New E Network at Carson High: Opening Young Minds to Innovative Thinking

An Interview with NewE Director Molly Dahl

We caught up with NewE Director, Molly Dahl, a veteran educator who is also the creator of YOUTH Positive, a curriculum that is being implemented at Carson High as well as other schools across the country and even internationally.

Give us a quick taste of what the YOUTH Positive collaboration with Carson High is about.

MD: YOUTH Positive is based on the tenets of Positive Psychology, a fairly young discipline within Psychology that seeks to understand how humans use different modes of thinking and emotional self-management to flourish. We’re just applying it to young people.

It seems like every day we hear about the importance of critical-thinking and innovation to the creation of new companies. But we’re also hearing that today’s kids are at a distinct disadvantage after years of being trained to memorize knowledge and pass standardized tests. How can the YOUTH Positive Curriculum affect that?

MD: At Carson High, we’ve started the year by exploring the roots of creativity: mindfulness, divergent thinking and disruptive thinking. Your mind is your greatest creative tool, but you have to be “in” your mind and know how you think. Every student is a little different. We did a strengths assessment and values-discovery process.

We began our process with problem-based learning; most kids ended up working in a group on a problem that they have in real life.

They created a list of 10 possible solutions for each of the selected problems. Then they had 3 weeks to try out those actual solutions and find out which worked (or even that problem was unsolvable.) Then they made 5-minute presentations on their problem, how they came up with solution, and how it worked. It takes a lot of practice to get kids to leave their comfort zone. Most kids are really concerned about failing.

AH: To older adults, this might seem remarkably basic, because our learning experience was different. For example, most Boomer childhoods were pretty “free-range”, with more independence and consequently, more mistakes and failures to learn from.

MD: Yes! Compared to us, young people are remarkably cautious and risk-averse. That’s thanks to years spent being trained to memorize one correct answer. Innovation has always been a hallmark of American culture, and we have to do everything we can to ensure that we cultivate the next generation of innovators. We have some catching up to do!

AH: What else have you been working on?

We’ve brought in guest speakers. Kendra Wong from Sierra Nevada College did a terrific team-building session that was also about expanding one’s thinking. She utilized a tower-building exercise, dividing kids into teams and supplying them with paper, scissors and tape. At first, the kids simply utilized those materials, and everyone basically got the same result. Then she encouraged them to improvise, and all of a sudden the students realized that they weren’t limited to those materials. They started practicing some real creative thinking, and getting outside of the box. The final towers were taller than the original classroom ceiling and even had to be built in a different area—literally getting outside the classroom box. The takeaways for the students included being able to grasp the idea that they had all kinds of options, and that often we superimpose rules and limitations that don’t exist.

Which other guests had an impact on the students?

We had speakers who talked about how they found the path to their livelihood. We wanted to underscore that there may be more than one “right” path, and that exploration is crucial to finding rewarding career.

Casey Sebahar of the Pink House restaurant in Genoa talked about his journey from being a teacher to his finding his real passion: cheese. Casey had to go out and acquire a whole new education to pursue his dream of being a cheesemonger.

His wife Hailey Sebahar had a different path. Hailey, whose father was an early beachwear entrepreneur, spoke about always wanting to be a designer and going to FIDM in New York. She designs and prints her own fabrics and uses them to make clothing, including swimsuits. She discussed how she saved money to launch her business, a company called Paper Sails, which is building a big online following. She sells directly through her online store and at craft fairs and shows.

The takeaways: you may know what you want to do, you might not, but there is more than one path to discovering your dream job. And the other takeaway was the importance of doing something that you love. If you’re not passionate about what you do, you won’t be successful.

Miya MacKenzie (of Adams Hub) did a session on disruptive thinking, and got kids familiar with the idea of disruption vs. divergence. They looked at how you disrupt an industry, with examples such as the creation of counter-intuitive startups Red Bull, sock company Little Miss Matched and Snapchat.

Miya did an exercise to identify assumptions about a category and how you can flip this 180 degrees to create something completely new.

These sound like great exercises. How are the students getting to apply this in the “real world”?

Munycards, an Adams Hub startup, is going to have the kids in our class do user testing with their prototype product, a chore-management and reward app for families. This is a great way for them to be involved in something real, to help a local business, and to apply their new problem-solving chops!

You were an educator for 15 years. How are you finding the students at Carson High?

It’s been so rewarding. These kids are open, very receptive, super sweet and willing to try anything we offer them. They really are engaged. The question, “WHY are we doing this?” has been answered, so they are willing to participate. That’s a great feeling.

Thanks, Molly!