Innovation Days

Driving student learning with choice and autonomy
By: | December 2, 2019
(gettyimages.com: SeventyFour)(gettyimages.com: SeventyFour)
Josh Stumpenhorst is an award-winning teacher, international speaker and author of Drawn to Teach. He is currently the learning commons director at Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville, Illinois. He is a featured speaker at FETC 2020.

Josh Stumpenhorst is an award-winning teacher, international speaker and author of Drawn to Teach. He is currently the learning commons director at Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville, Illinois. He is a featured speaker at FETC 2020.

As a teacher, you have good days and bad days, and if you are lucky, you have a great day.

Innovation Days are always great days. At Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville, Illinois, we have held our annual Innovation Day since 2011. The day itself was born out of inspiration from Daniel Pink’s book Drive in which he delves into motivating factors for human behavior and learning. At the core is the belief that people are motivated by autonomy and choice, which are the pillars of our Innovation Days. 

Innovation Days allow students to engage in learning about whatever they are interested in or curious about. We have three simple expectations for the students on these days. They must learn something new. They must create something. They must share their work. 

The variety of things that kids have learned over the years is truly staggering and awe inspiring. From kids wanting to learn how to play an instrument or choreograph a dance to breaking down erosion patterns or a new painting technique, we have seen a lot of learning. Every learning project is planned and picked by the student. 

Creating takes on so many formats and products. A creation could be a dance routine or a musical performance. It could also be a set of poems or short stories. Some of the more complex creations we’ve seen have featured homemade wind tunnels and robotic arms powered by water pressure. 

At the end of an Innovation Day, one student stopped me and asked, “Can we do this again tomorrow?”

As for sharing, we connect this day to our schoolwide open house, which parents, siblings, caregivers and the community can attend and see the students’ hard work. It is one of the most well-attended events we host all year. 

Anytime I share about our Innovation Days, I get similar questions. Among them: 

  • Is the students’ work graded? Nothing is graded. The focus is on learning.
  • Do you have any discipline issues with giving kids the freedom to learn what they want for a whole day? No. When you give kids a highly engaging activity in which the learning is driven by their interests, behavior problems are nonexistent.
  • What do you do with the projects and things kids create? We document them all with pictures and videos taken throughout the day. In addition to the work being viewed by the open house audience, we also share it via in school resources and through various school and district social media platforms.
  • How hard is this to pull off in a school? It is so easy; anyone can do it. Check out this handy Innovation Day Starter Kit.

Read: How to turn a library into a collaborative learning center


Again, these are always great days of learning. One of the best moments was the end of one Innovation Day when a 12-year-old boy stepped in front of more than 250 of his peers and played a song on his guitar that he wrote himself. The room was quiet except for the sound of a blaring electric guitar responding to his small but nimble fingers. When he was finished, nearly every student in the room was on their feet cheering and yelling. 

As the students were walking out at the end of the day, one student stopped me and asked, “Can we do this again tomorrow?” 

I responded: “Well, I would love to, but tomorrow is Saturday,” in a half-joking manner.

The student looked me dead in the eyes and replied, “I would come back tomorrow to do this again.”


Josh Stumpenhorst is an award-winning teacher, international speaker and author of Drawn to Teach. He is currently the learning commons director at Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville, Illinois. He is a featured speaker at FETC 2020


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