verbal communication). The school was also a place “where failure was shamed and despised.”

He withdrew, then was homeschooled for years. That’s when he caught the coding bug. For high school, Rodebaugh decided to attend SLA, a project-based magnet high school that has won international recognition for its approach.

There, his teachers not only were explicit about expecting students to make mistakes, they laid out the process to learn from them, including structured reflections and iterative design processes.

By the end of his senior year, Rodebaugh had designed an online platform for hackathons and coding competitions and developed an app to help people avoid dehydration, an issue that had previously sent him to the hospital.

“Because I was encouraged to fail, I became a better student,” Rodebaugh said.

2. Make room in your curriculum for students’ passions

Emma Yang just launched Timeless, a mobile app that uses facial recognition and artificial intelligence to help Alzheimer’s patients recognize loved ones, remember events, and stay connected with friends and family members.

It wouldn’t have been possible if her school, New York’s private Brearley School, hadn’t been willing to accommodate her unusual interests and talents.

“Developing Timeless for the past three years, I’ve been pitching and doing talks and panels to spread the word and raise awareness,” Yang said. “Whenever I had to miss class or need extensions on assignments, my teachers had to really support that and help me get through my education while working on this outside of school.”

3. Traditional liberal arts can = innovation

Yang also detailed some counterintuitive ways her school has been helpful in her development as an innovator and entrepreneur.

“My parents chose a liberal arts education for me, even though I’m a tech kid,” she said. “They really believe if you read well, you write well. And if you write well, you think well.”

That approach has helped with Timeless in all sorts of ways, Yang said.

She’s become a more critical thinker.

She’s become a better problem-solver.

And perhaps most importantly, Yang said, she’s become a better communicator, using her exceptional interpersonal skills to find mentors, raise funds, and win over judges at pitch competitions.

“Being able to really tell my story, and really tell the narrative behind Timeless, has been really instrumental in helping me get Timeless to where it is today,” Yang said.

4. Introduce technology courses as early as possible and find opportunities for highly skilled students.

By the time he was 11, Jeremy Currier was already building his own computers at home.

At school, though, the STEM classes that might tap into that curiosity and talent didn’t start til 6th grade, and even those were extremely basic.

“Having those classes start in middle school was really almost an insult to me,” Currier said. “I wasn’t learning anything.”

Conversations with counselors about his interests didn’t seem to go anywhere. But Currier’s IT-related curiosity didn’t go away. When he and a friend found a sticky note with username and password information posted on a school computer, they started exploring, eventually gaining a breathtaking level of control over their school district’s network (Education Week detailed the hack and Currier’s resulting expulsion as part of the Faces of the Future series.)

What might have prevented things from going so wrong?

More opportunities to channel his interests, Currier said. Maybe the opportunity to work with school IT staff. Or an independent study program. And definitely industry IT certification programs, available as soon as students demonstrate readiness to pursue them.

“Get students started on a path,” Currier said.

Image of Emma Yang by Mark Abramson for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.