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Hello, I'm John.

I like to make stuff.

About Me

After eleven years as a middle school teacher, I am beginning my journey as a Professor of Instructional Technology in Oregon. I'm also a keynote speaker, author, podcast host, and educational technology developer.
Email: john@educationrethink.com
Twitter: @spencerideas
Podcast: Classroom Questions
About Me: My Story
John Spencer

Every child is a maker.

I want to see kids embrace creativity. As a teacher, this meant murals, documentaries, STEM camps, and coding projects. As a dad, this has meant elaborate pillow forts and home-made pinball machines. This is also why I co-wrote Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and co-founded Write About.

Latest Articles



An Open Letter to K-12 Teachers (From a College Professor)

To Whom It May Concern:

I keep seeing articles written by professors bemoaning the state of public education. They describe the lack of critical thinking and the horrible reading and writing skills. They go on about how woefully unprepared our current students for college, career and life in general. Sometimes the culprit is a culture of low expectations. Other times, they take shots at the factory system of education. A few have even blamed what they perceive to be the low quality of K-12 teachers.

I don't deny that there are sometimes low expectations. I don't deny that standardized tests suck. There are certainly some flaws in our education system.

And yet . . .

As a college professor, I just spent two hours reading the forum discussions and viewing PSA videos for my Ethical Considerations of Technology class. They are wrestling with challenging, nuanced, provocative views on the nature of social media.

Earlier this morning, I read blog posts written by future teachers, like this one about student engagement or this one about creating a Shark Tank experience. For the last month, they have worked tirelessly at their craft, knowing that the teaching profession is often the first to be blamed for every social ill.

A few months ago, I was a middle school teacher. My students left me each year and I rarely got a chance to see the rest of the story. I knew the areas where they still struggled. I had a clear picture of the parts that were left behind. What I missed in all of this is who they would turn out to be in five or six years. I had no idea just how much they would learn in high school and just how many amazing teachers they would have.

Now that I can see further along in the journey, I'm left with an overwhelming thought:

Thank you.

Thank you to all of the primary teachers who taught my current group of students how to read. I don't completely understand the science of phonics and blending. But you do. And, miraculously, millions of kids learn to read every year. Thank you for loving students who are scared to go to school or who feel shy or alone. Thank you for not believing the lie that there are "good and bad kids."

Thank you to all of the middle school teachers who love students during the awkward, difficult, and painful age. Thank you for being patient in the midst of attitude and insecurity. Thank you for helping them feel known when they feel all alone.

Thank you for all the high school teachers who have guided students toward adulthood. Thank you for imparting your passion for your subject. Thank you for pushing their thinking even when they think they have all the answers.

Thank you to all of the teachers who inspire critical thinking in the midst of a compliant culture. The vast majority of you are under intense pressure to teach to the test and yet you manage to be rebellious. I don't think people realize just how much courage it takes to push critical thinking and creativity at all costs.

Thank you for all the teachers who inspire a love of learning. Thank you for knowing students relationally and finding books that they want to read. Thank you for correcting their writing, even when it might lead to hurt feelings. Thank you for finding ways to get past the cultural lie that some people "just aren't math people." Thank you for helping them learn the art of observation in science, even when the culture embraces scientific illiteracy. Thank you for making history fun and relevant and engaging, even when society says that nobody will use the subject.

Thank you for all the joy, the creativity, the passion, and the wisdom you impart.




Ten Ways To Own Your Own Learning

No, this isn't about hitting the MOOCs and finding alternative methods of certification. This is a little different . . . 

Over the last three years, I have realized that there were key things I want to learn more about. The first topic was business. Although I didn't see it this way at first, I quickly realized that as we launched a blogging platform, we were also launching a company. For the first time ever, I wanted to go out and get an MBA.

The second topic was creativity. It's a broad topic, I know. On a theoretical level, I wanted to think in-depth about Design Thinking (a process I had been using for about five years), Flow Theory, and what makes creativity work. On a more practical level, I wanted to learn how to create better books, podcasts, videos, and content.

Neither of these topics fit within my employment and neither of them connect to licensure. However, I had considered going back to college and getting a graduate degree in either of those topics. I know college isn't for everyone, but there were things I loved about getting a degree: having a cohort to interact with, having access to experts in the field, having a systematic process of learning while also having an informal, messy, connective experience.

Given my teacher salary, I knew I couldn't drop thousands of dollars just for the fun of it on another master's degree. So, I basically told myself, "I'm going to work on my own make-believe master's degree in creative business. It will combine design, marketing, business, creativity, and workflow theory."

From there, I began essentially creating mini-units. I essentially said, "What is it I want to learn in this season and how does it connect to what I am making?" So, I read books and listened to podcasts and asked a ton of entrepreneurs about design, testing, and market research. I asked for recommendations. I worked through many of the books listed in my fifty favorite books on creativity and design thinking. I kept project journals where I wrote down goals, asked questions, and sketched out ideas. I sought out criticism from trusted peers.

Crafting Your Own Degree

I don't pretend that I have earned a real, accredited degree. I realize that there are gaps in my self-created MBA in Creative Design. However, I feel like this experience has been valuable for me and I thought I would share some strategies that have worked along the way:
  1. Make Something: This is probably the most important concept. It's essentially the idea that you can learn best when you are actually designing something on your own. I recently listened to an episode of the Tim Ferriss show where he interviewed Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. I was fascinated by the fact that they learned the craft of screenwriting by writing a ton together starting at a young age. 
  2. Listen to Podcasts: Currently, I'm able to walk to work and in the twenty minutes it takes me, I listen to podcasts that connect to these geeky interests. Unlike the books I'm reading (which are chosen systematically) the podcasts are often random insights that I hadn't considered before. 
  3. Read Books: Start with experts and ask them what books they recommend. Read the most cited books within books. Read the three-star reviews for intelligent criticism of those books. 
  4. Read Articles: Check out the best blogs in your field of interest. Add those blogs to a reader and check them out each day. If you have any access to journals, see if you can find research quoted within the books you've read and read in-depth research. 
  5. Curate What You're Learning: I recently wrote about the power of content curation. It's a powerful way to synthesize information and make connections. 
  6. Join a Mastermind Group: Here's where the community piece comes in. I am part of two different Mastermind Groups. Sometimes we talk about strategy or ideas. Sometimes we share frustrations and offer potential solutions. More than anything else, though, these groups exist as a sort-of soft accountability that says, "We want to see you keep trying even when things get difficult." 
  7. Volunteer: Sometimes the best way you can learn a particular skill is through volunteering for something connected to it. So maybe you're learning to code and it's a bit of a struggle. There are many non-profits who would love help with their sites. Maybe you want to learn how Flow Theory looks in action. Volunteer with sports and integrate Flow Theory into your approach. 
  8. Network: This is the hardest one for me. It's basically the idea that you specifically set out to meet people in a particular field who share your interests. In education, this can be an Ed Camp or a conference. One of the best strategies I've found here is to ask questions when you're at a large gathering. Get other people talking and learn from them. 
  9. Share What You're Learning: When I first got into Flow Theory, I started doing conference sessions on the topic. I would say, "Hey guys, I'm still learning this. Let's talk through it together." The fact that I was open in my journey allowed me to learn from the audience and articulate what I had been learning as well. This sharing element could be a blog, a set of sessions, a workshop, a resource you give away, or a podcast you make. 
  10. Make More Stuff: The last eight ideas are fine but, really, the best way to learn something is by making stuff. 


Just For the Fun of It

I spent two hours this morning making a video that lasts just under thirty seconds. This video serves no educational purpose. It has no large audience. It doesn't connect to a product. It doesn't push your thinking or reshape an idea or change the world.

It just is.

And here's the thing: I am ridiculously proud of these thirty seconds -- not because the video is particularly good or because it will have an impact on an audience -- but because it was fun to make and honestly, I would find it fun to watch. This is why I shared it on Facebook and Twitter and why I plan to share it with my students tomorrow night. I guess it's my version of hanging my work up on the refrigerator.

The idea was simple. I took one of my whiteboard doodles and turned it into a quick video:

So, it has me thinking about creativity. I feel like there's often this utilitarian push for the Maker Movement. We need engineers. We need designers. We need to keep up with the global market. Or, if it's not in economic terms, it's in social terms. We need to make art that matters. We need to push thinking. We need kids advocating to an authentic audience.

I get all of that. I really do. But what about making for the sake of making? What about creating just for the fun of it? Where does that fit into things? What if the real reason for creating is that the every simple act of making -- no matter how small -- is still an expression of what it means to be human?


When Did 19th Century Learning Become So Trendy? (8 Old Ideas that Are Actually Pretty Innovative)

I love how everything that people mocked as being "outdated" is now becoming 21st Century.

"Don't lecture. It's horrible," they said.

Now it's, "Hey, we have a TED Talk."

People mocked non-techie projects and now it's "we really need hands-on Maker Spaces." Five years ago, I watched techies on Twitter saying, "Note taking is dumb when you can just Google it." Now everyone is posting about the power of sketch-noting. Suddenly mural projects and theater productions are okay again, since we added an A into STEM; or as I like to call it "MEATS." I want a MEATS Lab.

Maybe it's time we abandon the idea that certain education practices are outdated and realize that learning is timeless and sometimes some of the best ideas are buried under the industrial carpet of factory schools.

Sometimes the most innovative ideas are not based upon boldly looking forward but on quietly looking back; to turn away from the collective gaze at all things novel and to look backwards at what we've lost. 

This isn't meant to be nostalgic. There are certainly horrible things in the past that we don't want to repeat. However, in the drive toward collective novelty we often miss out on the classic and the vintage.

So, here's a list of old ideas that might actually be far more innovative than an Apple Watch or a 3D printer:

  • Sketch-Noting: I love having students doodle out ideas. Sometimes it's a mind-map. Other times, it's a diagram or an annotated picture. It's cool to see them change lettering size and thickness, add colors with colored pencils, develop their own iconography and create a syntax through lines and swirls. The tools are simple but the thinking is complex. 
  • Making Stuff with Your Hands: I love the fact that so many schools have embraced things like cardboard challenges. It's the opposite of setting up a model on a computer and then printing it to a 3-D printer. And yet . . . what often happens is that kids engage in creative problem-solving. 
  • Apprenticeships: This is an older idea that I'd love to see more of in schools. There's something powerful about getting a chance to see how the world works while slowly learning a craft. It doesn't have to be a permanent decision. However, the process of observing, trying, and getting feedback in a real context is something that doesn't happen enough in schools. 
  • Gardens: One of the things I love about Tim Lauer's Instagram feed is the sheer number of pictures that take place at the Lewis Elementary School garden. It's a reminder that in a techno-digital age, there is value in feeling the dirt between our hands and watching life grow from virtually nothing. 
  • Art for the Sake of Art: I've seen schools wax eloquent about creativity and then cut the art programs while creating STEM labs. But one of the best vintage ideas we could recover is the notion that art should exist for the sake of art. It's the idea that art doesn't have to be utilitarian. It doesn't have to be career preparation. Art matters simply because it does. It's a part of what makes us human. 
  • Recess: The idea is simple. Play matters. For all the talk of adding movement and creativity to classrooms, one of the best fixes a school can offer is unstructured period of time to just play. Watch the worlds that kids develop. Watch them craft new games. Watch them design new worlds. It's pretty amazing. 
  • Socratic Seminars: This has become a bit of a buzzword in language arts circles and often they've added a set of structures that make it surprisingly un-Socratic. But the idea here is to have a conversation. Ask questions. Talk back and forth. One of the things I love about the actual Socratic Dialogues is that they often begin with an intentional examination of language. We need more of that. 
  • Home Economics: In the rush to make things college and career ready, we've missed out on the fact that maker spaces existed in schools for years in the form of Home Economics and Wood Shop. Although there were often harmful gender stereotypes attached to it, those classes were often bastions of creativity. We need more of that. 
I am not opposed to using computers. I'm a big fan of laptops and smart phones. After all, I helped develop a blogging platform that incorporates the entire writing process. However, I never want to get so focussed on looking forward that I miss the innovative ideas forged before my time. 


Eleven Ways to Improve Online Classes

photo by Maliha Mannan

I sit in front of the computer, staring at the screen. I have a general syllabus with little more than standards and goals. The university is giving me a crazy amount of freedom to design this online course. I shake my head, unsure of what I will create.

Initially, I think about my own experiences in taking online classes. Read some information. Answer questions in a discussion board. Write some papers. I rarely felt that I knew my classmates or my professors -- even if they interacted with me often. In some cases, the class felt more like an online book club than a place where we were learning together. There were some exceptions. I remember the project-based learning we had in one of my NAU classes and the multimedia creation we did in another.    

I step away from the computer and go for a walk. Without thinking about it, I open Voxer and ask a few friends what they would do. I check a message in our Write About thread and check for an update on Trello. 

As I slip my phone into my pocket, I am struck by the stark contrast between the connected world of building a startup and the fairly closed-off world of an online course on Moodle. As I continue to walk, I think about my favorite classes I took online. They were the ones that felt more like my professional learning community and my mastermind group and the collaboration that I am doing in co-founding startups.

Fixing Online Classes

It has me thinking about what it would mean to improve online classes. A few ideas come to mind:
  1. Use multiple platforms. I'm not against using an LMS as a central hub. However, I think it's valuable to experiment with the types of productivity tools you will actually use outside of a classroom. Use Google Docs to share ideas, create surveys, and ask questions. Use Google Hangouts to meet as a group. 
  2. Go project-based. I haven't figured this out entirely with my first class but my hope is that we can go fully project-based in the same way that my face-to-face class is. In fact, the asynchronous nature of online classes actually means there is a better potential of creating a project-based culture that mirrors the way people actually work on projects. 
  3. Make something together. I use a collaboration grid with co-creating and communicating on separate spectrums (x-axis) and multimedia and text on another spectrum (y-axis). This has been an effective way to think through collaborative tools that allow students to co-create.  
  4. Embrace a synchronous/asynchronous blend: I love using Voxer because students can speak back and forth in the moment. However, if they miss it, they can listen to it later. The same is true of using a Google Hangouts On Air. 
  5. Make it more connective. We tend to treat online instruction as if it is a linear process and we don't do enough to link things back and forth and connect ideas, resources, discussions and content creation in a seamless, back-and-forth nature.  
  6. Incorporate multimedia. It's a simple idea, but I create a short video at the beginning of each week and I encourage students to create video and audio as well. This has a way of making things more concrete. There's something deeply human about hearing an actual human voice. I know, crazy, right? 
  7. Go mobile. I don't simply mean use a smart phone. I mean assign some things that allow students to get out in the world and create videos, snap pictures, or simply experience something without technology that they reflect on later. 
  8. Find connections outside of class. If you are on Twitter or you are blogging and you have a network of people you can reach out to, then do it. Ask them to join a discussion or leave a comment or join a hangout. I love the connected community and I want to expose my students to some awesome people I've met online. 
  9. Get input from veteran faculty. I know this sounds counterintuitive in a culture that celebrates youth and perpetuates the myth that younger means more tech-savvy. However, I have a list of things that I am trying out because of a professor who has been at my school for awhile. She has been thinking deeply about this subject for a few years and she's sharp. 
  10. Figure out where technology works better. The other day, I was talking to a professor about an online class on classroom management. It's tough to do that in an online format. However, video recording one's approachable and authoritative voice can be a great tool for reflection. Use Sketch-Up to design classroom space. There are certain areas where the tech version works just as well or better than the off-line version. 
  11. Embrace technology criticism. Look, there are things that suck about our digital world. There are real problems with staring at a screen and missing the world. So, find ways to incorporate media criticism into the online classes you create.
I don't pretend to know all the answers to online learning. For what it's worth, I am a huge fan of using a blended approach. However, my experience in interacting with the connected community has taught me that we are far more human online than we'd like to believe. I value the relationships I have with teachers I've met on Twitter and through blogging. 

If someone had told me as a child that I would be co-creating two technology platforms with people who lived on the other coast (you know, the coast that gets up way too early) I would have said that they were crazy.  If someone had said that people who lived many states away would save my teaching career in the darkest moments of teaching, I would have called it a science fiction utopia. 

But it's here. We are connected. And for all that is wrong with our digital presence, there are great things happening every day. I want my students to experience a glimpse of that in their online courses. 


The Creative Power of Limitations

Last April, I had the opportunity to deliver a TEDx Talk in Pennsylvania. Here's the talk:

There's a deeply cultural idea that freedom and opportunity are the key ingredients to creativity. We use terms like "think outside the box" to describe the wild ones who abandon (or even blow up) the systems and make something new. We tend to view creative types as trailblazers going out and doing things that are radically different. In education, it's the idea behind Genius Hour and un-schooling and open designs and personalized learning.

I see a place for space and freedom and opportunity. However, I've been thinking lately about the creative power of limitations. Instead of thinking outside the box, it's the idea of repurposing the box. It's the idea of working inside of systems in ways that people don't expect. It is the notion that maybe the way to look forward is look backward and recover something that we lost.

It has me thinking about cities. I live in a place where buildings are regularly demolished and replaced by whatever the newest trend has to offer. It's a place where growth continues to the furthest area of the wilderness; a city of massive, sprawling suburbs, each master planned to offer a better experience for homeowners. Phoenix is a place built on space and freedom and novelty. And yet, it is one of the least creative cities I have ever seen.

I contrast this to a city like Portland. It is a bastion of weird. It is a place packed with creative energy. And yet, Portland is a landlocked city where growth has to happen inside the box. It's a place where old factories become artist lofts. It's a city where an old church or school becomes a place with craft brew. Whereas Phoenix razes buildings to embrace novelty, Portland repurposes places while embracing all things vintage and hand-crafted.

In other words, Phoenix is a place of endless possibilities and the end result is an enormous, bland, sprawling master-planned city. Portland is a land of limitations and the end result is a bastion of creativity.

I get it. Portland isn't for everyone. People mock it for all of its conspicuous and sometimes even pretentious hipsterhood. But it is also a place where creativity thrives due in large part to the fact that it is less about thinking outside the box and more about repurposing the box. It is a place where the limitations have becomes an asset and where being landlocked and anti-growth has led to a growth in creativity.

The Creative Power of Limitations

There's a dominant thought in education that the best way to foster creativity is to simply leave students alone. Although I think this is true at times (I'm a fan of Genius Hour), I think there's this opposite aspect of creativity that's also true. It's the idea that limitations are often the source of creative work.

Here's what I mean:

  • Structure can create freedom: The narrative structure limits what the author can do. And yet, this very structure frees an author up to tell a better story. Similarly, the framework of the design thinking cycle limits what you can do in each phase of a project. However, it often becomes the 
  • Restrictions can create freedom: This isn't always true. There are times when restrictions are ridiculous. There are times when rules ruin everything. However, there are times when purposeful restrictions are what free us up to think divergently. This is the idea that you can look at the inherent restrictions of a given situation and ultimately create something better as a result. 
  • Do more by doing less: The idea of "doing less" here is that sometimes minimalism leads to creative breakthroughs. It might be deliberately embracing fewer resources. It might be creating projects and products that are deliberately smaller. In school, I think it often looks like "more thinking and less work." 
  • A limited audience can become a global audience: This is the idea that sometimes the best way to reach a larger audience is to focus on a smaller audience. It's not surprising that so many great works of literature were written with a smaller audience in mind. 
  • Limit your schedule to get more done: I used to think that creative work was all about getting into a "creative mood" and then making something when I felt inspired. However, I've noticed that there's a grind to creative work. The best songwriters write everyday. The best chefs develop recipes even when they don't feel like it. The very limiting notion of a schedule and a deadline actually free us up to get more done. 
  • Personal limitations can become our strengths: Although our Macgeyver projects seemed to be "high stakes," they weren't. There were no grades associated with them. Despite the time limit, students constantly made mistakes. In fact, the series of mistakes that students were allowed to make in those projects were what ultimately led to breakthroughs. This became a part of our classroom culture. It was the idea that personal limitations, whether it is a larger struggle or a smaller mistake, can lead to our greatest strengths. 

This isn't a call for more rules. I don't think creative work has to be mechanical and rigid. Creative freedom is vital. We need to have a constant sense of slack in order for students to hit that place of flow. Moreover, in the midst of limitations, students need to have the freedom to screw up in order to feel comfortable taking risks. 

However, when we think about creative work, maybe it's time that we though about the valuable role of creative constraint. 

On the topic of deliberately embracing creative constraint, here's an interesting project:


Writing Should Be Fun

Sometimes I cringe when I think about the way I approached writing as a first-year teacher. As a new social studies teacher, I kept games, debates and discussions in the category of "fun," but I considered writing as "necessary." I treated writing as the vegetables that you have to eat in order to get to the dessert.

Oddly enough, I loved to write. I was new to blogging and I posted things to Myspace (I know, I know). I carried around journals where I scribbled out my thoughts. I would wake up early in the morning and tap away at my computer. I loved writing. However, I assumed that my love of writing was somehow an anomaly.  

See, when students would roll their eyes at a writing assignment, I assumed that they hated to write. I saw it as a fixed reality. The best I could do would be to keep the writing short, simple, and practical. 

I'm not sure when it changed. It might have been when I had to teach a writing intervention class. Or maybe it began when I started implementing student choice into blogging and abandoning the digital notebook mindset. Whatever it was, I slowly began to believe in what is now a conviction of mine: writing should be fun. 

This is why I started creating visual writing ideas and eventually co-created Write About (a digital publishing platform with an emphasis on student motivation). It's also why I've started creating short, sketchy videos like this one:

You can check out the other two videos I created in this playlist.

What makes writing fun?

So, this has me thinking about what it means to embrace this mantra that writing should be fun.
  1. Student Choice: This goes beyond simply tapping into student interests. When students have choice, they feel valued and empowered. 
  2. Themes that Matter: I'm not entirely sure that "fun" is the right word for it. However, kids want to empress things connected to the deeper aspects of life. 
  3. A Touch of Whimsy: Things that are whimsical, silly, and goofy make writing fun. It's why students loved creating the to-do list for a super-villain. 
  4. Creativity: Sure, kids can learn functional / instructional writing by describing how to make a peanut butter sandwich. However, it becomes more engaging when they make something new and create an informational text connected to it
  5. Critical Thinking: I love watching students wrestle with a really difficult question before they start writing. 


How Long Before You Forget?

I don't think you ever forget where you were, but you do lose perspective. It gets fuzzier as you focus more and more on what is before you.

Over the last two weeks, I have run into teachers I used to work with who have implored me, "Don't forget what it is like to be a teacher." This is often accompanied by a conversation about what it is like to be "out of touch" with teachers.

I don't think people forget the stories. Those are etched in our hearts and minds. I don't think people forget what great pedagogy looks like, either. I don't buy into the theory that teachers who leave the K-12 classroom easily become "rusty." If anything, the extended time to reflect and talk allow former teachers to think about pedagogy in ways that aren't always possible in a frantic K-12 schedule.

What I think you lose is perspective. By this I mean you miss the incessant, ongoing sense of context. I am already forgetting what it is like to walk around a classroom and have nine students asking questions. Sometimes I get up to use the restroom and I remind myself that I am no longer bound by the rigid schedule of a school day. Similarly, I can eat lunch when I am hungry and not in the 27 minutes allotted to me. I have forgotten about the frantic pace of middle school.

I think these aspects of context are so difficult because we have experienced the huge range of emotions connected to them and, as a result, they feel unforgettable. And on some level they are unforgettable. I will never forget what it is like to be scared about test scores or to be shamed when my scores were low. I will never forget feeling like a failure when I shamed a student.

However, as powerful as these moments were, they are easy to forget when we aren't experiencing them firsthand. It's a bit like having a newborn. I remember having bloodshot eyes and walking around like a zombie after less than three hours of sleep. And yet people would look at me and say, "Cherish these moments" when all I could think was, "I'd like to cherish some sleep." These parents had experienced the exhaustion of having a newborn but what they lacked was the incessant contextual knowledge of it.

The same thing happens with former K-12 teachers. They have the experiences. They have the empathy. What they lack, though, is the perspective of someone who is currently going through these experiences. I'm not sure this is something I will be able to escape. I will, on some level, forget what it is like to be a middle school teacher. I will lose some of that perspective.

What is the solution?

In working with pre-service teachers, I am finding that there are things that I have forgotten and am now remembering again. I am remembering what it is like to be scared to teach for the first time in front of kids. I am remembering what it is like to spend hours on a lesson. I am remembering what it is like to throw my hands up in the air, unable to know how to manage a difficult group. I am remembering what it is like to daydream about lessons plans and projects. There was a time when I, too, didn't know how to "turn it off."

This reminds me that perspectives aren't permanent. Somewhere along the line, I forgot what it was like to be a brand new teacher. I forgot what it was like to struggle with classroom management. I forgot what it was like to lose sleep over a lesson. More importantly, I forgot what it was like to be a middle school student. It's been ages since I worried about a zit on my nose or a secret crush or whether or not I would make it for a sports team.

It has me wondering if maybe the best way to "not forget" is to quit pretending it is possible to "not forget" and instead focus on developing empathy for those who are currently in that context. Maybe the answer isn't so much about tapping into my past experiences and instead learning to ask and to listen and to simply be there with teachers who are at the beginning of the journey.

Perhaps the best way to remain relevant is not by pretending to know what it is like to be a current classroom teacher but instead to admit that you lack tat perspective and focus on asking, listening, and building trust.


What is content curation? Why does it matter to teachers?

The term "curate" has become a buzzword in education. I've seen it referenced in TEDx Talks and tossed around in Twitter chats. A few years ago, the term "curation" would have conjured up images of art galleries but now I associate it with conversations about the future of education.

And yet . . .

I'm really drawn toward an archaic definition of the term. It originally had a much more earthy, even gritty, connotations. Some linguists tie it back to the Medieval Latin word curare, which meant “to cure an illness.” It had a connotation of providing loving attention and management. The word “curator” goes back to the word curatus, which meant, “spiritual guide,”or “one responsible for the care of souls.”

Over time, this word morphed into an intense care and love for a particular subject, knowledge, or set of artistic works. A curator is one who collects and manages information with a passion and love for the subject. Which is a wonderful endeavor. But I've noticed that some of the best curators are able to tap into that original sense of being “one responsible for the care of souls.” As teachers, this is what we do. We help students grow in wisdom. We're curators.

This is something often overlooked in the conversations about education and curation. I hear people talk about the need for students to be curators of content in an age of information overload. I've heard people say things like, "the teacher is no longer the source of information now that students can curate it themselves." This is typically accompanied by the term "guide on the side" to describe a teacher's role.

While I see some validity in this sentiment, I think it proves that now more than ever, teachers need to be curators. They need to be geeking out on their subjects. They need to help students figure out where to go. Yes, they might be "on the side," but they are still guides, helping students navigate the terrain for the first time ever. And that's precisely what a curator does.

What does curation typically look like?

Content curation begins with an intense love of the content. Think of gallery curators. They get giddy over the seemingly random (and yet almost impossible to replicate) approach of Jackson Pollock. However, they can engage in a two-hour discussion the relationship between kitsch art and postmodern philosophy.

Curators have a holistic, connected knowledge combined with thoughtful commentary. While there is an overlap with criticism, curators are more likely to geek out on the subject in a way that is explanatory instead of evaluative. This is often combined with a desire to make a work accessible to the public. So, while they are gatekeepers, critics are the ones shutting the gates while curators are often the ones who open the gates and convince people to come inside.

If all of that seems too abstract, here are a few things that are a part of the curation process:

  1. Searching for Content: The best curators are the ones who can find content that not everyone notices. This is what makes Maria Popova of Brain Pickings so amazing. She has this way of finding content that people are missing, looking in places we've overlooked. 
  2. Consuming Content: The best curators are able to collect and consume great content. It’s not mindless consumption. It is mindful and relaxed but also sharp and analytical, either. One of the things I’ve noticed about great curators is that they scribble notes all over the margins of books and yet they feel the complete freedom to skim and skip when necessary.
  3. Organizing / Managing Content: Curation often involves placing content into categories or themes. The best curators are able to find connections between seemingly opposite artists, ideas, or disciplines in ways that make you think, "Man, I never considered that."
  4. Adding Commentary: Curators rarely write long, in-depth explanations of the content. There’s typically a certain clarity and brevity in the commentary they add. When done well, a curator almost seems invisible, moving along the snippets of content. And yet, over time, you begin to appreciate the subtle personality and voice of a curator.
  5. Displaying the Content: Content curation has the end goal of getting great content into the hands of a larger audience. It is deliberately others-centered, even when the curator is introspective. Sometimes, the goal is to provide a set of practical information into the hands of readers. Others are more about offering something intriguing, even if it’s not inherently practical.

Favorite Education Curators

The education blogging community doesn't have a strong curation element. Most of us are writing reflective, persuasive or practical blog posts. However, a few bloggers have nailed curation.

  • Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day: I’m not sure there is a curator who is more prolific than Larry. He does a great job of finding relevant content, organizing it by theme, and adding just the right information to tie it all together.
  • Hack Education: Audrey Watters covers everything from technology to policy to social movements. She's constantly tapping into so many different sectors with a critical eye and tying it all together with sharp and witty observations. Some of my favorite posts she’s written included excerpts from books and articles that I hadn’t even considered reading before. 
  • Autodizactic: Zac Chase is a curator in his approach to Instagram, Twitter and blogging. He'll often underline a passage and write a note on the side. Although his posts are often reflective rather than explanatory, read through it a bit and you’ll see some amazing curating going on.
  • Dangerously Irrelevant: Scot McLeod has slowly shifted his blog into more of a curation blog, offering explanatory notes and then finding snippets of interesting thoughts on education from all over the Internet.

Favorite General Curators

These are my favorite curation blogs connected to art, literature, creativity, and productivity. I don’t follow music, food, or fashion curators, but there are some great ones out there as well. So, here are my favorite curation sites:

  • Farnam Street: Shane Farnam has a description on his blog, “I want to go to bed each night smarter than when I woke up. I also want to live a meaningful life and become a better person." 
  • Brain Pickings: Maria Popova is amazing. If you want a glimpse into her process and her personality, you should check out her interviews on the Tim Ferris Show.
  • Fast Company: Although they are technically a magazine with full articles, they do a wonderful job of curating a diverse range of topics within creativity.
  • Open Culture: I love the way they find seemingly random free items from our culture.
  • Mental Floss: Like Fast Company, Mental Floss is actually a magazine. However, they often curate information in a way that makes it deliberately popular. They use catchy titles and listicals in an approach that is the complete opposite of Brain Pickings. 

Other Curation Platforms

While all of my examples are curation blogs (I am drawn toward blogs as platforms), I have seen some great examples of content curation happening on Pinterest and EduClipper. Both tools are created with visual curation in mind. For a glimpse at a multi-disciplinary education Pinterest board, check out Angela Watson’s curation style.

Want a more creative classroom?

Check out some of these resources.

Free Course: Getting Started with Design Thinking

The design thinking cycle is a powerful way to get people thinking creatively. This free course helps teachers develop a plan for using design thinking in their content areas.

Classroom Questions Podcast

AJ Juliani and I started a podcast that focusses on thinking creatively about our classroom practices. Our goal is to keep it fun, practical and accessible.

Video Series: Getting Started with Design Thinking

The design thinking cycle is a framework used in business, in the arts, and in social and civic spaces. Learn the basics of design thinking in this self-paced video series. Check it out on my site or on the YouTube playlist.

Wendell the World's Worst Wizard

Students from around the world have been inspired by this story about a non-magical wizard who becomes the unlikely hero through the power of creativity and robotics. We also have free teacher resources to inspire a maker mindset in all students.

The Creative Classroom Toolkit

This free resource includes practical strategies for classroom instruction and assessment. It includes out-of-the box strategies, activities and lessons you can implement from day one.


Are you a teacher, leader, or parent interested in creativity and learning? Join us every Wednesday night at 7:00 Pacific for #createchat, a discussion about how to develop creative spaces in schools.

Professor of Instructional Technology
I want to see kids embrace creativity. As a teacher, this meant murals, documentaries, STEM camps, and coding projects. As a dad, this has meant elaborate pillow forts and home-made pinball machines and the story of non-magical wizard who makes robots. It's also why I co-founded Write About. Interested in having me speak or consult on design thinking and creativity? Visit my speaking page and fill out the contact form at the bottom. I'll get back to you within 24 hours.

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