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Innovation — A Value Proposition For Students

By Young Un, Middle School Head
Veteran educator Young Un debuts a new blog about educating students in a fast-changing world where innovation risks becoming just another buzzword and traditional educational values of inquiry and research should still matter. 

Why is the Great Wall located where it is?

For 8th graders, the question is a “friendly” one. It’s approachable — every 8th grader has heard about the Great Wall. The question is only nine words long and doesn’t seem to try to befuddle like a word problem in math. Five years ago as their History teacher, I would have coaxed the answer out of some of the students — the other students were grateful for their classmates’ participation — in lectures and discussions. When I teach the class now, the question remains the same but what follows is a productive struggle for the students. They work in small groups using resources like their online textbook called a LiveBinder. The LiveBinder has elements of a textbook, namely text, but it has much more: video, charts, and maps all updated regularly with real-time information from the global mind and tailored to each class and each group of students.

Students make their learning visible in “mind maps,” diagrams that show connections between vocabulary words and concepts. Many students will start with Google, but they quickly learn that these searches do not yield answers to nuanced questions (that is still a uniquely human skill). So they do what people have done for millennia: they share ideas and resources and after a few days, students present their answers to the class. The presentations all have the basic correct answer, but their approaches and emphases are different. Some highlight connections I have never have thought of. Class participation is broader than it would have been five years ago because everyone has to participate; everyone has a voice. And most importantly, every student has been engaged and challenged. A teacher’s question to the class turns into an innovative learning opportunity for the students.

Underlying the success of this study of the Great Wall is the emphasis on dialogue, inquiry, research, and a simple but challenging question. Some might say that dialogue, inquiry, research, and questions are the stuff of traditional education. The innovation is in the shift from a transfer of knowledge pedagogy to a more generative, inquiry-based model in which students can find and generate their own understanding from a web of resources, including one another. While this shift is relatively new for me the teacher, the results as the students experience them, feel wholly familiar and remind me why I love working at Wheeler.

In many schools, innovation is often like a new technology or a new space — shiny and bright but sometimes passed over after an initial interest. For us, effective innovation is less about the newest and latest thing, and more about the value it brings to our students, the Wheeler community, and the world.

What is the value of the innovations that we adopt?  The Early Childhood’s Forest Fridays initiative, launched last fall, gives our youngest children opportunities to develop executive function, conflict resolution, collaboration, and creativity. Grade Eight’s Cityside program (debuting in 2019-20) will give students a chance to identify, research, present and carry out challenging work within and among community members in the 25 neighborhoods of Providence. Students will engage in productive struggle as they learn to be knowledgeable and effective citizens. Last year, we unearthed a quote from the early Wheeler years that reminded educators at the time to not be “subject to the isms of the day.” Wheeler’s tradition is to innovate (if that oxymoron makes sense) but to do so within the framework of excellence, wisdom, curiosity, wonder, and the relentless pursuit of making each class better than the last and each year better than the one before.
While we can all point to the upgrades in campus technology and facilities that are no doubt the important vehicle for the learning that we do, the real work is this framework and our commitment to it. That is the innovation; that is the value.  

Over the course of the year through this blog, I will continue to look at innovation in all of its manifestations here at Wheeler, but you can be sure I’ll keep my focus on value. And on that note, if you have any ideas, please send them my way. And you can even mail me a letter, because letters add value to my life.

Young Un is the current Head of Middle School at The Wheeler School in Providence, RI. He moves into the new role of Head of Strategic Innovation and N-8 Divisions at Wheeler in July 2019. You can reach him at or by letter at The Wheeler School, 216 Hope Street, Providence, RI 02906.
216 Hope Street
Providence, Rhode Island 02906-2246
Phone: (401) 421-8100
FAX: (401) 751-7674

Founded 1889

The Wheeler School is an independent coeducational college preparatory day school for Nursery, Pre-K, K-Grade 12 serving Providence, RI, Greater Providence and Greater Boston. The Hamilton School welcomes Grades 1-8 with language-based learning differences.