05/14/2014 12:44 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

Give Children a Voice and You Will Be Amazed

I recently attended the Innovation Summit presented by the Conrad Foundation. The Summit featured student finalists from around the world ready to compete in the Spirit of Innovation Challenge, an annual STEM-based challenge designed to produce technology entrepreneurs. The students presented new product plans in four areas: Aerospace and Aviation, Cybertechnology and Security, Energy and Environment, and Health and Nutrition. The winning team in each area received seed funding in the amount of $10,000 among other benefits such as assistance on patents, licensing, and product development.

I also traveled to the Texas and New Hampshire state academic competitions for Destination Imagination. Student teams presented their unique solutions to one of six STEAM-based challenges (each challenge incorporates STEM and Art components) in order to qualify for the Global Finals competition in Knoxville, Tennessee at the end of May. The creative solutions these students developed to open-ended challenges using duct tape, cardboard panels, string, and other available materials in creative and novel ways was truly amazing.

When growing up, I was extremely curious. I disassembled TV sets, telephones, radios, and clocks to try to understand how they worked. Taking parts from one device and substituting them into other devices to see what happened was fun and engaging. My teachers used my enthusiasm to heighten my interest in science and reading. Imagine that, teachers listening to students and using what they learned to improve the educational experience. Maybe it is my education that drives my passion for fostering the student voice. I strongly believe that curriculum developers and practitioners should invoke curiosity and imagination as an exemplar for teaching.

Alfie Kohn in his 1998 book, "What to Look for in a Classroom," informed us that students are rarely invited to become active participants in their own education. John Dewey, educational and social reformer, highlighted the importance of a child's interaction with the environment as a social learning process. He believed that much of the time and attention now given to the preparation and presentation of lessons might be more wisely and profitably expended in training the child's power of imagery and in seeing to it that he was continually forming definite, vivid, and growing images of the various subjects with which he comes in contact in his experience. He called for the "reconciliation" of the individualistic and institutional ideals. With government and industry advocating for student innovation and leadership, where is this reconciliation?

Both Destination Imagination and the Conrad Foundation use challenge-based collaborative learning and inquiry-guided mentorship as the foundation of their programs. This type of learning should be the essence of 21st century learning, where students are not only active learners but also learn their unique strengths, interpersonal skills, and the processes of project management.

When students are challenged with fun and engaging projects, they amaze us with their ingenuity and perseverance. Their work is inspiring to other students, their teachers, and parents. We can all be amazed by children if we will only pause to allow them to have a voice.