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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



Mistakes Are What Make Growth Possible

My son decided he wanted to make something similar to an erector set. We basically put together PVC pipe, bricks, and anything else we could find to get a metal ball to make it into a bucket. On the surface level this looks easy. However, if the pipes wiggle the wrong way, it totally fails.

We tried.

We tried again.

We tried ten more times.

Then another ten times.

We tried until he was nearly in tears as the ball got stuck and any sense of progress we had made seemed to regress. After going back inside and getting a drink of water, we tried ten more times. Then another ten times.

On the seventy-seventh try, it worked. Here's the video:

So, it has me thinking about perseverance and the concept of "grit." The general narrative is that we should push kids to keep trying and that eventually they develop "grit" through the sheer grind of trying and trying and trying. Push for higher standards and tell kids to keep working until they get it. It will be boring and hard and painful, but ultimately it will be worth it. The grit narrative tells students that "failure is not an option."

However, I don't think that's how perseverance works. I don't think it comes from a dreary place of high-stakes accountability. I think it happens in creative moments like this afternoon. It starts with choice and agency. Kids want to create something because the task is deeply meaningful to them. Next, they move incrementally with the absolute permission to make mistakes. There are no grades, no drills, no boring moments of "just get this done or else."

It's counterintuitive but choice, agency and fun are all critical elements for helping students develop perseverance. It's part of what I love about the design thinking cycle. Students begin with engagement and desire and move into inquiry and ideation. Teachers allow for extended time for prototyping, testing and revising -- without grading anything.

Here, mistakes are expected. In fact, they are a critical part of what makes design projects work. Kids walk into it knowing that they won't get it right on the first time. That would actually be boring; like jumping to the top level on the first turn of a video game. When kids do design projects, they know that each mistake is a chance to figure out what works and what doesn't work.

It has me thinking about the concept of a growth mindset. When students have the permission to make mistakes, they begin to define success as growth and learning. They recognize that failure isn't really failure at all. Ultimately, they become less risk-averse. They try new things . . . even if it means trying for 77 times before finding success.


An Open Letter to My Daughter's Kindergarten Teacher

To Whom It May Concern:

So I don't really know you yet but let me just say ahead of time that I'm terrified. It was the same way with my older two kids. I'm worried about whether my daughter will make friends and whether or not she will feel like she belongs. She can shy. I worry about her getting into trouble. She can be strong. I worry about her love of learning. I've seen some kids lose that over the years in the face of the standardized system.

But the truth is I'm also hopeful. In fact, I'm more hopeful than I am terrified. Because here's the thing: even in the face of testing and college and career readiness (because, you know, at six years old you'd better be prepared for Harvard) I know that most kindergarten teachers are brave. Behind the warm hugs and the happy face posters and whatnot is a tenacious side that says, "Not my kids. They will be known as a person and not a number." That's the crazy thing about kindergarten teachers. They have this inner ninja that treats the job like a mission.

So, with that in mind, I just want to say thank you ahead of time. Thank you for the fact that you will make her laugh and smile and relish in the joy of learning. Thank you for the fact that you will let her play and make and learn along the way. Thank you for the bizarre miracle that occurs (yes, I know it comes from technical expertise) where she will leave at the end of the year as a reader. Thank you for the field trips and the read alouds and the fact that you will make a trip to the library feel like a trip to the candy store. Thank you for learning her name in the first week and for taking the time to know her story and her personality and her identity.

I'm not sure what this year will bring but if it's anything like it was with my sons, I will be amazed by how much she learns and how much she enjoys the process. I know that there are days when you will be exhausted. You will have demanding parents. You will have ridiculous policies. You will have teacher shortages and unfair pay. You may have moments when you question whether or not it's all worth it. My hope is that you will know that you are appreciated. You do amazing things every day. You're pretty awesome like that.




Ten Alternative Assessment Strategies

It's easy to bust on standardized tests. They suck. They're boring. They're virtually meaningless. They kill instructional time. But what's the alternative? If we're not using multiple choice tests, what are we using? If we want a more creative classroom, what types of assessments exist that tap into creativity?

The following are ten alternative assessment strategies:
  1. Portfolios: These are a great way to show mastery, growth and future goal-setting. (Check out Five Tips for Student Portfolios for more thoughts) 
  2. Assessment Conferences: I use three types of student conferences. One is aimed at self-reflection, another at giving targeted help and a third at helping students make sense out of where they are according to the standards. 
  3. Standards Grid: This is a simple grid that allows students to make sense out of where they are according to the standards. 
  4. Peer Audio Feedback: Here students give audio feedback on work. They can use the voice recorder app or something like Voice Threads. 
  5. Social Media Discourse: Similar to the last one, this is the idea of posting one's work to social media (or an LMS) and offering peer feedback. We use discourse stems to help guide the conversation. In some cases, a Google Doc works well as an annotation tool. 
  6. Self-Reflection Forms: The cool thing about Google Forms is that students can leave text-based self-reflections but also fill out self-reflection surveys. It provides a layer of data to something that is inherently subjective. 
  7. Concept Maps: One thing I love about concept maps is that you get a chance to see what a student is thinking and what connections are being made. 
  8. Reflective Blogs: This works well with longer projects. The chronological nature of blogging means students can show their growth as they reflect along the way. 
  9. Student Tutorials: When students produce their own tutorials they show that they have mastered a skill enough to be able to show it to others. 
  10. Products: I'm a fan of design thinking and the idea of students developing an actual product to show what they are learning. We use rubrics and self-reflection questions through the various phases of the design thinking cycle. 

Get the Free Alternative Assessment Toolkit

Hey, I'm going to be giving away the Alternative Assessment Toolkit with forms and frameworks for each of the assessment strategies mentioned above. Please fill out the form below and I'll send it to you when it's finished.

The Presentation

Here's the presentation I am giving today on the topic:

Download the slides in both Keynote and PowerPoint. If you'd like me to speak on this topic, feel free to fill out the form at the bottom of this page and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.


Technology Isn't Making Us Selfish or Narcissistic

I posted this picture the other night. It actually led to some great conversation about selfies, humanity and technology. One of my favorite comments came from Jeremy Macdonald who pointed out that while we might not consider a selfie to be artistic, people often do multiple takes and spend time on photo editing and filtering. In other words, selfies mean something for a reason.

What if that reason isn't entirely narcissistic? What if it's more about being known? What if it's about belonging? What if it's a deeply human need that has existed long before the advent of the selfie?


What can Minecraft teach us about creativity? (Seven Ideas)

I love the concept of Minecraft. I love the idea of a game built around world-building -- where the game is less about programmed levels and more about a open, flexible design that allows the participants to actually create.

My son, like millions of other kids his age, loves Minecraft. He watches videos about it. He reads books about it. He meets up with the next-door neighbor and works on projects in Minecraft. So, it has me thinking about the popularity of Minecraft and what it says about creativity. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Limitations can lead to creativity. Minecraft is built on the concept of limitations. People are quick to say, "think inside the box" and yet this game is built on boxes. Literally. They become the building blocks of what you make. 
  2. There is power in simplicity. Similar to the first idea, this is the notion that the simplicity of Minecraft (the lack of options, the lack of complex plot lines, a graphical interface that harkens back to the eighties) actually enables users to be more creative. This is, by the way, why I think a stack of cardboard and duct tape might be more creative than a 3D printer. It's the same idea. Simplicity pushes people to be more creative. 
  3. You are most creative when you are not trying to be creative. When I watch kids play Minecraft, they are motivated by the goal of making something. However, they are not explicitly trying to be creative. They aren't saying to one another, "let's rate our creativity on a rubric." It's more of a means to an end. 
  4. All creative acts are both social and solitary. My son will sit alone and build something only to meet up with others and plan something collaboratively. It has me thinking that this is nearly always true of any creative endeavor. You paint alone and yet you are influenced by a social movement and you express your work to an audience. You act in a theater, surrounded by people, and yet you get into the mindset from a very solitary place. There's a myth that things are either/or when it comes to alone or together. 
  5. The product matters. I know people say that "it's not about the product so much as the process." However, nobody seems to be married to a specific process. Instead, they have a vision of what their finished product will be and then they modify the process accordingly. It's sort-of the opposite of what most creative work looks like in school. 
  6. Mistakes are a part of the process. Users have multiple chances to fix what they screw up. This ultimately leads to a growth mindset as they re-assess their approaches and step back and try a new strategy. 
  7. Consuming is necessary for creating. My son loves to watch videos or read books about Minecraft. These ideas (much like the Steal Like an Artist concept) actually lead to creative breakthroughs as he moves through the stages from consuming to creating

I'm not convinced that all children need to play Minecraft. I don't see it as a silver bullet that will fix every educational issue. However, I do think that there are some valuable lessons about creativity that children learn when they play Minecraft. 


What I Wish I Had Known About Growing Up

After spending an afternoon painting a picture of R2D2, my daughter declared that she would spend the rest of her life as an artist. A few days ago, when she was building a contraption, she said that she wanted to be an engineer when she grows up. Add that to the list of future professions: fire fighter, chef, teacher, superhero, singer, gymnast, video game designer, scientist, and architect.

For the longest time, I thought, "Someday she'll have to let some of those go and that'll be sad." I thought about all the things I wanted to be when I grew up and how, over time, you have to let those go when you hit your biggest limitations.

But now I'm starting to realize something different.

She's not talking about a career. She's talking about a life.

When she says, "I want to be a superhero," she means that she wants to help people and she wants to be strong. She can be that when she grows up.

When she says, "I want to be an engineer and an architect," she's saying that she wants to design things and make sense out of the world logically. She can be that when she grows up.

When she says, "I want to be a scientist," she means that she wants to observe and explore. She can be that when she grows up.

When she says, "I want to be an artist and an author," she means that she wants to learn to be creative both visually and with words. She can be that when she grows up.

In other words, she wants to be all of those things. And she can be. Every one of those things.

I'm starting to see that the lie about growing up is that we have to choose one thing and get really good at it and then allow that one thing (usually a career) define our entire identity. I've never completely bought into that idea but on some subconscious level I believed that. I defined myself as a teacher. I spent my first five years allowing that title of teacher to define everything I did, to the extent that I didn't write stories or paint pictures or create platforms.

But one thing I've learned as a dad is that when I niched down my entire life into one particular role, I stopped learning. I stopped exploring. I was narrowing myself down and letting my role define me rather than allowing my identity to define my role. However, as I watched my kids grow and learn and make stuff, I started to see that life wasn't meant to be lived in a narrow role where you spend all your time refining the one niche that you know inside out.

So, the bottom line is that I can be a maker and a scientist and a teacher and a dad and geek and a husband and all of those things. I don't have to choose one.

Here's the video reflection that prompted this post:


Professional Development as a Maker Space

Sometimes I hear people say things like, "I don't learn from sit and get professional development" or "I don't see the point in being at a keynote and just watching someone talk." Often this turns into a discussion of what professional development "should" be with bold statements about what works and doesn't work.

For what it's worth, I see a place for every type of professional development. Keynotes can be powerful and lead to deep paradigm shifts. They can inspire a crowd and motivate them to try something new. The coaching model is an effective, relational way to get teachers reflecting, thinking, and modeling a particular practice. EdCamps and un-conferences empower teachers to express their voice democratically. Lab schools allow teachers to connect professional development, action research, and pedagogy into a real setting. 

However, I've been thinking about another model that we might want to add to our approach of differentiated professional development. In this model, teachers learn by making something. I'm not referring to an hour of Makey Makey or a Maker Space session with Arduino. I'm thinking more about long-term projects that work through the entire design thinking cycle. 

I had a chance to be a part of this type of professional development this last week. Here, teachers spent a full week in single strands where they learned about a concept by making something connected to it. It was Camp Plug and Play, a week-long professional learning opportunity run by the Arizona K12 Center. I enjoyed sitting down during lunch and listening to the buzz about what creative things the teachers were making in their strands. It was really cool to watch teachers getting excited about the creative process and how they would use it in their individual classrooms. 

Four Reasons Professional Development Should Be a Maker Space

It has me thinking about what it would mean for school leaders to embrace a maker mindset with their staff. What if teachers designed things? What if they created something real and tangible? What if they went through the design thinking cycle? Here are some of the benefits I would see to using a maker model: 

  1. It gives teachers the permission to be creative. See, I think many teachers are already creative outside of school. However, in the midst of a high-stakes environment, they often need permission to have students embrace creativity. By modeling this in professional development, you give the permission for schools to be creative. 
  2. Teachers grow in empathy toward students. They understand the elation and frustration of making something. They see what it looks like to struggle. They understand the fear of screwing up. 
  3. Teachers grow in their self-efficacy. Many teachers want to be more creative and they want to see design more creative spaces within their schools. When they get a chance to make something, they realize that this is actually possible. The act of creating something helps teachers see what a project-based design project looks like in action. 
  4. Creativity ultimately helps develop teacher leaders. When teachers define themselves as makers, they ultimately fight for the creative spaces that students deserve. 
I believe that every teacher is creative but that there are many different types of creative teachers. When schools design professional development around the concepts of creativity and design, teachers tap into their natural creativity and ultimately design creative spaces for students.

Check Out This Video


How Language Shapes Solutions

A few years back, when I was training for a marathon, I would secretly cringe when someone said, "I saw you going out for a jog." Even when I was slower and still at a jogging pace, the term "jog" seemed to trivialize the intensity of a workout. Although it sounds picky, the verbiage mattered to me.

I notice the same thing in education. Students responded more positively to the term "writing idea" (meant to inspire writing) than to "writing prompt" (meant to require writing). While the intent is similar, the term "idea" conveyed the choice and the enjoyment of writing in a way that was different than prompt. In the same way "feedback" sounded different than "grading" and "conversation" sounded different than "conferences."

To some, this might seem like splitting hairs. However, language shapes the way we view questions and the way we shape solutions. It shapes our approach to things. It's why "undocumented immigrant" sounds different than "illegal alien" and why "kill and drill test" sounds different than "summative assessment" and why so many teachers hate the term "achievement" when it is simply a code word for "test scores."

So, this has me thinking about the way we talk about education and change. If we ask, "How do we make education more innovative?" there's an implied belief that new is better than old. By contrast, if we ask, "How do we reform education?" there is a connotation to the word "reform" that people associate with bringing something back that was lost.

When we say, "How do we fix education?" there is an implied belief that it is broken. By contrast, when we say, "How do we improve education?" there's an idea that the system might be good but simply needs improvement -- or even that it is flawed but not entirely broken.

Implied Metaphors

Things get even trickier when we think about the implied metaphors about the education system. We know that education is a social institution. However, people have implied metaphors about what this actually means.

Some see education as a business. They use "real world" to mean "business world." Here, data, analytics, metrics, benchmarks, branding -- those all fit in with the idea that school is a microcosm of the corporate world; a sort-of minor leagues for what kids will experience once they hold jobs. Others see schools as civic institutions that ultimately lead to citizenship. In this mindset, critical thinking is about challenging existing systems and fighting for social justice.

Even the term "system" is layered in metaphor. To some, systems are structures and processes. A broken system needs to be fixed. A bad system needs to be discarded. When we use the term "fix" we are seeing the system as something physical, tangible, impersonal and concrete. Those who resist change are simply getting in the way of a solution.

Others see school as an organic system. Instead of viewing it as a structure, they view it as a community. They see it as inherently human. In this mindset, a school is not broken so much as unhealthy. It needs to heal. It needs to grow and improve. The idea of "blowing up" or "discarding" this system would be akin to abandoning the idea of strong families simply because there are some families out there that are abusive.

Is there a solution?

Ultimately, we have these intense conflicts in education that begin with the implied metaphors. The hardest thing is that it's so easy to forget that other people are using language tied to a metaphor that is vastly different from your own. What feels cold an impersonal to some makes sense to others. What feels shallow and subject to some feels warm and human to others.

So with clashing metaphors and varying verbs, it seems almost impossible to reach consensus on change. However, I've noticed a few things that certain leaders do really well. Actually, I noticed this with my principal this last year:

  • Learn to speak the language of other people. I am a huge fan of meaningful feedback and authentic assessments. However, I am not afraid to use the word "data" when describing the feedback. Similarly, I hate the word "intervention" but I will use it even when I prefer the term "personalized help" instead. 
  • Pay attention to the language that you use. If I say "let's just blow this system up" or "we need to fix this" it's going to sound different than"let's see how we can keep improving." 
  • Recognize that the language people are using comes from implied metaphors that are deeply rooted in beliefs about systems. Sometimes the best way to challenge these beliefs is by asking people to clarify them. 
  • Pay attention to the times when the metaphors are colliding. 

It isn't easy. I get that. However, I am convinced that paying close attention to language is a critical component to leading change.


Seven Ways to Fix Brainstorming

It's not an accident that great songs are often sketched out on a napkin or that great products often begin with a series of sketches on a whiteboard. An author will have a story concept and suddenly it's scribbled out in random phrases in a list or as a sprawling web with lines bouncing back and forth.

In design thinking, these moments are part of the ideation phase. It's that beginning spark that leads to the eventual creation. It's the pre-outline phase in writing. It's the conceptual phase when you're working on the design of a website or a platform. It's the doodling that eventually leads to something you could never have imagined. It's the list of seemingly random ideas that ultimately lead to the unexpected moment when you realize the answer is way different than what you had imagined. 

As I look back to every creative project I've worked on, I've had these moments of brainstorming. In many cases, they didn't look like a traditional brainstorm. Some were webs or diagrams or pictures. Others were lists of words or phases. (One of my favorite techniques in writing comes from Pixar -- where you brainstorm a list of bad plot ideas and ultimately you realize that one of the "bad" ideas is pretty awesome). 

So, tonight I was intrigued when I read a post questioning whether or not brainstorming leads to innovation. George does a great job curating the research.

However, I found myself shaking my head. It's not that I disagree with the research. What bothers me, however, is the binary reaction the media creates when explaining the research. We get headlines like, "Why brainstorming doesn't work" or "Why brainstorming is overrated" or even "Why brainstorming kills creativity." While these statements are great for SEO (search engine optimization) they are pretty lousy at conveying the nuanced reality about ideation, brainstorming and creativity. 

When you start analyzing the research, you realize that they've created a straw man argument where brainstorming is treated as a limited practice where a group sits down together in isolation and jots down ideas and then they decide on what works best. The researchers then make statements like, "You should really break down the problem into facets and create optional solutions." Um, last time I checked, that's called brainstorming possibilities. 

One researcher created a different model, "Here’s how it works: you start with a problem or situation where you aim for an innovation, break that down in to elements of the problem, and then search for precedents that solve each element."

Again, searching for multiple precedents is essentially brainstorming possibilities -- though in this case, it's all about precedents. As I read through the research, I noticed that just about every solution included some type of brainstorming -- combining two ideas from the past, breaking things up and listing possibilities, quiet ideation.

So, really, the problem isn't that brainstorming doesn't work so much as it doesn't work when it's implemented poorly.

How do we fix student brainstorming?

  1. Start with quiet ideation before leading to a group brainstorm. This allows every person to have a voice and allows for the group to specifically avoid groupthink. I will often ask students to find trends and then see if they can brainstorm solutions that are opposite of those trends. Here the goal is to purposely think differently than what they already assume to be true. 
  2. Use multiple brainstorm prompts that include questions like, "How have you seen someone else solve this problem?" or "Is there someone in _______ area who might solve this differently?" or even "Could you combine two different ideas?" 
  3. Try different brainstorming visuals. In other words, use lists but also include webs that work as collective mind maps or allow brainstorming to include visual sketches of ideas. 
  4. Experiment with formatting. For example, a round robin brainstorm might allow all students to get a chance to share ideas. Here, each student moves clockwise, one at a time, and shares an idea. Another formatting method might be to have each student copy and paste the ideas into one shared document, followed by a period of reading the ideas and then adding more as a group.
  5. Create breaks for individual reflection. So, if you start with an individual brainstorm and you move to a group brainstorm as a list, end it by having students look at the list and create at least three new ideas based upon what others have written. I use the question, “How can you build on another person’s idea?” or “What is something you might be missing?”
  6. Move students to new groups in order to change up the perspective, avoid group think and offer a divergent perspective. 
  7. Integrate brainstorming into a larger framework. So, we use brainstorming in the research phase (thinking of possible sub-topics) and in the ideation phase. However, we also use it when students are "stuck" in prototyping and need to step back and list possibilities. 

The truth is we often brainstorm in our lives without realizing that we are doing it. It doesn't have to be a formal activity. Brainstorming is simply the act of generating possible ideas, solutions or products. We do that naturally when we make things.

I would hate to see teachers abandoning brainstorming because of headlines with such sloppy copy as "Brainstorming Kills Creativity" when, in fact, just about every creative endeavor includes a period of brainstorming.

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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