“Good teaching means being open to adventure”

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Swiss secondary school teacher Stella Stejskal-Blum’s English learners dive into the world of digital entrepreneurship.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: What prompted you to have your English class explore ideas for a start-up business?

Stella Stejskal-Blum: In 2019, I was working with students who had dropped out of school or were homeschooled, in a bilingual learning group, and it struck me that people tend to acquire language when they want to communicate something that interests or inspires them. When there’s some intrinsic motivation, students will do more than just learn grammar and repeat what they hear. I wanted to bring that insight with me when I started teaching at the Burg secondary school in autumn 2020. I think good teaching should be open-ended – if you know at the beginning of a lesson exactly how you want it to end, there’s no adventure.

At the beginning of the school year, I asked my class to think about the problems facing the world today and decide which one was most important to them personally, then to find classmates who wanted to focus on the same issue. Groups began working on everything from recognizing and combatting fake news to dealing with teenage depression, organizing a campus-wide recycling campaign, and even launching a vegan food truck.

“I think good teaching should be open-ended – if you know at the beginning of a lesson exactly how you want it to end, there’s no adventure.”

CSG: You taught English while also preparing students to live in a digital world – how do these two goals fit together?

SS: We started the semester by participating in a design thinking workshop at the Creative Kids eduLab in Basel, where students worked with experts to create a prototype for addressing the problems they had chosen to focus on. They had to do two pitches in English on a single day, which required a lot of talking as they worked on understanding the problem and finding ways to solve it.

The students had three hours of English instruction every week. For one hour, I provided traditional instruction using a textbook, and the other two hours were devoted to independent work. The students kept a logbook where they wrote down what they planned to do, and at the end of each lesson they recorded what they accomplished.

The digital tools we used fostered the use of English. The Wechange project management platform, for example, let them make contact with people all over the world. An English-speaking app developer coached one of my groups on Zoom. Some students upgraded a website, while others created videos or practiced storytelling; all of these are future skills.

CSG: After the initial excitement of developing an idea, how did the “start-ups” progress?

SS: Some groups were really eager to continue, so I coached them individually until the end of the semester. Some students were a bit overwhelmed by the amount of freedom they were given, so they continued to work with the textbook, or I gave them other assignments.

One group of – very mature – girls decided to develop a mental health app. This was obviously an important topic for them; some are living in foster homes, or their parents are going through a divorce, or they lack the care and support they need. Depression is a real-life issue for them, and they wanted to do something that makes a difference, something that helps other troubled teenagers.

They didn’t finish their project in the first semester but continue to work on it in their spare time and have already achieved a great deal. I’ve planted a little seed in their brains – and while they may forget to water it, it’s still there and can always come back to life again.

“This approach encourages students to become active and lets them see that they can have an impact, which is really empowering for young people at this age.”

CSG: Is this something that other schools might do as well?

SS: While working on this project, I got to know some schools that were doing similar things, such as teaching entrepreneurial thinking. Simply starting a process and exploring where it might lead can be a very valuable experience for students. It teaches them that they have the power to do something important, and that they don’t have to sit and wait for someone else to show them every step of the way. This approach encourages students to become active and lets them see that they can have an impact, which is really empowering for young people at this age.

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