A Dragon’s Den challenge activity for G&T students offers unlimited possibilities to excite and stretch their imagination. Joan Hardy decribes how her school organised such a project

Anyone familiar with the television programme Dragons’ Den will be aware that marketing an idea is not for the faint-hearted, particularly when the judges have a financial interest in the outcome. However, maintaining a calm demeanour under intense scrutiny is one of the more challenging, but useful life skills: so any chance to practise it within a safe environment has to represent a good opportunity for young people.

A ‘Dragons’ Den’ day combines an exciting mix of creativity and business acumen: deadlines have to met, evidence has to be amassed and wits have to be sharp! Participants are operating dynamically in a realistic and meaningful context. Experiences such as this encourage higher-level thinking skills, requiring students to analyse and evaluate the process at every stage, think both creatively and critically, and be prepared to compromise. The questioning process encourages them to reinterpret and elaborate on their original ideas, and to listen as well as talk. Most importantly, the process is fun, and this is surely the best way to learn.

Briefing the students
The students in our own Dragon’s Den (at Belper School, Derbyshire) belonged to our G&T cohort, and were grouped vertically. We gave them a very specific brief: to design a ‘best-selling Christmas toy’, describe it, justify their decisions and convince the ‘dragons’ of its viability. Some financial projection was needed – for, as well as pleasing the nation’s children, the entrepreneurs must be able to make a profit; hence they had to have an idea about production costs, selling price and profit margins.

A group of Year 10 business studies students who had covered these issues with the Rotary Club on a school business enterprise day, were able to cascade their expertise and provide marketing information. They used a PowerPoint presentation (some of them integrated this project into their coursework) and this really helped to set the tone for the day. We provided sugar paper and coloured markers and the rest was up to the students. Sixth formers (borrowed from business studies courses) were on hand to advise, and their business studies teachers were flexing their muscles prior to the adjudication.

The presentations needed to be thoroughly prepared, so it was decided to use a whole day for this project; and to ensure that, after the initial discussion stage, the students had access to computers. The most important thing, though, was for them to anticipate problems; meanwhile, the teachers were briefed to be proactive in demanding explanation and rationalisation to support ideas. It was agreed that no presentation should exceed 10 minutes – including the time allowed for questions and answers – so this added another constraint and demanded concise delivery.

Key skills used in the project included:

  • creativity
  • teamwork
  • problem-solving
  • organisation
  • timekeeping
  • presentation
  • persuasion
  • discussion
  • evaluation
  • economic rationalisation.

Imaginative outcomes
We found that, although only a minority of students reached a high level in all of these skills, real flashes of genius arose from the process of bouncing ideas around the group, and the range of ideas was impressive. The ‘Home Roller Skating Track with Magnetic Skates’ was intriguing but deemed to be hazardous; the ‘Talking Teddy Bear’ designed to offer sympathetic responses to problems was lovely and cuddly, but would definitely have been lost for words on most occasions. The ‘Human Brain Shaped Puzzler’ was interesting but gross; and the ‘Robot Companion’ was hardly original, having been created in the image of a Dalek – minus the sink plunger.

The winner was a solar-powered model of Planet Earth, which could offer information about any country highlighted by the user. The information was extensive, covering population/demographics, economics, natural history and geographical features, to name just a few. Its beauty was its remote connection to a computer so that information could be constantly updated.

The questioning process

This is a very important part of the project, both during the planning phase and when the students are face-to-face with the ‘dragons’.

Good questions from the ‘dragons’

  • are planned
  • are linked to learning objectives
  • offer opportunities to express opinions ‘What do you think?’
  • focus thinking and discussion ‘What conclusions can you draw?’
  • promote reasoning and problem-solving ‘Do you have any suggestions?’
  • encourage reflection ‘What would happen if…?’
  • explore and expose potential misconceptions ‘Can you think of an laternative argument’
  • encourage diverse responses ‘What motive could there have been for…?’
  • are challenging ‘How would you justify…?’ ‘What is the function of…?’
  • encourage speculation ‘Can you predict the outcome of…?’
  • provoke discussion ‘Would it be better if…?’

Treasures in the den

Teachers of gifted and talented students will see that a Dragon’s Den day offers a number of benefits: 

  • There are no limits to the achievement of the individual or the team.
  • The aim is concise and clear: students’ minds are not cluttered with complex instructions.
  • Differentiation appears in various forms, such as pace, dialogue, responsibility and outcome.
  • Teacher support and encouragement comes in the form of brief but meaningful intervention during the group devising session.
  • There is scope for students to expand ideas and develop them in their own way, without external restrictions.
  • The emphasis is on expansion rather than repetition. No time to do anything more than once!
  • Through question and answer – both during the process and when confronted by the ‘dragons’ – there are opportunities to increase the use of higher-order thinking skills.
  • Although working in a team, the individual contribution is acknowledged.

Solar-powered laptop
Andy, Jacob and Eddie decided that the ‘must have’ present was their own laptop computer. The boys’ rationale was that generally, parents are willing to spend quite a lot on the actual present, but are not keen on supporting the annual running costs. Their answer to this was the solar-powered laptop, with negligible outlay after the initial purchase.

The key to success with this complex venture was organisation and teamwork. Jacob took the role of inventor, producing diagrams, explanations and even a mock-up, created from an old computer and ‘spares’, all of which looked very professional. Eddie was the financial brain, producing a very impressive spreadsheet of complex figures relating to costs. His projections were carefully worked out, and the  judges were impressed with his foresight and accuracy.

Andy was the salesman, and his major selling points were ‘no wires and negligible running costs’. Being a drama student, he was able to make the presentation funny. It began with the Beatles’ song Here Comes the Sun, during which the three boys struggled with a tangle of wires and cables, which they eventually threw away. ‘Do you long to be able to work anywhere, any time?’, they asked. The students were totally engaged with their project and it was extremely detailed and credible, even to the critical team of ‘dragons’ to whom it was presented.

Controlled skating track
Lucy, Laura and Amy were up for the outdoor life when they opted to invent a controlled skating track. Aware that many were creating electronic games, the girls were looking for an energetic and exciting alternative. The ‘wheels’ of the skates were designed to fit into grooves and the rider stepped into the boots (which were rigid, so as to avoid broken ankles); and the contact caused movement, the speed of which would be regulated by remote control. The skater would use balance, skill and judgement to negotiate the curved, winding track.

The game looked fabulous, but potentially life-threatening! When this observation was put to them, they produced an amazing new rationale, based on safety information from the school’s enrichment coordinator. Their new design had curves regulated for safety, an automatic cut-off device, an embedded ‘soft fall’ area and specially designed knee and elbow pads. This team engaged in high-level negotiation, problem-solving and decision-taking. They argued, explained, justified and refined their idea without acknowledging the vast array of skills they were using. The objective was to complete the project in a given time and that was their point of focus.

Further potential
The Dragons’ Den challenge offers virtually endless possibilities. Other design ideas could be:

  • an environmental (eco) project
  • a new ride for a theme park
  • a ‘toy to share’ for a nursery school
  • a pet accessory
  • an ornamental structure made from recycled products (see box, below, for a superb recycling idea).

A ‘Dragons’ Den’ style competition was also part of a summer school residential at Brunel University for a group of 15-year-old boys. The students, all from an African Caribbean background, are part of a project designed to find talented boys from inner-city state schools and provide a pathway into science and engineering at university level.

The key objective of this exercise was to take on the energy and environmental agenda by looking at how we can recycle ‘electronic’ junk. The boys used old VHS players, discarded electric toothbrushes, old dictating machines and other electronic junk, to create some impressive designs. Their presentations were in front of some of Britain’s leading scientists and top executives, including Chris Rapley, the director of the Science Museum and James Smith the Chairman of Shell UK.
Telephone: 07956 598 503

Joan Hardy is G&T Coordinator at Belper School, Derbyshire