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Hello, I'm John.

I like to make stuff.


About Me

I'm a teacher, author, keynote speaker, and incessant doodler in Phoenix, Arizona. Here's where I share my thoughts on teaching, learning, and the creative journey. Feel free to contact me:
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 has meant murals, documentaries, STEM camps, and coding projects. This is why I co-wrote Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and co-founded Write About. I am convinced that design thinking can thrive in every content area, which is why I am launching the free design thinking course this summer.

Latest Articles

IDEAS ON LIFE, LEARNING, AND THE CREATIVE JOURNEY


5/21/15

From Productivity to Purpose

I want to stick to my compass even when it feels less productive


Recently, I wrote about a change in my to-do list. I wrote a similar, though slightly unconnected post on why I don't want to be busy. These ideas connect to my New Year's Resolution this last year. I know, I know. It's a little late to be talking about resolutions but this has been one that I've tried to keep on my mind.

It's simple.

I want to think less about productivity and more about purpose. 

I'm not sure when it happened but somewhere along the way I got lost. I got busy. I started doing things because I was worried about what people would think. I started feeling like there was this reputation out there and I was somehow supposed to prove myself -- trying to contort my face into a mask of my own creation.

And then . . . it just didn't fit anymore.

I hit a point where I realized I was doing things that didn't fit my purpose or my identity. I had said "yes" to projects because I knew that they looked good. I had said the right things when asked to speak rather than talking about my real passion of watching kids become more creative. I'd say that I was being pulled in a million different directions but the truth is that I was chasing a million different things with no real place to stand.

So, I hit a point where I decided things needed to change. I began wrapping up projects and taking on less work as a result. I started thinking about doing the kind of work that led to a deeper sense of satisfaction. I said "no" more often in the last three months than I had in my lifetime.

I started playing more catch in the backyard. I started going for walks and realizing just how much I missed when I never looked at the moon. I started thinking less about what I wanted to accomplish and more about who I wanted to be.

And here's what it is . . .

I want to learn how to more patient, so I've been embracing silence and I've been thinking about mindfulness more often. It's been slow, but I'm running more often because when I run somehow I'm more patient with people.

I want to be more honest, so I've been sharing more about how things are really going and paying attention to the times when I exaggerate or play up how awesome I've been.

I want to be more present, so I've been doing less and observing more. I'm on Twitter less than ever before. I know, I know. That's not very connected of me, but I want to be connected with the people around me. I want to become a better listener. I'm still learning but it seems to be working.

In terms of creativity, I want to define success less on the outward metrics of who bought what and more in terms of how deeply the work touched one specific person. You won't see the result of this online but I'm learning how to craft a better story so that my kids have a better world that they get lost in when I tell them a bedtime story.

So, I guess it comes down this: I'm thinking a lot less about action and results and a lot more about identity and purpose. I'm almost halfway through this new year and for the first time ever, this resolution seems to be working. I'm more content right now than ever before.

But here's the bizarre part: I'm also more productive. Or at least, I'm more productive on the things that matter. I'm actually running. For real. I'm sticking to deadlines more. I'm finishing annoying tasks that need to be finished because I'm excited about things that matter. So, I blog a little less. I tweet a little less. However, I'm spending more time making things that matter to me -- and, more importantly, I'm spending more time hanging out with people.

5/19/15

Eight Stages in the Teacher Technology Journey


This framework is something that I've shared with district technology directors and coaches. If you're curious about having me meet with your team, please fill out the contact form at the bottom of this post.

So AJ Juliani and I have started a new Classroom Questions series on rethinking professional development. We have a ton of new episodes that we're going to release all at once this week. One of the things I've been thinking about lately is how professional development should work when districts are doing larger technology rollouts (such as Chromebooks or iPads or, if it's 1996 Palm Pilots).

A few years ago, I was a technology coach and I noticed a trend. Teachers tended to go through certain stages as they adopted and integrated technology. I have found these trends to be true of my own experience when it comes to certain platforms and certain technology skills (i.e. my shift from resistance to transformation with my view of smart phones or my experiences with multimedia publishing). At that point, I developed a set of eight stages teachers went through in the technology journey.

I don't believe that this is a lockstep process. Every person's journey is different. However, I developed this framework because I found it helpful as I worked on the coaching process and helped create the training for teachers in our 21st Century Classroom Initiative. I also think it's possible for teachers to be in different stages with different platforms, pedagogy, strategies and styles. So, it really is much more messy than what you see below.

A Holistic Approach

Too often, districts view professional development as the transfer of skills. Just show a teacher how to use an iPad and they're good. Give them a set of tutorials on Google Apps and they're golden. When teachers resist the technology, there's an assumption that they have low motivation. They simply don't care enough to try. However, when I created surveys for teachers in the midst of a tech adoption, I found that we were missing a few significant factors:
  • Teacher Attitudes and Paradigms: What teachers believe about teaching, learning, and technology all contribute to how they approach a technology adoption. 
  • Leadership Systems: If a technology adoption is treated as a top-down initiative, it will be met with reasonable resistance. It has to be democratic from the get-go. 
  • Policies that Reward Risk-Taking: The elephant in the room is the test scores. If administrators can create policies that will allow for mistakes and growth, more teachers will be open to change. 
  • Teacher Self-Efficacy: The biggest take-home of the survey was that many teachers had a high motivation to use technology but a low sense of self-efficacy. In other words, they wanted to use tech but they simply didn't believe that they could.  This was also the point when I realized that teachers needed to be affirmed for the great things they were already doing rather than simply pushed to do "more tech." 
  • Permission to Go Through Phases: People mock teachers who get excited about apps or who think that Google Docs are the best thing since chocolate covered bacon. But here's the thing: at least they are excited. Our schools can use a little more that. It's important that we give teachers the permission to get frustrated, excited, etc. as they move through the phases. 
  • Better Analytics: Too often, districts use the wrong metrics when evaluating the effectiveness of a rollout. For example, they look at whether or not a device is being used during observation rather than how it is being used and what factors led to the selection.


The Eight Stages


Stage
Definition
Dominant Attitude
Coaching Should Address:
Training Should Address:
1. Resistance
Teachers avoid using the new technology
Antagonistic
Reassuring teachers that things will be fine and asking for teachers to develop a framework for adoption -- great teachers need to be asked for input early on rather than being told what to do
How the devices are used (with concrete examples to quality pedagogy). I found that asking a "low-tech" teacher with great pedagogy to help develop training was a way to get tech-resistant teachers on board because they felt validated.
2. Awareness
Teachers begin to be aware of how technology might work in a positive way
Cautious but open-minded
Helping teachers to see the value of using technology. As a coach, this is a chance to say, "I'd love to model a lesson in your class and you can let me know what you think of it."
The potential uses of technology that can hook into the teacher’s current pedagogical expertise. Teachers need to be affirmed as much as challenged.
3. Experimentation
Teachers try it out. This is sort-of a “tech tourist” phase, where the tech is still an event.
Curiosity  
Allowing teachers to be creative and giving them more playtime / sandbox experiences. As a coach, you get a chance to observe the teacher using the tech in a lesson and affirm how he or she is doing.
Helping teachers make something tangible with technology -- the power of tech-integrated creative work
4. Adoption
Teachers finally decide to use the technology regularly as more than just an event.
Excitement
Setting up systems, expectations, self-directed learning while also addressing a few of the teacher paradigm shifts (such as student-directed learning)
Designing systems for the integration of technology (with an emphasis on student learning) along with the integration of tech into lesson planning
5. Substitution
Teachers begin using the technology for everything
Optimism
Helping teachers see where the technology fits in with the pedagogy -- challenging them to see where failure might occur
A blend of learning to use technology, planning curriculum with technology and pushing teachers to think about when “low-tech” works best
6. Disillusionment
Teachers realize that the technology isn’t perfect
Frustration
Giving them permission to be frustrated and scale back; helping to push a growth mindset that sees mistakes as a natural part of the process
Guiding teachers to develop a plan for when tech works best and when it fails
7. Integration
Teachers start choosing the technology wisely
A Sense of Normalcy
Careful examination of the pedagogy and the technology with an emphasis on how they can try new things (such as PBL) -- pushing them so they don't get too comfortable
Allowing teachers to work collaboratively on larger tech-integrated project-based units (i.e. a design thinking project) along with a vision of the connective and creative power of technology
8. Transformation
Teachers begin leveraging technology to its full potential -- students using it in a more creative, connective way
A Mix of Critical and Optimistic About Technology
Getting teachers to see how technology is shaping our world (in good and bad ways) and helping them develop a vision and framework for a better pedagogy
Blending media criticism (studying the nature of technology) with projects that leverage the creative and connective power of technology; allowing these teachers to help lead and train other teachers


Final Thoughts

While every teacher goes through different stages in different ways, the biggest take home for me has been to remember that professional development should not be one-size-fits-all. It needs to be differentiated and holistic, allowing for teachers to go through natural phases on both an intellectual and emotional level. If you found this helpful at all, I have a free download of technology coaching questions I have used with teachers.

5/15/15

I Missed This Maker Space . . . Until a Student Helped Me See It

John Spencer's TEDx Talk
Why, yes, I am talking about AT&T Ballpark

I'm passionate about seeing kids make stuff. This why I'm offering a free, short course this June called A Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking. Spaces are limited, so sign up now if you're interested.

Last week, I spoke at a TEDx event hosted by the Upper Perkiomen School District. It was an unforgettable experience and I was honored to be a part of it. Once the video is edited, I'll share my talk on this blog.

So, one of the things I loved about the event was the STEM-related, maker projects they showcased. Students demonstrated their apps and games they had created. We got the chance to tour a design space with 3D printers, CNC routers, and, more importantly, a group of empowered students who were owning the creative process.

I found myself gushing about this space -- about how cool it was to see kids going through the design process actually testing out prototypes. I remember, at one point, saying to a student volunteer, "Don't you wish more of school was like this?"

He shook his head. "Not really. It's not really my thing."

"But you get to make stuff."

"I get to make stuff all the time. Have you ever been a part of a theater production?" he asked. "It's called a production for a reason."

That's when it hit me. I had missed it. Here I was, ready to give a talk about creativity and I had failed to recognize a place where creativity thrived on a regular basis.  After all, this event, hosted by a high school, wasn't crafted in a STEM lab and shipped out to the world. Instead, it was being run by the visual arts, theater, and media departments.

The students who managed the lighting, the stage direction, the green room and the program were all seasoned theater veterans. And, while the TEDx event was astonishing, the amazing thing is that the agency and ownership they felt in this event is something they pull off multiple times a year with their musicals. The creative videography and editing that will ultimately lead to high-polished videos are all the result of media arts students who have learned the craft of multimedia design.

As I talked to the students who had essentially run so much of the TEDx event, I was struck by the fact that this process fit into the design thinking cycle. The empathy, research, ideating, planning, prototyping, and testing that we see in a STEM lab are all an aspect of what great theater programs do year in and year out.

I had missed this, though, because the product didn't look like my traditional view of a product. It's easy for me to see a maker mindset in an art class, but I never took theater and I've never been in a play or a musical. This bias shaped my view of that space.


None of this is meant to discredit the STEM labs. Those are amazing places where great things are happening. But it has me wondering if we are missing the maker movements and design thinking that happens in the fine arts and visual arts departments. We miss the magic of live theater or of documentaries and short films because they aren't as foreign to us as a 3D printer.

So, it has me thinking that if we want to promote creativity in schools, we might do well by celebrating the maker spaces that currently exist in many high schools.

5/13/15

Want Creative Classrooms? Scrap the Tests.

creative projects after state testing


I'm passionate about seeing kids make stuff. This why I'm offering a free, short course this June called A Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking. Spaces are limited, so sign up now if you're interested.

Despite the stereotype that teachers spend the last few weeks showing movies, I find the opposite to be true at my school. As I walk through the hallways on my prep period, I see classes bursting with creative energy. Out in the courtyard, kids are testing their paper airplanes to see which ones can do the most flips, soar the longest, and go the furthest. In one room, I see students working putting final touches on movie previews for books that they have read. In a third room, a teacher is doing a Shark Tank style project based upon a design thinking framework I had helped her create.

It feels like a different school than what I saw three or four weeks ago. At the time, teachers were stressed. Students were checked out. Classes were doing last minute prep work for the standardized tests — completely packet after packet of sample questions. Not every class fit this description but it was the norm. Engagement was plummeting and creativity was almost non-existent (often hiding in the doodles kids were making in the margins of test prep packets).

This place feels different right now. It’s the time of year when kids naturally “check out” and yet . . . I see engagement. I see creativity. I see design projects and science experiments and lively discussions on articles they have read. It’s not perfect. We still have the end-of-the-year fights between students. We still have teachers feeling exhausted. However, despite all of this, engagement is up.

I bring this up because I often hear people say things like “teachers are just stuck in their ways.” We see outside consultants talking about the need for innovation. There’s a lot of buzz around Sir Ken Robinson — the eloquent knight in shining armor who will tell us what we need to do to make our schools creative.

And yet . . .

We have the creative potential right here in our schools. What we lack are the policies that support it. Contrast the instruction before and after the testing season and you’ll see innovation. You’ll see creative lessons. You’ll see teachers taking risks at project-based learning. Once the environment becomes “low stakes,” there is a permission to experiment. Engagement skyrockets. Creativity thrives. And the only difference is the policy.

In other words, if you want to develop creative schools, you have to give teachers the permission to be creative. 


If we take the testing away (or even if we took away the high-pressure accountability metrics) you will see schools developing, in a grassroots movement, into creative spaces. True, some teachers will be overly traditional. But that won’t be the norm, because that’s not the norm right now. All it takes is a walk through my school on a mid-May prep period for me to see evidence that creativity thrives when the tests are over.

5/11/15

Eight Ways to Keep Informational Texts Engaging

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

One of the biggest complaints I hear about Common Core is the push toward informational texts. This is often accompanied by the complaint that we are no longer allowing students to read for the sake of reading. Just yesterday, a teacher said to me, "I wish we could read novels. With all these informational texts, kids are losing the love of reading."

Minutes later, I went to Facebook and noticed my friends sharing articles. I hopped on Twitter and noticed the same trend. They weren't just sharing the articles, either. They were geeking out on the ideas. We are naturally inclined to find information fascinating -- to the point that we have to share it out to the world. Nobody on Facebook is getting a grade for it. They're sharing an article because they found it relevant.

As a classroom teacher, I want to see that same level of excitement as students engage with informational texts. The following are eight strategies to make informational reading fun again.

1. Student Choice

When I first taught reading, I allowed students to choose novels during silent reading time. I made a huge deal out of the genres that were available. I asked students to develop a personal taste. However, I didn't allow students to select their own informational texts. This was odd, given the fact that every student had at least one interest that he or she was passionate about. If I had simply asked, "What information do you want to find?" rather than "What do you want to read?", I would have been able to help students fall in love with informational texts.

2. Think More and Work Less

Often when a student gets frustrated with informational reading, it has less to do with reading and more to do with the work required. When students read one page and answer nine text-dependent questions, they get frustrated by the work. When teachers ask students to practice strategies mentally (such as thinking about clarifying questions rather than actually writing the questions), students spend more time reading. This, in turn, leads to reading endurance.

3. Keep the Strategies Flexible

Close reading isn't a bad thing. However, too often close reading becomes a lockstep procedure rather than a flexible strategy. Students focus on whether they are doing the process correctly instead of thinking about the information in the text. I've seen students stare at a poster worrying about what color they are supposed to use when highlighting a text rather than thinking about the accuracy of information and the bias of the source.

4. Personalized Practice

Informational reading becomes more fun when students feel like they are improving as readers. This is why I ask students to look at the standards to identify which areas they have mastered and which areas still require improvement. Before reading, students select two strategies that are strengths and one that is a weakness. Instead of the hurried, frantic race of a pacing guide, students are given the time to practice a reading strategy until they have mastered it.

5. Solve a Problem

Outside of the classroom, one of the most common motives for seeking out an informational text is the desire to solve a problem. Too often, though, students are simply answering text-dependent questions that do little more than test comprehension. What if we started informational reading with student inquiry? What if we allowed students to see informational texts as an integrated part of research? When this happens, informational texts become challenging and relevant to an actual context. That, in turn, makes the task of reading fun again. I typically introduce research through a one-day lesson called Geek Out Day (look for it to download tomorrow for free).

6. Make Something

One of the best parts of teaching photojournalism is that students get a chance to use the information for making something new. This could be research for a podcast, facts for a video, or information for an article and editorial. Similarly, when I taught all subjects in a self-contained class, students often read informational texts as an integrated part of project-based learning. The reading remained fun because it was a vital part of what they were creating. In our class, students engage in informational reading when they are using the design cycle in their design  projects. It's a natural part of the creative process.

7. Embrace Technology

Too often, students are asked to read informational texts in a way that doesn't reflect the current context of our world. They highlight photocopied articles or take notes on textbook chapters. When teachers embrace technology, students can find more specific informational texts that fit their interests.

8. Don't Shy Away From the Conflict

Teachers do a disservice to students when they treat information as inherently neutral. Informational reading becomes fun when students see the conflict inherent in any informational text. They should be examining the bias of the language and analyzing the social, political, and economic forces at work in an author's argument. As they think critically about the conflict in a source, students see informational reading as the inherently dangerous act that it is.

There is no guarantee that every student will love every text. However, I have found that these eight strategies have helped students regain the inherent love of informational reading.


This was originally published on Edutopia.

5/7/15

You Get Four Items and Forty-Five Minutes. What Will You Make?



I'm passionate about seeing kids make stuff. This why I'm offering a free, short course this June called A Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking. Spaces are limited, so sign up now if you're interested.


It all began the year I taught sixth grade ELL. I had the same group of students all day in a class that, by law, had to be hyper-structured (we had a four hour block of reading, writing, oral language, and grammar). On Tuesday, we didn't have an elective class, so I had forty-five bonus minutes to plan something entirely different. 

Initially, I planned a Genius Hour project. However, after two weeks, it wasn't working. I realized that Genius Hour actually required more structure and time than I had considered (which is why I ultimately restructured my oral language hour to be Genius Hour). So, I had this short block of forty-five minutes in my schedule. I considered making it a silent reading block or adding to math. 

Instead, I landed on a sort-of UnGenius Hour. It was built around the premise that sometimes limitations actually boost creativity. Here, students had limited time, limited resources, and limited options. And they loved it. I know, I know. It sounds counterintuitive, but these limitations actually created a certain level of freedom that pushed kids to think divergently. 

The Forty-Five Minute Design Challenge

Students would arrive to their groups after lunch and see a box. I would then give them a short design challenge. It might be, "Design a board game that isn't boring" or "build a bridge." Other times, it was simpler. I would simply say, "Make something." 

For the next forty-five minutes, students would build a prototype. It took a few weeks before the first group realized that they could use the box itself. It took another week or two for students to realize they could do quick research on the Internet and plow through the design cycle we had been using with our design projects.

Sometimes it bombed. Sometimes kids got frustrated when things didn't work. But that was okay. Mistakes were allowed. Nothing was graded. It was simply 45 minutes of planning, making, testing, and revising. 

What's interesting is that students never once complained about the limitations. Nobody ever said, "I can't be creative unless I have the right resources." Nobody ever said, "I can't get this done with those oppressive time deadlines you are putting on me." Instead, the limitations became a source of their creative thinking. 

I used to think creativity was all about thinking outside the box and sometimes it is. Sometimes, though, it's more about repurposing the box. Sometimes it isn't a blank canvas or a crisp white page. Sometimes it starts with a limited timeframe and a limited set of resources. In these moments, the lack of options actually push people into thinking more creatively. 

5/5/15

Teacher Appreciation: The Two Teachers Who Encouraged Me to Be Creative

In this post, I tell the story of the first time I got to do a truly creative project as a student. This is something I'm passionate about, which is why I'm offering a free, short course called A Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking. Spaces are limited, so sign up now if you're interested.

It began as a project about baseball but ended as a lesson on creativity.

From the outside I didn't look like a student who had given up on school. If anything, I looked engaged. I raised my hand in class. I completely my work. I earned mostly A's and a few B's.

But I wasn't engaged.

Not really.

I don't blame my teachers, either. They tried their hardest working within the system that existed. The truth is I had amazing teachers who taught me most of the necessary skills I needed. I still have fond memories of certain lessons and field trips and novel discussions.

No, the real problem is that I didn't fit in with the system. I wanted to draw pictures and write stories and make things instead of filling out packets and doing reading comprehension questions. By middle school, I had resigned myself to the reality that I would have to limit creativity to the one quarter a year when I got to take an art class. So I tuned out and carved out a world of my own in my mind.

However, in eighth grade, I had two teachers, Mrs. Smoot and Mr. Darrow, who were both my coaches in the National History Day competition. That year, in the midst of the hardest year of my education (dealing with bullying and having a friend commit suicide) I felt known. I felt valued. I felt trusted. But the truth is that I felt known, valued and trusted by other teachers throughout the years.

What made this different had more to do with the learning.  It was also the first time that I felt empowered to do creative work for a real audience. I had never experienced project-based learning and suddenly I had the tools to breakdown tasks, organize ideas, and plan something out. I had never experienced true research and suddenly I was getting a chance to interview former Negro League baseball players. I was a shy kid who was suddenly interviewing strangers. I hated the sound of my own voice and yet I was now speaking in front of a large crowd.

I don't think I realized it until later, but this was the year that I saw firsthand the power of creativity in learning. It wasn't always easy. I remember being in tears over the fact that things weren't turning out right. I remember moments when I wanted to abandon the project altogether. But it was creative -- and that was something that had never been true for me in school before. Creativity had always been something I kept on the side -- something that I had hid on the back of math packets. For the first time ever, my creative work was affirmed and even celebrated.

As I look back at my eleven years of teaching, my hope is that I have been able to do the same with students. I hope I have carved out spaces where creativity can thrive.

5/4/15

5 Tips for Student Portfolios (and a Free Portfolio Project Download)



In my last post, I wrote about what happened to student engagement when I taught a class with no grades. When I mention my thoughts on alternative assessments, the most common response I get is, "Then how do you assess student work?"

One way is through student conferencing. Another way is with student portfolios. I'm a fan of using ongoing portfolios as a way to help students reflect upon both the process and the product. Teachers can carve out time at the end of a unit for students to modify their portfolios based upon new levels of mastery. However, I also see value in students create an end-of-the-year or end-of-the-quarter portfolio.


Five Tips for Student Portfolios

  1. Have students select the work on their own but provide an easy space for them to access all of their former work. It shouldn't feel like a chore. 
  2. Ask students to reflect on both the process and the product. Use reflective questions to guide the process. 
  3. Allow students to choose the medium. If they want to create video or record audio to do their reflections, then that might be the best option. 
  4. Ask for different types of work. I have students select work that proves mastery but also work that shows how much they have grown. 
  5. End with final steps. I love having students create some kind of goal for how they might use what they learned in the future. 

Download the Free Digital Portfolio Project for Students

So with that in mind, I'm sharing my Digital Portfolio Project. Click on the previous link and you can download it for free. If you don't have access to digital tools, you can modify it to do a physical portfolio. I hope you find it helpful.

5/2/15

What happens to student engagement when you take away grades?

Student engagement is on my mind right now due, in large part, to the month-long Classroom Questions podcast series I just finished with AJ Juliani. If you haven't subscribed to it on iTunes, you might want to give it a whirl. Which leads me to my second point. Look for an all-day summer online workshop on student engagement. I'll be sharing the details soon. 



What happens to student engagement when you take away grades?

The short answer is "nothing."

You can go ahead and quit reading the post now. I know. Shortest. Post. Ever.

My third block class is my intervention period. I have students for three to four weeks at a time and design projects that are meant to provide enrichment or support with particular standards. We have no grades in that class. We have no district assessments.

Conventional wisdom suggests that student motivation would stop in that class. After all, with no grades or points or badges, what is there to make students get their work done? The short answer is, "nothing." The class has nothing in place to make a student finish the work. I know of a few intervention teachers who tell students, "I'm still grading this" or "This is pass / fail and I can fail you." But I don't have anything like that in my class. Kids know that we don't have any grades and they still work.

On the other hand, they aren't necessarily working harder or staying more engaged than students in my graded classes. I still have some kids who tune out. I have kids who are slow to get to work. I have kids who don't care in the moment. This sort-of surprised me because of what I have read from the anti-grade folks. Take away the behaviorism and make it meaningful and kids will naturally want to learn. Engagement will be a non-issue, right?

Not really. See, the things that cause students to disengage exist in both classes. There are kids who get bored. There are kids who are hungry. There are kids who get distracted -- if not by something in the class than by something in their world. There are kids who find a specific task too monotonous even when it's part of a cool project. There are kids who get frustrated and want to give up.

I guess this shouldn't surprise me. I battle all the same issues in my own learning. My mind wanders when reading a book. I get frustrated when writing a novel. I hop onto Facebook when there's a line of code that I can't crack. These things are present in project-based classrooms, whether grades are present or not.

The Real Difference

While engagement remains the same in the two classes, there is a distinct difference. The students in the non-graded class are far more creative. Part of it may be the relaxed vibe of the classroom. A grade-free room tends to feel a little less like school. But I have a hunch that there's another reason.

Kids aren't concerned about compliance in a non-graded classroom. Don't get me wrong. There are deadlines. There are creative limitations. There are routines. I believe that limitations can be a part of what makes creativity thrive. However, when grades are gone, students are less likely to worry if they are doing things the "right" way.

I'm not hearing questions like, "How much do I need to get an Exceeds?" or "How much do I need to do to be done?" I'm also not having students call me over and say, "I'm I doing things the right way." In other words, students are far less risk-averse when grades are a non-issue.

There's a freedom to make mistakes so long as they are making something. This, in turn, leads to positive risk-taking and helps create a growth mindset. Without the fear of getting a B instead of an A, students are trying new things. They're doing things differently.

So, while engagement is fairly high in both classes, creativity is thriving in the class without grades.

Looking for More?



Creative Work

Here are some of my projects.


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.

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JOHN SPENCER
Professor. Author. Speaker. Maker.
I want to see kids embrace creativity. As a teacher, this has meant murals, documentaries, STEM camps, and coding projects. As a dad, this has meant quirky pillow forts and home-made pinball machines. This is why I co-wrote Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and co-founded Write About. I am convinced that design thinking can thrive in every content area, which is why I am launching the free design thinking course this summer.

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