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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



You Are Not a Brand

Personal branding has become popular in the last decade. I've heard more and more how students should learn to brand themselves. I disagree. I'd rather focus on identity than image because ultimately you are a person and not a product.


Nine Ways to Help Students Embrace the Revision Process

I have noticed that students often hate the revision phase. In the design thinking cycle, they go from research to ideation and building a prototype. It seems cool. They're excited about what they made. But then when we switch to testing and revising, they get frustrated. The same is true of revising a persuasive blog post or fixing a broken math problem or going back in to a video and changing things up in the editing phase.

Part of this comes from fear. They don’t want the prototype to fail. No one does. No authors says, "Man, I hope this piece I worked ends up being scrapped completely from the book." No coder says, "I really hope this string of code ends up failing to work." For all the talk of "embracing failure," the truth is that failing isn't fun. It's infuriating. At times, it feels devastating. Students are no different. They don’t want to feel like they wasted their time. So, there's this intense fear with any creative work that you truly put your heart into, where you don't want it to fail.

Other times it's less about fear and more about the boredom that often accompanies the small tweaking of revision. In some cases, even with a product that students love, students will be tempted to ask, “Isn’t this good enough?” There's a certain project fatigue that sets in when you've had to fix so many things and then you run into another round of revisions.

I don't blame students  for hating the revision process. I have so many times when I don't want to revise. I don't want to test what I did to see if it'll work. I don't want to face the fear that I wasted hours or days or months on a project. I also empathize with the boredom. I hate staring at a page of code knowing that a misplaced semicolon might be screwing the whole thing up.

What Teachers Can Do About It

There are certain things teachers can do to keep the testing and revision stage interesting:

  1. Change up the grouping so that a fresh set of eyes comes in to add some perspective in the testing phase. I love the writer's workshop model for that reason. But I wonder if that should be happening more in a math or science class, too. 
  2. Help students become better critics. What if we had a sort-of peer review process that went deeper than "two things I like and one thing to change?" This takes time, but it's why ultimately creativity requires thoughtful consuming. 
  3. Switch to a standards-based, mastery-based grading system so that students aren’t worried about what grade they will get if their first prototype isn’t very good. If students are graded throughout the project with an average applied to each piece, they will grow naturally risk-averse. 
  4. Emphasize that all great products went through many iterations before they worked well. Share your stories of testing and revising. Talk openly about any struggles you might have had with perfectionism.
  5. Break up the revision so that students test a particular part of their prototype and revise it before moving on to another area of testing and revision. Sometimes a big testing phase (here’s everything wrong with your video) can feel overwhelming.
  6. Create the right atmosphere for revision. Often deep revision requires a thoughtful intensity borne out of silence. This can be tricky in the chaos of a maker project. I've found that it helps to provide quiet spaces for revision -- even if that spaces is down the hallway. Ideally, we would have more spaces of quiet throughout school. 
  7. Devote more time to revision. Part of why so many students struggle with the revision phase is that the deadlines are too tight or all revisions are expected to be done at home. 
  8. Utilize student conferencing. In the past, I used two types of conferencing. The first was consulting (where I would provide advice when they were stuck) and the second was coaching (where I led students through self-reflection). 
  9. Be open about the emotional roller coaster of the revision process. It helps when teachers are makers and can share the frustrations of making mistakes and having to revise. 
It's never going to be entirely easy. Revision will always have an element of fear and boredom built into it. However, over time it can become a normal, natural part of the design process. 


The Best Decisions I Made Were the Ones That Seemed Dumb and Crazy

I remember the morning. It was about twelve years ago, give or take a few months. I woke up that morning with a crazy idea. It was beyond crazy. It was in the absolutely absurd, "I can't believe you are even considering this" category. I looked at the mirror.

"I'm going to ask her to marry me," I said with a goofy grin.

On paper, it looked like a bad choice. You're supposed to propose when you have money for a nice ring. You're supposed to have a conversation that hints around the subject. "So, I kind-of see myself spending forever with you" and statements like that. You're supposed to plan out an elaborate proposal event.

I didn't do any of those things. 

I went to the jewelry store and bought a ring, guessing about the kind that she would want (white gold, princess cut). I conjured up an elaborate plan that, in so many ways, fell flat. But in that moment, with my heart hammering, I asked her to marry me and she said, "yes." 

A little over a year later, we sat together in the bedroom, happily married. Christy floated a crazy idea. Why don't we start our family now? We discussed it for awhile and a month later, we found out we were having a baby. This decision went against all conventional wisdom. Go live your life together. Travel. Take vacations. Settle down. Become financially stable and then start a family. 

I'm struck by the fact that both of these decisions seemed like "bad choices" ahead of time. They were wild. They went against social norms. They seemed illogical, irrational and just plain dumb. Both times, we had moments when we looked at each other and said, "Are we crazy? Are we stupid?" But those decisions were two of the best decisions we ever made as a couple. They were defining defining moments that shaped who we would become as adults. 

The Value of "Bad" Decisions

The truth is that some of the best decisions I've ever made were the ones that seemed stupid ahead of time. When we published Wendell the World's Worst Wizard, it seemed like a bad move. Go get a literary agent. Pitch it to a publisher. Go the traditional author route. We ignored all of that advice. And as I watched a class create a Wendell-themed music video this week, I was struck by the fact that this decision to release the book independently was perfect for us. 

I've had other choices where I asked myself, "Is this dumb? Is this crazy?" Usually, it's followed by, "What happens if I fail?" or "What will people think?" There's always this reactionary fear of what others will think. 

But those decisions ended up being some of the best decisions of my life: painting a mural with students when I had never actually painted a mural on my own, signing up for a marathon when I knew I only had six months to train (and I was fifty pounds overweight), co-founding Write About without any investment money behind it. More recently, it has meant working on a platform to completely redesign professional development and leaving my home city of Phoenix to start a career as a professor up in Oregon. 

By contrast, my biggest regrets are the result of trying to make "good" decisions. These are the times when I answered the question, "Is this crazy?" with "Maybe it is. Maybe it's not worth the risk." So, I abandoned the idea altogether, convinced that it was crazy or dumb. 

What Does This Mean for Students?

I'm not sure what any of this means in the realm of education. I know, for example, that I completed about half of my homework in high school, earning just a little above a 3.0 before going to community college while I worked for an urban non-profit. It was the exact opposite of what an honor student was supposed to do and yet my college experience was amazing. I know that the "serious" classes I took have been largely irrelevant (here's to the Trigonometry I never use) while the "fluff" classes have been invaluable (public speaking and art both come to mind). I know that the things I did to waste time have become critical to any creative success I've attained as an adult. 

So, it has me thinking about things from the perspective of a teacher and a dad. When kids ask for advice, I tend to push the safe route. But I'm wondering if that's wrong. I'm wondering if maybe the best decisions are the ones that seem stupid or crazy at first. Maybe the best ones meander away from the status quo and boldly defy social norms. 

Here's what I wish I had said more often to my students:
Go do something different. Make your path. Reinvent the rules. Cause a stir in a good way. It'll be scary. There's a chance it'll fail completely. You might wonder ahead of time if it's a dumb decision. But if it's creative rather than destructive -- if it taps into who you are to your core and what you believe about the world -- then do it. Even if it seems completely absurd ahead of time, do it. Those are the best decisions you make. 

And maybe, just maybe, if I really believe what I say about wanting kids to become creative, independent thinkers, that might just lead to a lot of great decisions that first appeared crazy or stupid ahead of time but turned out to be the best decisions they ever made. 


What is a mastermind group? Why would a teacher want to create one?

Sometimes you need a community to test your ideas and push your thinking

I first heard about mastermind groups when AJ Juliani mentioned the concept to me. I hated the term because it conjured up images of people plotting to take over the world. It had a Pink and the Brain feel to it. However, over time I heard the term tossed around in the startup world. I read about a group of journalists who created a group where they each offered one tip and asked for one piece of advice each week.

Slowly, I heard more about these types of groups. Some of them met in person. Some of them existed through Google Hangouts. However, they all had a common theme of providing emotional support while also helping one another with practical, strategic thinking.

I am now part of two mastermind groups on Voxer. The first group focusses more on startups (something we all have in common) while the second group focusses more on teacher-makers and the cool side projects we are all doing. There's a power in the proximity and the vulnerability of both groups because creative work can be frustrating and even scary at times.

What a Mastermind Group Does

  • Share your needs with others and ask for ideas or resources
  • Share your frustrations (there's a power to being vulnerable)
  • Share your success stories
  • Talk about potential collaboration options together

Rules for Mastermind Groups

  • Privacy is important, so there's a general rule that what is said in a mastermind group should remain confidential
  • Push for cooperation. Mastermind groups should be cooperative in structure and purpose.
  • Actively listen and offer support to one another. 
  • Only offer advice when someone asks for it. 

What This Means for Teachers

So this has me thinking about classroom teachers. What if we formed mastermind groups on our own? What if we created spaces away from the noisy echoes of social media? What if we shared our strengths and weaknesses? What if we told stories? What if we asked for advice from one another? 

I get it. Those things are supposed to be happening in schools. However, I'm thinking of something a little different. I'm referring to teachers creating groups with other teachers who are removed from their context (which is one of the best parts of a PLN) who can add a sense of perspective and clarity to their experiences. I'm imagining something that is both more personal and more professional than a typical PLN.  

I realize that this isn't for everyone. You have to be intrinsically motivated to seek out or even create a mastermind group. However, I think there might be value in teachers creating their own mastermind groups that go beyond the walls of their own buildings. 


Go Make Something

When you see a problem in education, you can complain. That's not a bad thing. People need to know about problems in the system. We need strong advocates who will show us what is broken. However, it can sometimes be more helpful to offer a solution. So, you hate standardized tests? How about portfolios, conferencing, or rubrics instead? You're not a fan of homework? Think of some alternatives.

Lately, though, I've been more intrigued by a third option. Instead of just advocating for a solution, go out and make it happen. I love the fact that Kelly Tenkely and Michelle Baldwin aren't just advocating for choice-driven personalized learning. They're making it happen at an actual school. They are actively developing and testing the model. I love the fact that the people of Kent Innovation High have created (and continue to improve) an amazing, project-based public high school. And I love the way Chris Lehmann has not only collaboratively designed a great model of PBL, inquiry and social justice at SLA but also empowered the teachers he leads to help share what works.

I love the fact that, faced with a lack of diversity in the connected educator circle, educators like Jose Vilson, Melinda Anderson and Rafranz Davis created an entire #educolor movement. I love the fact that instead of just talking about global collaboration, Pernille Ripp created the Global Read Aloud, connecting thousands of students to novels around the world. I love the fact that AJ Juliani saw a need for design thinking in his district and helped lead the design of the xLab at their high school. And I love the fact that Brad Wilson had such a passion for engaging reluctant writers that he developed an app to meet the need.

Over the last year and a half, I been intentionally responding to every complaint I make about education with the following questions:

What have I made that helps solve this problem? 

If not . . . 

Who do I know that is solving this problem? How can I promote that solution? 

I don't always have the answers and I don't have the time or the knowledge or the capacity to create solutions. However, the maker mindset is ultimately what led me to help co-found Write About when I wanted to improve digital writing. It's why I co-wrote a novel when my kids wanted a great book. It's why I'm slowly working behind the scenes on a potential solution to the lack of differentiated professional development.

The Risks of Being a Maker

When I think about this third option of actually making things to make a difference, I am struck by the fact that there are some very real risks involved in making things. I never want to gloss over these risks because they are absolutely real and sometimes they really suck.

  • You expose your idea to the potential of failure. What you advocate might not work. Once you actually commit to making something, you face the very real risk that it might tank entirely.  
  • You expose yourself to scrutiny. When you move from talking about ideas to making something tangible, you suddenly face a barrage of criticism. Some of it is meant to be helpful. Meanwhile, others criticize out of a sense of jealousy. Regardless, you will be criticized and it will hurt. 
  • You feel exhausted. It takes time and effort and energy to make things. It's exhausting to see a project from an idea into a reality. It isn't always fun. It isn't always easy. The more you care about what you are making, the more likely you are to break into tears when it just isn't working right. 
  • You upset people. It can be disruptive to the status quo. When this happens, you might make enemies. 
  • You face your limitations. Creative work requires vulnerability. I've learned that just about every creative work requires a certain humility. I have to admit what I don't know. I have to ask for help. I can't fake my way through creative work because the end result is ultimately the proof of concept. 

The Benefits of Being a Maker

So, if being a maker isn't easy or fun, why bother? My first thought is that there is a drive in every person to go make something and that fear and discomfort are often what push us away. But this drive, this creative impulse, is part of what makes us human. And I think ignoring that drive ultimately robs the world of something unique that you can make while also denying this human need to make things.

In the realm of education, I think there are a few benefits to being a teacher-maker:

  • You get to test what works and doesn't work in education. When you make something, you get a chance to learn in a way that you can't when you are simply hashing out ideas. 
  • It's often fun. I know, I know, I mentioned the fact that you'll be criticized and it'll be tough and you have to be vulnerable. After all, haters gonna hate, hate, hate. (Yeah, I just quoted Taylor Swift) And yet . . . sometimes it's an absolute blast. It's fun to make stuff. There's a certain playful element when you're in the zone and it feels like magic.  
  • You get to serve others. When you make something that works, you get to make a difference. When I visit Kent Innovation High, I am struck by the fact that lives are being changed. And when I look at Write About and I see kids falling in love with writing, I experience the same kind of satisfaction. 
  • You learn what you don't know. I thought I knew code pretty well until I started trying to make things that were more challenging. Now I see that I have a ton to learn. I think that's a great place to be both as a learner and as a teacher. 

Our Students Need Makers

I am convinced that teachers are the ones who know what is best for students. Yes, parents, too. Yes, students as well. I get it. But in terms of stakeholders, teachers are the professionals who often have the best ideas for what works in education. When they are the ones who develop platforms or find solutions or build movements, it is empowering for their students.

Moreover, when teachers are makers (whether they are solving problems in education or writing a novel or painting a picture or building furniture for fun) they remember what it is like to create things. They can empathize with the successes and the frustrations of students. They can model and talk about the growth mindset. They can remember how hard it is to do things that require you to learn and entirely new skill.

Ultimately, when teachers are makers, they are more likely to create the maker spaces that kids need -- not from a theoretical idea but from a very real, everyday knowledge of what it means to hone a craft. That's a pretty cool gift to give to a class.

So, go make something. Start a movement. Build a platform. Craft a product. Design a system. Solve a complex problem. Invent. Create. Ask. Build. Learn.

Be a maker.


Seven Stages in Moving from Consuming to Creating

The best chefs often began with falling in love with great food. They were consumers first before eventually following recipes, modifying them, and then creating something unique. 

I used to believe that creativity began in the mind. Ideas popped in and people responded externally by making things. I would get frustrated when students came into class having only used technology to consume rather than create. I would beg them to take risks creatively. Make something different. Be bold. Branch out even if you screw up. Just be bold.

However, things began to change when I had my own kids. I noticed that from a young age, creativity was inherently social. It often began by seeing, hearing, and experiencing first. Often, it included copying something that an adult was doing. As the kids grew older, I noticed a similar pattern. Though they were wildly creative, each one of them went through a process of noticing, exploring, copying and finally finding their own way.

It has me thinking about my own experience with creative work. When I first got into drawing, I copied the styles of other artists. When I first got into poetry, I copied the style of my favorite poet. When I first wrote a novel, it was essentially fan fiction -- albeit at a time when no one knew that term. I have noticed similar trends among students. They often go through a phase of copying and mash-ups that occur before creating something truly original. I see this trend in art class, wood shop, in writer's workshops, and in STEM labs.

So, this has me thinking about stages that I notice as students move from consumers of media to creators of media. I admit that this is not very scientific. There might be a better model out there that explains this phenomenon. However, here are seven stages I see students go through as they shift from consuming to creating:

  1. Exposure: Sometimes this is a passive exposure. You hear a style of music being played in the background and it seems unusual. After a few months of it, you find yourself thinking, "I kind-of like this." Next thing you know, you're choosing to listen to indie-fused techno-polka. Or maybe not. Other times, it's more direct. You watch a particular movie or you see a production or you read a book and suddenly you're hooked. That's when you move into the second stage.
  2. Active Consuming: In this phase, you are more likely to seek out the works that you are consuming (whether it is art, music, food, poetry). You aren't yet a fan, but you start developing a taste for a particular style and you find yourself thinking more deeply about whatever work you are consuming. Sometimes this phase is more focused on the aesthetics and sometimes it is more focused on practical utility. Either way, you are actively seeking it out.
  3. Critical Consuming: Here, you start becoming an expert. You see the nuances in both form and functionality. It's in this phase that your taste becomes more refined. You begin to appreciate the craft involved in making what you are consuming. You are able to distinguish between good and bad quality.  
  4. Curating: After becoming an expert, you start picking out the best and commenting on it. You collect things, organize things, and share your reviews with others. In this phase, you are both a fan and a critic. 
  5. Copying: This is the part that drives me crazy as a teacher. After developing a level of expertise on a particular work (or artist or style) students will literally copy it. So, a student who is an amazing artist insists in drawing, line-for-line, a manga work. A student who geeks out on bridges decides she wants to make an exact replica of another bridge. A student gets into food and never deviates from the recipe. Until . . . suddenly something changes. A student branches out and modifies the copycat work. This, in turn, leads to the next stage. 
  6. Mash-Ups: Sometimes this looks like collage art. Kids combine elements from various favorite works that they have curated and make something new. Sometimes this looks like fan fiction. Other times, it might mean taking an idea from one area and applying it to a new context -- which can often look incredibly creative.  
  7. Creating: This is the stage where students start taking the biggest risks and making things that are truly original. While the ideas are often inspired by the previous six stages, this is where a student finds his own voice. It's the stage where a student grows in confidence to the extent that she is able to take meaningful risks. 

I admit that these aren't lockstep stages. For example, my son got really into Pokemon, and went from the second stage (active consuming) into the third, fourth and fifth stage simultaneously. It wasn't incremental. Similarly, people sometimes begin at the second stage by intentionally seeking out a new form of art to consume (second stage) with a critical eye (third stage).

Other times, people skip stages. Someone might go from falling in love with a novel (second stage) to creating fan fiction (sixth stage) without ever copying anything (the fifth stage). On the other hand, I have almost always skipped the mash-up stage, preferring to move from copying a particular style to jumping out and finding my own voice.

This isn't a formula so much as a general framework that I have used to help me remember that the jump from consuming to creating is more often a journey than a jump.


My Favorite Fifty Books on Creativity and Design Thinking #createchat

My Recommended Reading List on Creativity and Design Thinking

I'm a big a fan of reading -- especially in the summertime. Later in the day, when it's blazingly hot, I usually have a quiet time. We all sprawl out on different chairs or couches and simply read. It's why Amazon Prime has paid for itself at our house. (You can try the 30-Day Free Trial and see what I mean). During the school year, when I don't have as much time to read. That's why I've become a fan of Audible.

So, here is a list of my favorite fifty books on creativity. Some of these are more on the pop culture side while others are more academic. Some are books I agree with while others are books that I don't necessarily agree with but still provoked a lot of thought. I hope you find this list helpful.

Creative Thinking

1. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
2. A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman
3. Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It by Dorie Clark
4. Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
5. Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius by Michael Michalko
6. Breakthrough Thinking: A Guide to Creative Thinking and Idea Generation by Thomas Vogel
7. Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
8. A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger
9. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull

Doing Creative Work

10.The Art of the Start: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything by Guy Kawasaki
11. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon
12. Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon
13. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative 
Mind  by Jocelyn Glei
14. Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality by Scott Belsky
15. Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh Macleod
16. The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries
17. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
18. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp
19. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey
20. How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer by Debbie Millman
21. Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book by Tim Grahl

Design Thinking

22. Experiences in Visual Thinking by Robert McKim
23. Design Thinking by Peter G. Row
24The Sciences of the Artificial  by Herbert A. Simon
25. Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas by James L. Adams
26. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
27. Frame Innovation: Create New Thinking by Design (Design Thinking, Design Theory) by Kees Dorst
28. Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques  by Michael Michalko
29. The Creative Process Illustrated: How Advertising's Big Ideas Are Born by W. Glenn Griffin
30. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown
31. Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin

Engagement, Motivation and Creativity

32. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience  by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
33. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn
34. The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler
35. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
36. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
37. How to be an Explorer of This World by Keri Smith
38.  Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
39. Passionate Learners by Pernille Ripp. The book isn't out yet but it's one of my favorite education books ever.

Creativity in Education

40. Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager
41. Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level by Don Wettrick
42. Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom: Using 20% Time, Genius Hour, and PBL to Drive Student Success by AJ Juliani
43. Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education by Sir Ken Robinson (note: although Ken Robinson has been knighted, he has never actually harmed a dragon, much less killed one)
44. The Art of Tinkering by Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich
45. Learning By Choice: 10 Ways Choice and Differentiation Create An Engaged Learning Experience for Every Student by AJ Juliani
46. Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry by Larissa Pahomov and Deborah Siegel
47. Project Based Learning (PBL) Starter Kit: To-the-Point Advice, Tools and Tips for Your First Project in Middle or High School by John Larmer
48. World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students by Yong Zhao
49. The 20Time Project: How educators can launch Google's formula for future-ready innovation by Kevin Brookhouser
50. Worlds of Making: Best Practices for Establishing a Makerspace for Your School by Laura Fleming

Looking for More Resources on Creativity?

If you geek out on creativity, feel free to join the free Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking course. You can also download the free Creative Classroom Toolkit or join #createchat which is at 7:00 PM Pacific on Wednesday nights. I also give keynotes, sessions, and workshops on creativity, technology and student engagement. Contact me on the form below or email me at john@educationrethink.com if you'd like to book me as a speaker.


Five Ways Teachers Can Limit the Fear of Creative Failure

I'm sitting at my computer right now clenching my fist. I would love to say that the problem is external - that some outside person is getting in the way of my creative work. I'd love to say that I just don't have enough time to get things done or that I'm too distracted. However, that's not the case. The truth is that I can't get it right. 

See, I'm working on a site design. I have no deadlines for this particular project. No one is breathing down my neck. So, the environment is pretty relaxed. This particular project combines two things I love -- graphic design (something I tend to do well with) and coding. Still, I'm frustrated. There are some simple code things that I somehow can't remember how to do. Then, there's this wall I'm running into with the graphic design, where I know vaguely what I want it to look like but I'm not there yet. 

The Greatest Barrier to Creativity  

The truth is that this is when I am most tempted to give up. It's not because it's frustrating. It's not because it's too hard. It's because in this particular moment, I'm afraid. I'm afraid that it won't work out right. I'm afraid that I will waste a few days and have nothing to show for it. I know, I know. Mistakes are a part of learning. Revision is necessary. I've mentioned before that the design thinking process is all about testing and revising a prototype. And yet, in the midst of it, there's this fear that creeps in. 

Ultimately, it's the fear, rather than the frustration, that kills creativity.

It has me thinking that this is why people give up on creative work. You grow older and quit dancing because you might look stupid. You quit singing because somewhere along the line, you started thinking your voice was bad and you're too afraid to keep singing. You quit stopping and observing and wondering because you're afraid of being unproductive.  

I noticed this the other night when I was at a salon (it's this event where people share their art - whether it's poetry, short stories, visual arts, or music). People were nervous. They were terrified. I couldn't help but think that there is a certain courage required in every part of the creative process -- a courage to pursue an idea, a courage to make, a courage to keep revising even when you're scared it won't get better, and ultimately a courage to send your art off to the world. 

Five Ways Teachers Can Limit the Fear of Creative Failure

1. Share your own fear as a maker. 
I believe that teachers should create their own genius hours so that they can experience the fear that happens in the midst of making. I actually think there is a value in being creative (especially in a new realm) around students. Last year, I worked next to a former art teacher who used to paint while her students painted. It was a strategic move. She wanted her students to see her make mistakes and get frustrated so that they would know that even veteran artists get frustrated.

2. Promote a growth mindset with students.
There's a quote from Carol Dweck in Mindset that I think fits in well with creativity. "Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills, but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime, like learning to walk and talk. They never decide it’s too hard or not worth the effort. Babies don’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward. What could put an end to this exuberant learning? The fixed mindset. As soon as children become able to evaluate themselves, some of them become afraid of challenges. They become afraid of not being smart." I think the same thing happens with creativity. Kids start saying things like "I'm just not artistic" or "I'm just not good at programming." If you haven't read Mindset, I'd recommend it as a top summer read.

3. Encourage risk-taking as a part of your classroom culture. 
I mentioned in a previous post that being goofy actually leads to positive risk-taking and a greater climate of creativity. That's one of the many things teachers can do to create a climate where kids are excited about taking risks.

4. Switch to standards-based grading. 
Students become risk-averse when they are worried about grades. The traditional system of averaging grades (and placing completion above mastery) ultimately means students are less likely to take creative risks. However, when they know that they can revise their work and ultimately create something that is worth putting in a portfolio (feel free to download the free portfolio), they see mistakes and revision as a natural part of the creative process.

5. Keep the creative work meaningful to students. 
Part of why I am not giving up right now is that I love what I'm doing. I am making something that matters to me. So, both the product and the process are something I love (even when I'm frustrated). If that's not present in a student project, it's pretty hard to keep students intrinsically motivated.

Looking for More Free Resources on Creativity?

If you geek out on creativity, feel free to join the free Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking course. You can also download the free Creative Classroom Toolkit or join #createchat which is at 7:00 PM Pacific on Wednesday nights. I also give keynotes, sessions, and workshops on creativity, technology and student engagement. Contact me on the form below or email me at  john@educationrethink.com if you'd like to book me as a speaker.

I also enjoy reading books on creativity. Check out my book list here. I don't always have time to physically read, so I'm a big fan of Audible, where I can listen to the books while I go on a run or drive to work. You can try Audible and get two free audiobooks right now.

Creative Work

Here are some of the things I've made over the last few years.

Write About

I co-founded Write About, a digital publishing platform with custom groups, a suite of teacher feedback tools, and hundreds of audio-visual writing ideas.

Classroom Questions

AJ Juliani and I started a daily podcast that answers real questions from teachers in a short, fun, and practical way.

Free Course: Getting Started with Design Thinking

I am currently working on a course to help teachers use design thinking across all content areas. Look for it this summer! Sign up ahead of time here.

Wendell the World's Worst Wizard

My wife and I wrote a book about a non-magical wizard who becomes the unlikely hero who must save his enchanted village with the power of creativity and robotics. It's been a surprise success, with classrooms all over the world using it as a read aloud.

Pay-What-You-Want Resources

I have been releasing one free resource per week to all newsletter subscribers. Once the schoolyear is over, I plan to add these to a pay-what-you-want resource page.


Are you a teacher, leader, or parent interested in creativity and learning? Sign up for my newsletter to get my latest posts along with a free weekly resource on creativity and learning.

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.

Let's Connect

Send me your questions, ideas, or speaking inquiries.