sumo John Spencer


Ten Things That Happen When Kids Become Makers

I still remember the day. I was in my first year of teaching and I sat there holding my printed lesson plan. This was supposed to be my greatest lesson of the school year. I had planned it for hours, revising various aspects of it until it looked flawless. On paper. But now, in third period, it was clear that students weren't engaged.

That's not entirely true. Many of my students were engaged. They were listening, answering discussion questions, and participating. However, there something missing. Students were engaged but they weren't empowered.

At the time, I viewed teaching as a content delivery system. I worked tirelessly to create content that would be meaningful, fun, and challenging. But still, it was always my content and I was always the person delivering it. I used terms like, "delivering a lesson" and "creating my own content" to describe this teacher-centered approach.

Don't get me wrong. Students completed projects. However, these were culminating projects at the end of content-delivery. In other words, students were "learning with a project" rather than engaging in "project-based learning."

The truth is, these projects didn't resemble the types of projects that people do outside of a classroom. I had strict rules on everything from formatting to topics to style. I handed students instruction manual project sheets where they could walk through the process sequentially. So, while they were physically creating something, they were not engaged in creative thinking.

These projects had always been about me:
  • I chose the topic
  • I chose the content
  • I asked the questions
  • I wrote the instructions
  • I managed the project progress 
  • I chose the tasks
  • I wrote the objects
  • I picked the standards
  • I decided on the format
  • I determined whether or not the work was any good

In other words, my students were working for me rather than tapping into their own drive to create. For all my talk about valuing creativity and critical thinking, my students hadn't experienced any semblance of creative control. However, I was afraid. I had already tried a "free time" project that tanked due to the lack of structure, guidance, or resources. I wanted students to own the creative process, but I also knew that it wouldn't work if I simply gave them free time and said, "go make something."

All of that changed when I asked students to do a documentary project. I took a chance. I built the unit around the design thinking framework and I allowed students to own the process and the finished product. Moreover, I asked them to launch their finished product to a real audience in the form of a video screening night.

Here, they had complete control over the content. They were making history -- literally, by recording interviews, adding their own scripts, finding visuals, and then working collaboratively with other teams to create one larger documentary. It wasn't perfect. I still asserted too much control on the process and our "authentic audience" ended up being just the kids in the classroom. Still, it was the first time I ever used design thinking in the classroom. I'd used it before in artistic projects and in program development, but I had mistakenly believed it wouldn't work with eighth graders.

The results were astounding. Students were more frustrated and more afraid than ever before. Kids were in tears when they couldn't get something to work. However, they were also empowered. They were excited. They were passionate. They were makers.

What happens when students own the creative process?

Over the next decade, I gradually shifted to a fully project-based approach with an emphasis on design thinking (a framework I used when I wanted students to create a tangible, fully-designed product). Along the way, I've noticed the following things happen when kids get the chance to be makers:
  1. Students move from being engaged learners to empowered learners. Suddenly they see that their questions matter. They begin to believe that they can do research on their own. They learn how to create and revise without much hand-holding. 
  2. Students view themselves as problem-solvers. When students are makers, they run into natural problems that they have to solve by experimenting. 
  3. Students are more likely to engage in divergent thinking. When students work through the entire design process, they learn how to generate ideas that go against conventional wisdom. 
  4. Students see connections between concepts. Too often, concepts and ideas happen in silos with a linear, sequential approach. Students mistakenly believe that these ideas fit into mental buckets. But real learning is more like a web, where ideas constantly connect. 
  5. Students grow in self-efficacy. When a student depends on teacher approval, instruction, and feedback at all times, they lose out on self-efficacy. However, when they own the learning process, they begin to believe that they are capable of continuing this learning outside of school.
  6. Students realize that mistakes are actually just iterations in the the learning process. I know that it's become trendy to say, "embrace failure." However, this isn't about failure. It's about the permission to make mistakes and the time to revise those mistakes so that you create something better. 
  7. Students retain that sense of wonder that occurs naturally in learning. By beginning with student inquiry, they get to chase their own mental trails and see where it takes them. 
  8. Students take positive risks. School often punishes students for getting the wrong answers. There's this deficit mindset that goes on that keeps them from trying something that might not turn out perfectly. When students engage in creative work, they begin to take positive risks and avoid the trap of perfectionism and risk-aversion. 
  9. Students learn to be more empathetic. There is value in creating work for an audience of one. It's why I love journaling. However, when students engage in design projects for an authentic audience, they learn how to put themselves into someone else's shoes. 
  10. Students see creativity as more than just art. They realize that creative work transcends subject areas. In the process, they experience a bigger definition of creativity

Creative By Design

Looking back on it, I knew that students would thrive in a creative environment. However, I felt crippled by fear. I was afraid that I didn't have enough resources. I was scared that their success in a creative project wouldn't translate into higher test scores. I was concerned about classroom management issues (I had mistaken being busy with being engaged).

Ultimately, that's why I adopted a philosophy of "creative by design." In other words, creative work requires a level of intentionality and purpose in order to work. It requires a structure or a framework. This is ultimately why I embraced design thinking. My students needed a different way to think about creative work. It starts with empathy and awareness; working to understand on a profound level the problems people are facing before attempting to come up with ideas and create solutions. It is a slower, deeper approach that encourages research and revision.

It’s a bit of a debate where design thinking originated. Some claim that it started in the sixties with The Sciences of the Artificial. Others point to Design Thinking, which focused more on urban planning and architecture. Still others point to Robert McKim’s work in Experiences in Visual Thinking. Like all great ideas, it has been an evolution, influenced by thousands of people. We know that our work around Design Thinking has been influenced by people like Tom and David Kelley, Tim Brown, John Maeda, Peter Rowe (as well as organizations like Stanford and IDEO).

This is ultimately why I worked with AJ Juliani on the LAUNCH Cycle, a student-friendly design thinking framework for K-12 classrooms. Here's a little more about it:

Looking for More on Design Thinking?

Here are free resources I've developed along with A.J. Juliani:
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7 Ways UX Design Theory Transformed My Approach to Course Design

A little over a year ago, when we were just beginning to revise Write About, Brad Wilson encouraged me to research the theories behind user experience design (UX). We had created a blogging platform that complete with all the functionality we could imagine but we needed it to work seamlessly for students and teachers. It had become clunky.

User experience design theory (sometimes abbreviated as XD, UX, UXD or UED) focuses on the user experience of a platform. This might include accessibility, usability, enjoyment, and the overall flow of the experience. UX design focuses on both on how we use digital tools and on how we inhabit digital spaces. It focuses on systems in a way that is deeply human. What does it feel like for people? What does it look like for them? What are their processes?

As I dove deeper into UX design, I began to question my approach to classroom systems. One of the key ideas in UX is to build systems that people will intuitively understand rather than trying to get people to fit into a system. Yet, in classrooms, I had spent hours teaching procedures. I had designed the physical spaces with little thought to what students could figure out on their own. I hadn't even considered the "user experience" of my pedagogy, classroom management, or classroom space. UX design was a game-changer for me.

Now, as a professor, I am designing courses from scratch. Some of these are in-person, others hybrid, and others fully online. However, once again, I have the same desire to create something that flows seamlessly for students. I want to create something that they enjoy. Here are seven ideas of UX design that I am trying to incorporate into my course design:

1. Embrace On-Boarding 

Sign up for a website and you'll probably experience a "virtual tour." Often, it's something simple, with things clearly labeled as you use them. They might have pop-ups or rollover text or part of the screen that gets lighter. Platform designers want you to feel comfortable as you easily navigate that first experience.

What if we did the same in classrooms?

In my online courses, I have a "start here" section with a video tour of the course. It's been one of the most popular features so far. When I teach in person, on-boarding is more about explaining / labelling things as we go rather than having a long, drawn-out explanation of procedures ahead of time. The goal of an on-boarding experience is to alleviate fear, help students feel comfortable, and answer questions as you go rather than giving a list of instructions ahead of time.

2. Begin with the User in Mind

At my work, we regularly use Google Drive and Taskstream. It's an interesting contrast. Google Drive seems to be built around what a user would want to do. So, when I have students who have never used it before, they usually tinker around for five minutes before saying, "this totally makes sense." It seems to be designed for the user. By contrast, after a full school year of using Taskstream, I am still confused by it. Menus disappear. The settings make no sense. It's a mess. But it's a mess that works efficiently for gathering data at the macro level. It's great for institutions but wonky and confusing for the users.

Most of the teacher productivity advice tends to focus on how to make the job easier for the teacher. We see things like managing the paper trail or getting organized. But user experience should focus on making things easier for the students. This is why I have been collecting surveys and needs assessments on what students want from the layout and design of an online course. When I teach in person, I try to take notes on the "pain points" I see from activities that didn't flow well. Where are they getting confused? What could I modify? What could I do to make things more intuitive? This user-end focus has shaped the way I create project papers and rubrics. It's changed the way I deliver feedback and instruction.

3. Create Multimedia Instructions

I remember a point in Write About when we were creating short instructional videos explaining how to use various features (we also experimented with a mix of text and .gifs) and I realized that I had never done this for my students. So, I started creating short instructional videos for projects. This wasn't a "flipped classroom" approach. The videos didn't explain skills or concepts. They certainly weren't lectures. Instead, they were multimedia instructions for how to do specific tasks.

4. Be Intentional with Copy Text

If you check out the sites you frequent most often, they have clear, easy-to-understand copy text. It's part of what makes Facebook so easy to navigate. It's why you can hop on YouTube and figure out within seconds where you need to go. This copy text feels invisible. You don't even notice it. But that's the point. This invisible design is what makes it work so well.

I've written before that students should learn how to write great copy. However, I think it's also something teachers might want to explore. How can we create short, simple text that guides students intuitively through systems? How do we create simple, minimalist visuals that accomplish the same thing? What would it mean to create instructions with clarity and brevity?

5. Be Linear and Connective

Open any decent app on your phone and you'll notice a logical, linear flow. Things are exactly where they need to be. You can go sequentially through things and you won't feel lost. At the same time, there's a good chance that you can move back and forth between things at any time. This is part of what makes the user experience work. It's the notion of being logical but intuitive and being linear but also connective.

So, when we think about course design, we need to consider how things can flow logically and sequentially in a linear way. At the same time, we need to incorporate elements of a web-like, connective experience. This is easier to accomplish in online spaces. But it's also a mindset within projects. It's an approach to classroom conversations. It's the idea of remembering to keep things both linear and connective at the same time.

6. Be Consistent 

If you go on Facebook, you'll notice that a profile is always called a profile. A group is always a group. They don't call a group a "team" or a "gathering." The symbols remain constant. The framework and interface stay the same. And when they do an update, people freak out! For a day. Then they get over it, because even after an update, the language remains consistent. That's the beauty of consistent design. It's the idea of using patterns and familiarity to speed of cognition.

I'm not suggesting that we do the exact same thing in a classroom. We can use the terms "group" and "teams" interchangeably. It would feel weird to standardize the language. However, there is value in incorporating consistent language and predictable frameworks so that students know what to do.

This is why I use the same templates each time for project papers. I continually use student feedback to guide what the project papers should look like. I want the handouts to be clear, concise, intentional, and intuitive. I then use the same template each time on all the project papers. This creates a seamless flow. On the other hand, I made the mistake in my first online course of using different terms (calling it the Teacher Blog Project in the syllabus and then Reflective Blog on the project paper). I had four emails the first day asking about the Teacher Blog Project paper. (Note: this is also why I started linking my syllabus to my project papers with a simple hyperlink)

7. Be Simple

Open the Instagram app and you'll see a home icon, a search icon, the picture icon, the heart icon and the profile icon. You have five simple icons with no words. But packed within each icon is a ton of functionality. This ease of function creates an experience that's calm and minimal and fun. So, the UX and the UI fit together perfectly. However, if you've ever visited a cumbersome website with tons of options and banner ads and movement all over the place, you will most likely want to leave. You'll feel overwhelmed. For a small comparison, look at how cluttered is compared to Which one evokes a mood that says, "Hey, feel free to stick around?"

Procedures and systems shouldn't feel cumbersome and bureaucratic. Imagine you want to have a first name, last name, class period, and date at the top of each student's paper. You might tell students, "I want the name followed by the class period followed by the date." Some students will forget the date or class period. Some will change up the order. Some will write their first name and forget the last name. It's cumbersome. So, another option might be to give students a 3-digit number with the class period and their number on the roll (if I'm in period 4, I might be 417) and then you have "blind grading" and you can easily sort the papers. Students then need to write two things: their number and the date. If you're willing to let go of the date, you just have a student number each time.

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Are we making space for imagination?

When I go home, I'm no longer a dad. I transform into a sidekick to the world's coolest superhero. I become a nurse to a stuffed animal surgeon. I get to help an architect and a builder in forts made from couch cushions. I become second in command on a pirate ship made of the swing set. I morph into a lab assistant to an always-curious scientist. I turn into an astronaut in a planet in our backyard.

That's the power of imagination.

It's an escape, yes, but it's a different kind of escape. It's not an escape from reality. It's an escape back to reality. It's a chance to recover what is lost when I defined myself in narrow terms. I didn't realize that this would be a side effect of being a dad. But it is. I'm more consumed by wonder. I'm more curious. I'm more likely to answer questions that fascinate me even if they aren't "practical." For the last ten years, I have found myself falling in love with subjects I had become convinced that I "didn't like."

I want my kids to retain this sense of wonder. I want them to remain imaginative. I want them to follow curiosity and see where it leads. I want them to design and build and create and invent. I want them to play with ideas.

I realize that imagination changes over time. But it shouldn't be something that shrinks or diminishes. It should be something that expands and evolves. Maybe it gets more realistic. Maybe it grows more rooted in reality. But the imagination should always remain.

Seven Ways to Put Imagination Back into Schools

Schools do many things well and I'm grateful for the amazing things that happen each day. However, the system as a whole often works against imagination. I've seen schools cut recess time and turn kindergarten into a high-stakes environment. I've seen districts cut the arts and theater programs.

So, here are a few thoughts on how we could put imagination back into schools:
  1. Play more. Imagination thrives when kids can have the mental and physical space to engage in world-building. It's not a secondary thing. It's not a privilege that kids should lose if they don't turn in all their work. It's vital -- not just for younger kids but for all ages
  2. Provide the right structures. Structure gets a bad wrap. But the truth is that a "free time 100%" approach sometimes stifles imagination while the right kind of creative constraints can actually push students to be more imaginative in their problem-solving. When teachers use design thinking, they can offer a structure where imagination thrives. 
  3. Begin with student inquiry. Let them answer their own questions. Let them geek out on things they find fascinating. Imagination isn't simply "thinking up something new." It is often the result of chasing questions that they find fascinating. 
  4. Embrace the impractical. People are quick to say, "when will they use this in the real world?" But this incessant focus on treating content as a commodity used for practical gain can stifle imagination. Kids need a chance to wade through the fantastical. 
  5. Allow boredom to occur. This might seem counterintuitive but boredom is actually a critical component to creative thinking. Research has demonstrated that boredom can actually increase divergent thinking. I'm not sure entirely sure what this means for schools, but I wonder if maybe it has to do with the pace of school and the constant drive to be entertaining. 
  6. Change the assessment policies. It's no secret that high stakes multiple choice tests don't honor imagination. But it goes beyond the test. As long as we tie teacher evaluations, student placement, and school ratings to these tests, imagination will remain a "fluff" idea. 
  7. Reward risk-taking. At some point, kids become afraid to take creative risks. The system often pushes for compliance and "doing things the right way." This compliance pushes away imagination as kids buy into the idea that they have to do things a certain way at all times. 

Ultimately, the greatest factor is the role of creative teachers. When a teacher transforms the classroom space into a bastion of creativity and wonder, students remain curious. They keep their imagination. And the results are powerful.

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Thank You for An Amazing Global Day of Design #gdd16

I realize that the Global Day of Design was "only a day." However, it proved to be so much more! It was powerful to see so many students designing, making, building, and launching their products to a global audience. We had over 450 schools and over 40,0000 students actively sharing both their process and their products.

When AJ Juliani and I set up this event, we had no idea it would get this big.

As I watched the stream of videos and picture, I was reminded, yet again, of the power of creativity and design thinking to transform the learning experience.

Each day, I ask my kids at home, "What did you make in school today?" Too often, there is nothing to share. But on the days, they do, their eyes light up as they excitedly share what they are creating. It's a reminder that making is magic.

So, to all the educators who made this event happen, thanks for making something magical. I know it was a single day, but you do amazing things everyday. Thanks for inspiring me and reminding me of the value of creative classrooms.

Here's the Storify with a short snippet of all of the awesome things students were doing.

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You Don’t Need a Makerspace to Have a Space for Makers

When I was a kid, my brother and I built a "roller coaster" in the backyard with a wagon, some scraps of wood, and tons of pipes. Was it safe? Probably not. Did it ever work properly? Not really. But it didn't matter. We were makers. 

In the fourth grade, I wrote my first "novel." It was a derivative mess with flat characters and a predictable plot. I'm pretty sure I based it on what I'd seen on Scooby Doo. But it didn't matter. I was a maker. 

We created our own "music studio," where we recorded sounds on layers of tapes to create our own beats. We made our instruments with rubber bands and buckets and anything else we could find that sounded cool. Did it sound any good? Probably not. But it didn't matter. We were makers. 

That was my childhood. Whether we were designing baseball stadiums, building structures or writing stories, we spent hours making stuff. We were designing, tinkering, building, tweaking. We were makers.

But here's the thing: we didn't need a maker space to make it happen. All we needed was a little freedom, some encouragement, and a few random supplies. And time. Tons and tons of time.

See, I love makerspaces. I'm excited about the new makerspace our engineering department is building at the university where I work. I love visiting STEM labs and STEAM labs (or, if you drop the science from it, a MEAT Lab). However, I never want students to believe that making must be confined to a specific space. I never want teachers to believe that a fancy makerspace is somehow a prerequisite for having a creative classroom.


Last year, when I gave a TEDx Talk, I toured an innovative makerspace where students were prototyping with 3D printers. They worked collaboratively in a state-of-the-art space. They were thinking deeply and solving complex problems.

I then talked to a student volunteer running the TEDx Talk and said, "Don't you wish you could be in a class like that?" He shook his head. "It's not my thing. I want to make stuff, but I want to make art. I want to move people. It's why I'm in theater." This student reminded me that we have makerspaces all over our world. A kitchen, a theater, a cafe packed with writers -- these places are makerspaces. Making happens all around us if we're paying attention.

We just need a bigger definition of creativity:

When it comes to making, it's about a mindset and not a space. True, the spaces are great. However, it's more about the creative thinking that occurs. It's about that powerful transformation that occurs when students view themselves as makers. It's about imagination and problem-solving and design thinking. It's about seeing the world differently so that you go beyond merely being a consumer.

I don't want that type of mindset to be confined to a physical space. I want students to be empowered to think creatively in any context, at any time. I want them to engage in divergent thinking and figure out new ways to solve problems. I want them to dream up things that nobody has ever considered before. I want them to take creative risks. None of this requires a specific location.


Technology can be a powerful way to share your process and your product with the world. In many cases, you can leverage technology to do things that were previously unimaginable. Technology is great. However, there’s also power in all things analog. A 3D printer is amazing, but so are human hands. Sometimes the best tools for prototyping are cardboard and duct tape. Kids can snap a picture at any time. But sometimes the best way to make sense of the world is to draw it or paint it. I’m a huge fan of blogging. But journaling can create a safe space to explore ideas through webs and charts and sketch-notes. Global Twitter chats are great for conversations, but so are Socratic Seminars. I love virtual field trips but kids also need gardens and parks and playgrounds. Video simulations interesting are but there’s power in doing actual experiments. The point is, digital tools are amazing, but sometimes in making, the best option is vintage.

One of the things I love about design thinking is that it's not dependent on technology. I love when students share their process with the world and leverage digital tools in their creativity. However, it's all about the thinking -- and sometimes the best tools available are analogy, vintage, and lo-fi. It's less about the gadgets and more about the pedagogy.


People tend to toss makerspaces and design thinking into STEM or STEM. But some of my favorite design thinking projects were the ones I saw in a social studies class at Kent Innovation High, where students engaged in a service learning project with refugees. We need to see design thinking as something that transcends subjects.

I used design thinking with my students when I taught self-contained (the same students for all subjects) in the years that I taught both ELL and Gifted. Students used design thinking in every subject area. Students used design thinking in math as they invented their board games and arcades. They used it often in science as they experimented. They used it in economics when we invented products and in language arts when they filmed documentaries and created media packages.

What about the standards? What about the curriculum map?

You have two different approaches that work here. The first is to find standards that will encourage creative thinking and allow students to create products that matter to them. For example, when I taught social studies, design thinking worked well with the documentary project and the shark tank project. However, I'm not sure that design thinking would have worked as well in our World War I unit, where it was more of an immersive experience with a lot of discussion and debate.

An alternative approach you can take is to develop a design thinking unit and then find the standards that correspond to what students are doing. So, when they do research, you find the research standards in the ELA standards. When they launch, you look for the publishing standards.


Students can be makers in any classroom, in any grade level, and in any subject. It’s why AJ Juliani and I created The LAUNCH Cycle to bring design thinking into every aspect of K-12 and let every teacher know that any student can be a maker.

It’s why on April 26th (in two days) we’re having the first ever Global Day of Design where teachers and students from around the world focus on how they can make, build, design, and launch projects and products with/without a maker space. We have hundreds of classrooms signed up already and thousands of students ready to participate in the Global Day of Design. We hope that you’ll join us to for this awesome event meant to engage and empower all students to make.

Looking for More on Design Thinking?

Here are free resources I've developed along with A.J. Juliani:
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What's Your Manifesto?

This is my manifesto.

A little over a year ago, A.J. Juliani and I tossed around an idea for a book called The Creative Classroom.  Given our combined experience with design thinking (as educators, leaders, and people who actively engage in creative work), we planned out a solid book on the topic. We wrote the kind of book we thought education publishers would want us to submit. It was decent. It was informative. But then Dave Burgess contacted us and said, "I'm not interested in an education book. I'm interested in a manifesto. I'm interested in a bold statement telling the world the heart and soul of what you are about."

Dave encouraged us to make this book our own - to write the kind of book that we would have wanted to read as teachers. To my surprise, he wanted to use my sketches (noticeable on the cover) and he wanted us to share our stories. But more importantly, he encouraged us to abandon the idea of writing a book we were "supposed" to write and instead write the book we felt we needed to write.

And that's exactly what we did. A.J. and I tossed the outline. In fact, we scrapped the entire first draft. We focused on a single idea: that every child deserves a creative classroom and that design thinking can help make that happen in every classroom with every child. We dove into research. We asked hard questions. We interviewed tons of teachers doing amazing things. We fine-tuned the LAUNCH Cycle, adding some key components often missing in design thinking.

But before we did any of that, we started with a manifesto that would eventually be the core of our book with two core ideas: all children should are naturally creative and powerful things happen when they share what they create with the world. At that point, we opened up a Google Doc and started with the core ideas of what we believe. Here it is:

We believe . . .

We believe that all kids are naturally creative and that every classroom should be filled with creativity and wonder.

We want to see teachers unleash the creative potential in all of their students so that kids can be makers, designers, artists, and engineers.

We know that school can be busy. Materials can be scarce. The creative process can seem confusing, especially when you have a tight curriculum map. So creativity becomes a side project, an enrichment activity you get to when you have time for it. But the thing is, there’s never enough time.
We can do better.

We believe that creative thinking is as vital as math or reading or writing. There’s power in problem-solving and experimenting and taking things from questions to ideas to authentic products that you launch to the world. Something happens in students when they define themselves as makers and inventors and creators.

That’s the power of design thinking. It provides a flexible framework for creative work. It’s used in engineering, publishing, business, the humanities, in non-profit and community work. And yes, it can be used in education! You can use it in every subject with every age group. Although there are many versions of the design thinking model, we have developed the LAUNCH Cycle as a student-friendly way to engage in design thinking.

We believe all students deserve the opportunity to be their best creative selves, both in and out of school. We believe all kids are unique, authentic, and destined to be original.

Most importantly, we believe this is not an all encompassing solution, but a start. We believe our role is to empower kids to make an impact on the world around them and fully believe in themselves.

It is because of these beliefs that we wrote this book. We wrote it for ourselves, for our colleagues, for our friends, for our students, and for you. Because ultimately, we believe that you have the power to inspire kids and create a ripple effect that lasts for years to come.

From there, we wrote a book for teachers. Real teachers. The kind of teachers who are taking creative risks everyday in their classroom even when the system focuses on higher test scores. We wrote a book for the misfits, for the rebels, for the curious educators willing to chase their imagination and pursue design thinking. We wrote it for the ones who know that we teach students and not data points. We told stories. We shared ideas. We offered a realistic framework teachers could use. We asked questions even when we didn't have all the answers.

We didn't write an instruction manual. We know that creative teachers don't need an instruction manual. We didn't write a journal article for college professors to pick apart. We didn't write a specific book for a narrow niche. If you're looking for that kind of a book, then Launch isn't for you.

We wrote a manifesto for teachers who want to boost creativity and bring out the maker in all students. We see a lot of posts complaining about what's broken in education (testing, homework, the institution of school itself) but we created something different. This is an unabashedly positive look at what we can do as educators to spark creativity in every classroom. This is our manifesto. And I can't wait for it to drop in the next month.

Looking for More on Design Thinking?

Here are free resources I've developed along with A.J. Juliani:

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What do we actually mean by motivation?

When a teacher says, "I have an unmotivated student" or a principal says, "my staff seems really motivated," what does that actually mean? I've been thinking about that lately after writing a post on differentiated motivation and working on a rewrite about Flow Theory for student engagement. I sometimes use those words interchangeably: empowering, inspiring, engaging, motivating. I realize that the nuances are actually pretty important but I love the overlap. I love the question of what it means to have complete buy-in from students.

And yet . . .

What do we mean by motivation? What does it actually mean when a person says, "I want to do this" or "I don't want to do that?"

I jotted down a few completely unscientific examples of what we mean when I use the term "motivation."

I am intrigued by this.

I think doing this would be fun.

I want to do this.

I'm hoping that . . .

I need to do this. I should do this.

Self-Efficacy (or perhaps agency or empowerment)
I can do this.

Beliefs and Values
I believe in doing this.

I am allowed to do this. I am required to do this.

Note that this list is not comprehensive. You could easily add other words. Note, too, how these ideas often overlap. Compliance and duty are similar (the key difference being duty is self-imposed while compliance is external). The same goes with desire and enjoyment. Often, you experience mixed motives. A teacher might want to use project-based learning (desire) and might feel that it is something she believes in (beliefs) but she doesn't believe in her own abilities (self-efficacy) or she feels that she is not allowed to do use it.

Motivation often shifts within sub-tasks of a larger task. I thoroughly enjoy writing a book. I edit that book out of a sense of duty. I add references in the right format out of compliance. Sometimes a subtle change in environment will reshape the motivation. I might drive safely out of a sense of duty or a belief and value, but when a police pulls up behind me, I'm double-checking my speed out of compliance.

The bottom line is that motivation is messy and when someone seems highly motivated or completely disengaged, the actual motives are often complex and fluid. It's why professional development needs to tackle policy (giving teachers the permission to create and innovate) and self-efficacy rather than just skills. It's why the entire classroom environment contributes to student learning.
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Why Aren't Schools Teaching This?

I never learned how to write copy in school. In fact, even after taking a ton (yes, we weigh them in tonnage) of literature and humanities classes, I somehow graduated from college without knowing the term "copy writing." To be fair, I went to Arizona State, so there's that. However, I first learned about the concept of copy writing when my friend Jeremy Macdonald mentioned the term in reference to developing a website.

Jeremy explained how copywriting shapes our world. "It's the words you see in websites and advertising. It's specific lines you see in short form prose." I had never considered how a tagline on a website or the header as an important part of the writing process.

Essentially, copy is the web pages, advertisements, emails, and promotional materials. It's often used in a business context. However, it can also be used in social and civic contexts. It is often persuasive but it can be more functional and expository text as well. Think of copy as the shorter, intentional writing we do that often feels invisible (a blog title, a book description, a short video script) but has a profound influence on what we are thinking.

I remember diving into the copywriting literature and feeling excited and kind-of angry. I vacillated between "why didn't I know about this earlier" and "these folks are overthinking this." As I played around with copy, I realized that it was less like standard prose and more like writing poetry. I wasn't used to the brevity, creativity, or intentionality required in writing copy.

But then . . .

I fell in love with writing copy. It's why I love writing the descriptions in blogs and on social media. It's why I love writing the scripts on my sketchy videos. I love the focus required in copywriting. I love playing around with sentence structure and word choice.

This has me wondering if students should learn how to write copy. We tend to focus on the "more is better" aspect of writing in schools. Students learn how to perfect the five paragraph essay. More and more, they are learning about how to cite evidence and write analytically. And yet, when I think of the writing they will do outside of school, I wonder how often it will be actually require copywriting skills. What happens when students write resumes? What about really important emails? How about the times they create something they want to launch to the world?

We often hear about the need for students to write code, but what about learning how to write great copy? Students inhabit a digital world saturated with cheap text, constantly bombarded with quick and thoughtless language. When they learn to write copy, their words stand out. They learn to write with clarity, brevity, and purpose.

I wonder what it would mean to ask students these questions:
  • Can you write in a way that inspires your readers to take action?
  • What does it look like to write with brevity and clarity? 
  • How do the individual words you choose shape what a reader is thinking? In particular, how do the choice of verbs reframe an idea?
  • Why does sentence structure matter? How does the verb tense shape the interpretation of a text?
  • In what ways will your words shape the mental environment and sense of space in a work?
I'm not suggesting we scrap the five paragraph essay or do away with creative writing. However, I wonder what it would look like to at least expose students to the idea of craft great copy. I wonder how students would change as critical thinkers if they saw language as something profound and intentional and capable of shaping their world. 
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We often hear about the problems in education. What about the solutions?

This morning, I logged into Twitter and noticed a stream of education articles. Several described how homework is ruining childhood. A few mentioned why schools are crushing creativity. I noticed my own blog post describing how "kids aren't tired of learning but they're tired of school." So, here's a little pushback on all of those posts (mine included):

Amazing things are happening schools. All the time. I've seen this as teachers have tagged AJ and I in our Global Day of Design before the day has actually happened. I see this when I go on Instagram and take a glimpse at what's happening in Tim Lauer's school. I notice this when my daughter won't stop talking about what she's learning in kindergarten or when my son gushes about how much he loved the mock business / economics experience his class just finished. I noticed it last week when I observed an amazing teacher in her practicum and noticed all the kids who were excited to be at school and who viewed it as a safe place and a refuge.

These small stories are happening all the time, due, in large part, to amazing, dedicated teachers. It's why I created this video a few months back:

So my first thought is that maybe collectively we need to share and celebrate the good stories. I know it's not the intention of authors and speakers and consultants. However, when all we ever hear is how awful schools are for kids, is it any wonder that teachers feel demonized and scapegoated?

I get it. There are flaws in the system. There are outright injustices that we need to tackle. But what would it look like to listen to all perspectives and then offer holistic solutions?

Take homework for example. I used to speak boldly against it. What about the cool out-of-class extension activity? What about parents who want their children to have additional work? What about that kid who goofed off in class and didn't get any work done? You can dismiss these concerns or you can say, "Maybe we could make homework optional and take a holistic approach to community and school partnerships."

You can complain that schools are crushing creativity. But what would it look like to advocate for project-based learning and design thinking instead? What would it look like to help reform the curriculum map so that it encourages and inspires creativity? What would it mean to have a conversation with teachers in Alberta, where they have overhauled the curriculum to embrace creativity?

I'm not suggesting we ignore the flaws in the system. However, what would it mean for us to take some of the energy we are devoting to complaining and use it to advocate for positive change?
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