Economics Teacher Engages Students in Design for Social Impact

In this episode, Doris speaks with Adam Lang, a Teaching Chair and Instructor of Economics at Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. Adam shares how his students took ownership over their learning and developed skills by solving problems for community partners in his Design for Social Impact class. He also describes his plan to bring elements of the Korda Method into his AP Economics courses this year.

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Doris: Hello, Adam.

Adam: Hi, Doris.

Doris: Wonderful to talk to you. So Adam, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you came to the workshop, and what you’ve done since.

Adam: Sure. Yeah. My name is Adam Lang. And I’m a somewhat new teacher. I’ve been teaching at an independent boarding school for the past three years, but my background is in Engineering and Public Policy. And I’ve worked in different industries, different countries. And, kind of, finally realized that I really enjoyed teaching in graduate school, and some of the other teaching that I’ve done overseas. And decided to become an Economics teacher at the Hotchkiss School, which is in rural Northwest Connecticut.

It’s 9th through 12th graders. And I teach Economics, mostly Macroeconomics and Microeconomics. But I was given the opportunity to design an elective which I call, “Design for Social Impact,” which launched last year. So we’ve had one full year, two semesters.

And right before I launched that course, I went to the workshop just to get a better sense for how I might deliver this class that I’ve kinda been dreaming up and that is an amalgamation of all the different work, in different fields that I’ve done in the past, and really, my way of trying to bring real world problem solving to the classroom.

Doris: Nice. That’s fantastic. And so, you came out of the workshop, and you piloted this class. And if you could start… Before you talk about what you piloted, what you built, what came out of it, what were your objectives, the learning objectives for this class? What did you hope that the students would get out of it, when you were going into this?

Adam: I wanted to create a class that broadly helped them understand the nuance and the complexity of problems that exist outside of classroom walls. And to give them the skills to really, creatively but practically, approach problems. It could be problems in their own community, in their school, which we looked at last year in our dining hall, or it could be problems outside of their school community, in the local community. We’ve worked a lot with local nonprofits to do that. My background is in…when I studied Public Policy, it’s in Economic, Statistics and Political Analysis. So we worked with local non-profits, a local mayor, a local foundation, to ask them, sort of as clients, what are the biggest challenges that they’re facing? And I wanted the students to understand different stakeholders and their needs.

Doris: That’s fantastic. So you came into this, given your background, and you were using what you knew and creating an experience for your students. Coming out of the workshop, you built this pilot and in broad strokes, how did you set it up? It was a semester course, yes?

Adam: It’s a two semester sequence course. We called it “Design for Social Impact.” And it’s really an interdisciplinary course, but uses what some people refer to as Human-Centered Design or Design Thinking. And the way I structured it was, I really wanted students to first understand, how do you discover a problem space?

You know, we worked a lot on developing empathy, interviewing students, faculty members, staff that had different backgrounds than them, and really understanding their perspective and their needs. And so, our first project was really getting comfortable with performing observations, public spaces, looking at different interactions, and understanding people’s perspectives.

Doris: That’s awesome.

Adam: We then sort of branched out and took on real projects once we had those skills. We went to our Dining Hall Director and asked him what are his four biggest challenges that he’s facing, and can we have four weeks of his time, and working alongside his staff, interviewing his staff, and using the space in the dining hall at different odd times throughout the day, to help him try to answer his questions.

After that, we expanded a little more broadly in the first semester to look at our school schedule. And we worked with administrators, to get their feedback and put together some prototypes. We actually moved into a sort of a prototype phase, where we would actually present potential solutions to them that had been tested.

And then, in the second semester, we really worked off campus. So most notably, we worked with a local foundation that had done a comprehensive analysis of the major policy issues within the four regions in our area. And we wanted to address the biggest four questions that he had. And finally, we were lucky enough, in the summer, to take a 10 day trip to Sweden, with 12 students, to look at refugee integration. So Sweden took in a lot of refugees over the past few years and we were working alongside politicians, municipal workers, newly settled immigrants, and just local citizens, to apply the methodology that students learned throughout the year to try to tackle this really complex problem.

Korda Method, podcast for K12 teachers
Korda Method

Doris: Okay. That was wonderful. So, you know, I use the term “learning terrain”, so as I think about the terrain you structure, going from very, very local constrained, “Let’s just learn those basic skills first”, both the kind of, tools of the trade, how to do research, and how to analyze the problem in depth etc. and then progressing on. The first semester, the students, everything you had them do was based on problems right there on campus, within the walls, which I think is really, really smart.

You’re a boarding school, you’re in a rural area, it’s not so easy, necessarily, to take them off campus. And did they work on teams, did they have…at the end of each of these projects, did they present their solutions? Can you talk a little bit about, within each project or module or unit, however you call them. What were some of the common elements?
Adam: Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of this was taken away from the conference. It’s a totally team-based, project-based class that when I could, I connected them with a client. And when we had projects that had a client, a real person, either an Administrator, a Non-profit Director, or the Director of the Dining Hall, when we had a client, it was so much more meaningful, because that person really wanted us to come back to them at the end and tell the story, and actually give them meaningful feedback.

Doris: I was just going to say, because I think that’s really important, that you know…in education that we’re using this word in a lot, authentic audience etc. But, any person, doesn’t have to be a kid to think about it, anybody who’s working on something that is a real problem for someone else, whose life’s work is focused on that can appreciate the difference between working on something to solve something, doing research, doing a ton of stuff, to present it to somebody who really cares. Because that’s their world, you said, presenting it to real people versus presenting it to… We know now that your classroom teacher is not a real person, right?

But, yeah, presenting to you or me, or my mom or dad, not so interesting. But I love that and I think that’s really important. And I love the way you used whoever heads your dining service. That an internal person within reach, but that’s a real person, with a real problem, who cares about what the students come up with.

Adam: Yeah. And I think finding and cultivating the relationships with clients that are one, easy to work with, two, willing to work with you, and as you said, three, really care about trying to solve a problem that maybe they don’t have time in their day to day hustle to really put some resources into. And I think we actually presented, you know, valuable information to folks in the end.

Doris: Oh, I bet you did. And the good news is that, I find that when I’m in the initial conversations with teachers before the training, this is the thing they’re most worried about, how do I find somebody to work with? And after you’ve done it even once, you realize, first of all, that the way the method is set up, the students are working on external facing things, meaning things outside. They don’t need to interact all that much with the businesses or the real people. There’s an interaction at the start, there’s a presentation at the end, and there are some questions in between. But it doesn’t, to your point, these people are busy, they don’t have a lot of time to spend with these students.

Adam: Right. And I had a little anxiety about that as well. And I remember you saying you sit down one night and you just pound out several emails and you try to get some phone calls, and you get that initial discussion going. And I found that people were really receptive. And, to your point, it makes the project so much richer when these kids are talking at the end of their project, at a pretty high level, to somebody who cares about it rather than just sort of talking to each other or talking to me.

Doris: Yeah. And it’s a massive, massive motivator for the students, not only generally, to do the work but to do a really good job. So they go a lot deeper and the quality of what they do, and the quality of their thinking and their research and analysis is so much deeper, because they know they’re going to be presenting it to somebody who really cares. So what came out of that, what were the results of your students in all this?
Adam: So I think with the team-based, sort of project-based approach, I think the students felt really energized. I think they felt energized by the class, as a whole, because it was so much different than their other classes. They felt a sense of ownership. Oftentimes, we would start with these “How might we” statements, how might we re-imagine main hallway? How might we do a better job of hiring and retaining staff in the dining hall?

And I think they realized pretty quickly that I didn’t have an answer key, and that they were responsible for, as you said, putting a lot of work into it and be accountable. So I think they got excited, they were super engaged.

One thing that I did find was that our school structure wasn’t really set up for this kind of work. When kids go back to their dorm rooms, or even if this would be a public school, kids go back home and they do their math homework and they do 15 problems, and they read this passage from a book. And then their homework from my class is to interview the chef at our dining hall or present a prototype to citizens walking through the main town square. We had to do some adjustments to account for that difference.

AP econ design for social impact curriculum, korda method

Doris: Yeah. I want to key off of what you just said about adjustments, so you try this and you bravely try it. And then, did you find that you changed all along the way how you did things, as you learned from it? So you had the first project and unit, I imagine you came out of that and whatever plans you had for the second one, you adjusted. How does that look, as a teacher?

Adam: Yeah, absolutely. And again, it produces a little bit of anxiety when you’re starting a project and you’re expecting it to go a certain way and it never does, which, you know, this is the real world so you kind of want the students to experience that as well. But I was lucky to have some autonomy with my weekly assignment schedule and my syllabus, but I made quite a few changes. I had my classroom door unlocked in the evening so students could actually find time to meet together in the evenings.

I pushed the students to create their own project management calendar, so that they could look ahead several weeks and know when the end date was. And to put that calendar on the wall and know that, “Okay, here is when… My classes meet here. Here’s when your classes meet. When can we actually get together to work on this?”

Another thing that changed were the cycle times of my projects. The first few were pretty tight cycle times, meaning from the day in which they were assigned the project to the day in which they had to give the final presentation, they had three to four weeks. I only see my students for three hours a week, and that worked pretty well. I got into a couple projects in the winter, in which the cycle time was longer. And I found that students, their interest waned, you know, they got a little bit of design fatigue,

I’ve actually created a bunch of notes for this school year, to kind of change things around. And it’s great to have that flexibility with this elective.

Doris: That’s very interesting. So what did these… If you think about your students walking in the door day one, and as they left you, talk about what happened to them.

Adam: Sure. And I think one thing that…day one was very different from other classes is just the classroom set up. My model is somewhat of a flipped classroom based on what you spoke of in California where the student do readings and write reflections in the evening and apply those skills in class. They were set up in teams. They weren’t looking in one direction. They also had an entire wall that was theirs to post and pin things on that wall. I think throughout the year and by the end of year they had a vocabulary to articulate the complexities of the problems that they looked at. So they understood what a stakeholders is. They understood how people might have different interests and different needs.

And I think especially for teenagers, developing, cultivating that empathy, is very hard. And I pushed them to do a lot of that. I also think that when they…even by the end of the first semester, they really, they signed up for this class and had no real sense of what it was. It’s called “Design for Social Impact,” I mean that doesn’t really help. And the course description had a bunch of jargon in it, so they didn’t really know what to expect. But by the end of the first semester, most of my students were seniors, they were using the projects that we worked on as their college essays for applications. They were applying to business schools and saying, “This is the unique approach I took to look at this problem.” And so, they were speaking about problems in a way that a lot of teenagers don’t. And I just found that the students that I took to Sweden, who had taken the class before, had a vocabulary and had an ability… another thing, that I think was a big takeaway, is there was a real reluctance to talk to anybody who’s outside of their friends’ circle, or outside of their age range, or to actually pick up a phone and call somebody. That’s really hard for teenagers. And, I think, by the end of the year, they could walk up to anybody at our school, or anybody in our local town, with a prototype and feel pretty comfortable doing it.

Doris: That fantastic. I used to talk about wanting to be able to take any kid and drop them into any town or village, anywhere in the world, and have them…that they should have the tools to be able to figure things out. And I think you’re describing, in a more specific way, exactly that.

So, you talked earlier about ownership, and in everything you just said, I heard that, the ownership of the students. Talk a little bit about how you saw them…what you saw them owning as they left your class.

Adam: Sure. I think one example might be, in our work with the dining hall, you know, this group that was really trying to help our Dining Hall Director figure out how he can do a better job of hiring and retaining staff. This group found that…they felt like we live in such a community here at Hotchkiss, we have students and teachers who we coach them, we live in the dorm with them, we teach them, and the staff is often feeling on the outside. And this is what…kind of an insight that the students came up with.

And they created these…they interviewed a lot of staff and found out just kind of like personal information about them, what they’re interested in. And they created these storyboards and pictures of the staff that went up in the dining hall and said, “Ask me about fly fishing”, “Ask me about my grandchildren.” And it really, actually did spark conversations and create a connection between the staff and the students, and it was…absolutely had an impact. And the students were really excited about the success that they felt.

And at the end of the project, I took down these storyboards. And they got so fired up, they were so upset. “Mr. Lang, why are you taking this down? You know this made such an impact. This is such an important part of our community.” And you know, my response was, “Oh, well, maybe I should keep them up.” But my initial thought was, “It was an experiment, it was a project, it was over. We proved that it worked. Let’s move on to something else.”

Design for social impact - Adam Lang Korda Method

But they were so invested in the outcome of their work and the feedback that they got from the staff, from teachers, and administrators, who would stop them in the halls and ask them about the project, and from, you know, from their client. So, I think, when there’s not an answer key, when I don’t have a strict lesson plan, I’m working hard to guide them, and give them feedback and push them in certain directions, but really, they’re ultimately responsible for putting together a good product by the end, and I think they felt it.

Doris: So how has all of this shifted your thinking and approach as a teacher? You’ve been teaching Economics classes. How are you changed, as a teacher?

Adam: Well, so I teach AP Economics classes and, you know, there are some unique challenges with the AP courses. We are expected to prepare them for this exam at the end of the year, and there are certain milestones that we have to hit. And, when I look at my econ class coming up this year, I think it is going to be much more project-based. I would like, you know, for Macroeconomics, I would like them just like my design students, to create a portfolio of their research and their work. Something that they can publish online and something that allows them to own unemployment in Albania. Really research it, look into the history, be able to present it to your classmates, share it with other people, and describe why it’s different from your partner’s, unemployment in Sweden.

I also think that at a boarding school, we are expected to be these holistic people who live with the kids, teach the kids, coach the kids, and I think this class has pushed me more toward…this might sound corny, but feeling more like an educator rather than a teacher. I think hard skills are important, but I want to teach the hard skills with the understanding of the developmental phase they’re in and their ability to take what they’re learning now… Let’s say they’re working with an administrator in scheduling, and think about how that might apply when you’re dropped into Malmo in Sweden, and you’re a Public Policy official, and 163,000 Syrian refugees have shown up at the train station. What do you do?

Doris: Yeah. And to ask you a question, that spans both of those really good points you made, are you concerned that in teaching this way, including in your very content, objective-based Economics classes, that you have to give up the objective of the students learning what other people call academic things and knowledge, do you have to give that up in order to do this?

Adam: Well, I feel like there’s a debate sometimes between teaching hard skills and soft skills. And I work with some people at our school who are really involved with experiential education. And I don’t think it’s one or the other.

Doris: Agreed.

Adam: I might spend less time on graphing long run macroeconomic equilibrium, but the things that I do cover…and to be quite honest, I’m trying to push us away from AP Economics for you know, this reason we’ve been talking about.

Doris: Yeah. Good for you. I am with you.

Adam: Even though kids might not be able to graph the exact thing that I want them to graph, I think if they’re able to wrestle with a problem… able to really think about what long run macroeconomic equilibrium is, and understand that theory is theory, and it’s important to have a basis in theory.

But to be able to really look at the real world and say, “You know, theory in the textbook doesn’t always play out.” I don’t think you have to give up too much, I actually think you develop a richness of experience.

Doris: Yeah, I think that’s where the learning sticks and grows. You know, the idea of students working on projects is not new, it’s not new at all. The idea of experiential learning or apprenticeship, none of these things are new. What’s really new is the opportunity as educators, that’s been afforded us because of technology, and also the challenges that we have in the world because of technology. You know, the accelerated rate of… the complexity of the problems that we’re facing and the completely uncharted waters and the rate of change.

But, I think, we are all going to keep developing this different…this very different kind of teaching, this very different kind of curriculum, this very different kind of learning experience that we’re designing for these students. And the more and more, and better and better that we develop it, the more really in-depth, complicated technical things students are going be learning this way.

So there’s a medical school here in Cleveland, Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine. It’s a phenomenal medical school. It’s entirely project based. They’ve never…they don’t have any tests, they don’t have any lectures. And these guys are graduating and operating on people. I’m sure that they’re learning a lot of, not only hard skills, but really, there are things they…have to know how to graph, right?

So, I think this is evolving and we’re going to figure out, you’re going to figure out, how to teach the content equivalent of an AP Economics class in this way where they’re also going to be developing the skills alongside that to solve problems that don’t have the answers in the back of the book.


design for social impact, korda method

Adam:  Oh, absolutely. I actually invited a friend who works for Google Ventures, and he came from San Francisco and spoke to our faculty about the types of skills that they’re looking for at Google as they do hiring, as a way to sort of think about how we might set up kids. You know, kids are…our kids are only 18 years old, but how we might set up kids to thrive in this space, that’s been a huge space of growth in our country and in the world.

And a lot of what he said was that their hiring practices have changed. In a lot of venture capital firms, but also at Google, they’re not looking at GPA’s or brand name schools, they’re looking at what bodies of work can people put together. They’re looking at portfolios, they’re looking at art schools and they’re having to redefine how they evaluate candidates because of that.

Doris: Yes, absolutely. Some of the most…actually, some of the work that I think is the most interesting, as I think about creating new assessment models, in K12, are being done in industry. You know, the things Google and Facebook and companies like that are doing for hiring… We need to learn from an education space.

Adam: Yeah. And I also think, you know, the Mastery Transcript, which has come from your school, is something that… You know, I was talking with colleagues last week, people on our board, administrators and fellow teachers, about that very topic. And I think that, as we look, as a school, we’re working on an academic strategic plan for the next 10 to 15 years, all of this is coming up, as a guiding force to sort of lead us, as we design our curriculum, as we review them.

I’ve been really fortunate to receive a lot of support from our administrators in moving in this direction. Last year…you know, I teach one section of the class. It was the first year the class was offered. I have room for 14. And I think we had 22 kids signed up last year.

This year there were 35 kids that signed up. So there are…you know, word is spreading that this is interesting, it’s fun, it’s helpful for their sort of college process, it’s unique. So, you know, I feel very fortunate to be doing this, at this time, and to have the support that I have. And it’s a ton of fun too. It’s just way more fun. I get to know the kids on a much deeper level, because we’re struggling together, to figure out these different spaces.

Doris: It’s a blast, isn’t it? It’s more gratifying than anything.

Adam: Absolutely.

Doris: Yeah. Well Adam, you’re doing extraordinary work. I’m really, really proud to know you and see what you’re doing. And I’ll be very excited to see what you do with your Economics classes, and how you build projects into them. I’d love to talk about that later too.

Adam: All right. Thanks, Doris. It’s been nice talking to you.

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