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An exploration of how Toolkits help students and educators solve real world problems

By Hanna Walker, 5th Grade Associate Educator

Children are always seeking ways to build independence. Toddlers seek independence by testing their skills, like trying to conquer the stairs without help. Meanwhile older children may plan sleepovers at friends’ houses, and learn to cook meals in the kitchen.

During my time at Sycamore School, I have realized how much learning happens when I allow students to be independent. When I make plans for the week, I set intended learning outcomes. Oftentimes, I find myself struggling to allow my lessons to flow. I’ve learned that when this happens, the ownership students have over their learning gets taken away. When I adapt and let students change the project’s trajectory, I am amazed by the thoughtful connections that might have been overlooked otherwise.

Using Sycamore’s toolkits to scaffold projects helps both students and educators. Students’ independent ideas are nurtured and educators adapt plans to create space for student engagement and inquiry.

To illustrate both student-driven learning and my own adaptability as an educator, this blog will focus on fifth graders’ current study of Innovation. By looking at innovations throughout history, students are investigating how inventions take hold and flourish and how systems change because of them.

As a class, we started by researching the Neolithic Revolution, which began around 9,000 BCE. This period marks the start of agriculture and animal domestication. The second case study we looked at was the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 1700s. Due to the significant time gap between the Neolithic and Industrial revolutions, we are creating a timeline. This timeline will help us visualize what happened during that interval and what innovations were developed.

Using the Design Thinking toolkit, we planned our timeline. We used existing timelines to make observations of elements that were present throughout each of them. Students noticed that every timeline had a set scale and labels, and that many used color-coding to highlight important elements of the timeline. We discussed what made these timelines interesting and engaging? Students noted things like pictures and color made them more engaging. Lastly, we talked about the purpose of the timelines, which they observed is to inform and help visualize how something progresses through time. To finish our timeline plan, we had a mini-lesson on BCE (before common era) and CE (common era). We compared it to a number line and practiced finding dates along a timeline.

We then started to define what was important to include in our timeline. Together, students decided that the timeline’s primary purpose is to inform people about innovations and visually represent innovations through time. They decided we had to include the name of the invention, inventor, date, and why or how the innovation was created. Our biggest obstacle, in the beginning, was deciding on the scale of the timeline. Since we didn’t know how many cards would be included, we weren’t sure how much space to leave between each year. To solve this problem, they decided to have the cards be moveable along the string to adjust the scale as we add innovations. They chose to use paperclips to secure them along the line. The design thinking process provided many opportunities for students’ independent ideas and for me to go with their flow.

Once they had settled on the constraints and requirements of the timeline, they began to work independently on the innovation cards. This part of the process felt very chaotic as each of them was in a different stage, and they were all organizing their information in their own way. I thought that it was beneficial for me to step back, allow them to make their own mistakes, and give them time to reflect afterward. It wasn’t until they began to add their cards to the timeline that they realized how hard it was to tell what information the timeline was trying to communicate.

One student pointed out that the cards turned sideways on the line and made it difficult to read. He took action and solved the problem by adding a second paper clip to secure the card. Another student pointed out that each card has a different format making it hard to read and understand. Referencing the Communications Literacy toolkit, we discussed if our timeline was fulfilling our goal. They revisited their feedback on their growth mindset posters (a little messy or small handwriting, no color, no pictures), most of which applied to the timeline. I asked them to think about how they could use that feedback to make improvements to the timeline. Building in the time and space for thoughtful reflection led to effective communication and significant improvements!

Improvements included:

  • Adding pictures of inventions to the front of the cards.

  • Color-coded categories (medical, technology, communication, transportation, basic needs, and tools).

  • Adding a Key to explain BCE and CE, as well as the categories.

  • Typing out the inventor’s name as well as why and how each innovation was created.

  • Adding pros and cons of the innovation

These changes brought about unprompted discussions between students. They asked each other’s opinions. “Do you think the computer should be in technology or tools?” By asking that question, it opened up an authentic space for them to justify their opinions to one another, supporting their understanding of the invention and how it affected the world. They decided together that it fit into both, yet again changing the timeline. By allowing students to make decisions collaboratively, I helped give them ownership over the timeline. On their own, they collaborated, asked each other questions, and started to speak out when they disagreed about something on the timeline.

Using the toolkits to scaffold the timeline allowed students to be independent and gave me the support I needed to adapt to their process! If they got stuck or didn’t know what to do next, the Communications Literacy and Design Thinking toolkits showed us the steps needed to move forward. Since this project is ongoing, we will continue to identify ways in which we would improve the timeline. Even as a finished product, there will be certain elements that each student would improve.

The most significant part of my growth through this process was recognizing that students and educators have their own needs as we work together. Using the toolkits has allowed me to fulfill both needs, therefore creating room for us to learn together, build independence, and embrace the need for adaptability.


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