By: Desmond Mitchell
“A person’s a person, no matter how small.” These famous words, written by Dr. Seuss, reminds us that everyone, regardless of age, has value. In other words, everyone has the capacity to affect others whether they are young or old.
In trying to change culture of ingenuity and innovation, GMin’s focus on youth in secondary schools stems from a basic understanding of adolescent cognitive development and modern learning structures. As children age, their brains mature and their understanding of self, their capacity for abstract thought, and their ability to think things through increase. Between the ages of 11-21 there is almost a linear trajectory of growth in those areas.(1) This growth comes as a result from their interactions, what is taught to them, various challenges presented to them, and their perspectives on all of these very things. Adolescence is also the period in which youth move beyond repetition and imitation as means of gaining knowledge, and instead start to internalize information and generate new ideas from what they have learned. However, even with all of the cognitive advancements that occur during this stage, as young people grow older, they also become more risk-averse and limited by the ever-present societal structures that surround them. In other words, budding childhood creative genius gradually becomes stifled by practicality.
GMin’s use of design thinking based workshops perfectly aligns with cognitive development stages in that we focus on creatively engaging youth to think critically with the aim of thwarting young people’s adolescent inclination to gradually become risk-averse. We challenge students to step away from solely reiterating what has been taught to them and instead encourage them to think about how they can utilize their experiences and knowledge to solve problems. This approach can have profound results for young people and their worlds. Through our Innovate Challenges in Sierra Leone, Kenya, and South Africa, we have seen youth articulately identify problems and find creative solutions to specific problems in their communities. Problems like financial instability brought upon families due to the cost of coffins or increases in respiratory illnesses amongst women due to smoke generated from commonly used charcoal stoves are not commonly addressed at a large scale. However children living in these communities are able to see specific issues affecting them and their communities and find solutions that are relevant and sustainable given their unique community circumstances.
From my experience as the head of academics at a small secondary school in New Zealand and as a GMin board member, I have been amazed by the intellectual curiosity and brilliance of secondary school students. I have observed that adolescents, once comfortable, have no problem clearly identifying and discussing issues in their communities. What these students have to say about their local issues demonstrate adolescents’ attentiveness to detail, curiosity in both the present and future, and eagerness to place their energy into a positive passion. The way in which these young people are able to make connections and creatively find solutions for problems shows a lack of fear which is not as present with risk-averse young adults. The adolescent period is such a critical juncture in a young person’s life; it is the time at which it is crucial to hold on to and support creativity before it becomes overwhelmed. It is for this reason that GMin specifically focuses on secondary school students who, if propelled in the right direction, can and will create significant positive change in their communities.
It is our responsibility to create a safe space for this passion to grow so that it does not become overwhelmed by the limitations of adult practicality. If we are able to encourage youth to see that their ability to critically think, be creative, and feel comfortable discussing issues surrounding them, then we can start taking steps towards promoting an innovation conducive mentality and encouraging a culture of change.
1. Adapted from American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Facts for Families