John Spencer is a former middle school teacher and current college professor on a quest to transform schools into bastions of creativity and wonder. He wants to see teachers unleash the creative potential in all of their students so that kids can be makers, designers, artists, and engineers. John explores research, interviews educators, deconstructs systems, and studies real-world examples of design thinking in action. In this episode, In his second year of teaching, he used design thinking for a student-centered documentary project. Everything changed. He spent the next decade on a journey to empower his students to become creative thinkers and problem-solvers. This meant mural projects, service learning projects, STEM camps, and coding projects. But it also meant mistakes. Tons of them. It meant lessons that tanked and projects that failed. But each failure was another iteration on the road to innovation. John helped develop the student-friendly LAUNCH Cycle, a design thinking framework for K-12 students. Learn more at his website spencerauthor.com, see his sketch videos at spencervideos.com, and follow him on Twitter @spencerideas.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning With WeVideo podcast. I am Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad. I’m super excited to have my friend John Spencer on today’s show. John is a former middle school teacher and current college professor on a quest to transform schools into bastions of creativity and wonder. I love how you put that, John. John, welcome to the show. Really great to have you.
John Spencer: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Can you talk a little bit about you? I’ve followed you on Twitter for a while now. The content you put out just really resonates, especially around design thinking and making and creativity. Can you share with the listeners how you really became this creative expedition expert?
John Spencer: Yeah. My background is, I started out as a social studies teacher. I had always wanted to have meaningful projects. I think, for me, I had had this really powerful experience in the eighth grade of doing a National History Day project.
John Spencer: It was really the only true time in my K-12 education that I felt like I owned every part of the learning process. I got to ask my own questions. I got to do my own research. I could organize it in the way that fit me, rather than organizing something for the teacher, like binder checks and that kind of stuff. I started interviewing these four baseball players, and history came alive for me at that moment. I fell in love with the subject. I fell in love with doing research. I didn’t realize at the time, but I really fell in love with journalism and engaging in that.
John Spencer: That was my background of wanting to do that type of project. However, as a first year teacher, I was afraid of classroom management. I was afraid of what the principal might think. I was afraid that it might not work. I was worried about what my peers would think.
John Spencer: I basically had this free chance for two weeks. It was the testing weeks. We weren’t supposed to teach anything new, but I had this group of kids, and I could do whatever I wanted for two weeks. So instead of showing videos, we filmed a documentary. Although that project was the beginning of what would become my journey toward project-based learning, I began to explore what are the structures and strategies I need to make projects work.
John Spencer: I found that when I kept talking to people in different industries, whether it was publishing or engineering or city planning, all over the place, nonprofit activism, I kept hearing people talk about design thinking. I loved it because of the emphasis on empathy.
John Spencer: I had friends who were in engineering, and they were using it, but then I had friends who did activism for immigrants rights, and LGBT plus rights, and stuff like that, and they were using it. I thought, wow, this is really something [inaudible 00:03:22] have never heard of.
John Spencer: I began to use that, and I would say as my design structure, so even though the class, as a pedagogical structure, we use project-based learning, what we were using as a creative structure or a creative design framework was design thinking. That’s how it happened. Really it came from this desire to make sure that whatever they created was truly coming from a place of empathy.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: John, that really resonates. Design thinking is such a huge concept right now. To think that you were a first and second year teacher, and you started to dive into this journey, did you have any kind of support, or were you this Lone Ranger? Then a followup question to that was how did you implement design thinking? I assume whenever you started implementing design thinking, it wasn’t really educator designed process. My understanding is it kind of came from the engineering world. Totally interested in how that evolved for you.
John Spencer: Yeah, being a history geek, the beginning of design thinking really started out with human-centered design before design thinking. You had the Scandinavian model on one hand, and you had Buckminster Fuller in the US doing the engineering model. They were in two really different areas, and so it was actually interdisciplinary from the get go. There was visual arts, city planning, and engineering were all using this structure.
John Spencer: There’s a lot of debate about who used it first, and it gets kind of funny. What I knew first was the Stanford d.school model. Then I looked at a model from Harvard. I basically was looking at the different models and saying, “What would work best for my students?”
John Spencer: There wasn’t a lot out there designed for educators, but fortunately, I worked with a couple of colleagues who were really forward thinking. I think about my friend Javier and my friend Alison, a lot of us, we just got on board with this, and we said, “Let’s do this, and let’s try this, and let’s figure out how to contextualize it for our environment.”
John Spencer: As we did that, we began to modify it. For me, I realized there were some gaps in a lot of the design thinking models that assumed a lot of prior knowledge that maybe students didn’t always have. So I explicitly added an inquiry and research area to the model. Then not all of them had an explicit launch. It was really important to me that students shared it with an authentic audience, and I know this word has a negative connotation, but I really believe in this, making sure that they learn how to market it, so they’re not just sharing it with an audience, but they’re figuring out how to reach the audience in a meaningful way as well.
John Spencer: It evolved from there, and for the next decade, it went through a lot of different iterations, and made a lot of mistakes along the way. Eventually it became the LAUNCH Cycle, when I met A. J. in Pennsylvania. We were finding that we were doing very similar things. We kind of merged our frameworks together, and hung out and talked about it, and did some collaborative work together. It sort of evolved into what’s now the LAUNCH Cycle.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. I have your LAUNCH Cycle pulled up right now. I really love not only just the cycle itself, but how visually appealing it is. It definitely makes sense for any K-12 student that’s trying to solve a problem and create an amazing solution.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I want to hone in on something you said as well, which is really interesting, was on the marketing side. That’s a part of my role at WeVideo is to help students make an impact with their voice. When we ask students to tell a story, we don’t want them just to tell a story, but to also tell it in a way that’s going to elicit emotion, that’s going to best communicate their experience.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: So I’m curious how that part of the LAUNCH Cycle, how that unfolds in your classroom. What is it that you’re able … How can you support students to better amplify their voice when they’re that part of LAUNCH Cycle?
John Spencer: I think there’s a couple of thoughts I have connected to it. One is you obviously have, you’re having students reach an authentic audience. That first part really varies according to whatever the project is.
John Spencer: I remember we did our project social voice, for example. It was deeply rooted in the local community. There was a service learning component, and then an advocacy component. They had to design websites, and do pitch videos for their solutions. There were times we almost did a Shark Tank style thing, where they would have to pitch their solution to community activists and a local businessperson. That’s what it looked like locally in one area. Then in another area, same way we use design thinking for blogging, it’s a much more global audience. They’re figuring out, how do I actually reach people who are into gaming or sports or fashion or whatever.
John Spencer: That’s one component, and then the other component that took me a long time to realize was the value of having them share their journey as well, having them create podcasts or vlogs or videos, sharing the journey behind what they’re doing.
John Spencer: I think that you see there’s a thirst for the participatory culture. If you see what videos kids are watching, they’re really into gaming videos. They’re really into videos where people are showing what they do, not just the end result product. So I think that there’s real value … I love the quote from Austin Kleon who says, “Become a documentarian of what you do.” I think [crosstalk 00:09:48] can teach students to do that too, that’s a part of the launch as well.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. One of the challenges that I hear teachers discuss around this idea of creating something authentic and motivating for students is that, I’ll hear that, “Well, if students don’t all like the same things, how do we do a classroom,” we’ll say the word project just for ease of understanding, what this concept is, but if we’re doing a class project … Let’s just say it’s something environmental, which I think everyone wants to do things great for the environment, to make sure we have a healthy, safe place to live, but what if it’s around a subject area that not all students are necessarily passionate about? How does a teacher, I guess, implement a project that is going to motivate all students?
John Spencer: Well, so I think in the case of the environmental one, I think that comes down to is there a really intriguing question or problem that kids care about connecting to, say, the environment.
John Spencer: An example is I live here in Salem, and we had no drinking water, not this last summer, but the summer before. If you know the reason why, it has to do with the water melting earlier, and Detroit Lake getting warmer, and then having toxic algae blooms. When students could uncover it, and discover it, and figure it out on their own, they get really excited about that and coming up with solutions, because now the climate change isn’t some big theoretical thing that’s other people. It’s literally in our backyard. So sometimes it’s something like that, in the case of, like you mentioned, the environment.
John Spencer: In other cases though, it comes down to finding the wiggle room for student choice. For example, we did geek out blogs in language arts, and they could choose any topic they wanted to. They would blog about it, they would create videos, they would create a podcast, and the whole goal being the language arts standards are all about process and skills, but they’re topic neutral. So if a kid wants to write about Minecraft or skateboarding, they can, absolutely, and they can go deep with that.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. I liked how frame that for students. Instead of the teacher saying, “We’re going to build a diorama,” it’s more open-ended … That’s the traditional product, right? It’s more open-ended, allowing students to play upon their strengths and their interests, but still be able to tackle those language arts and writing standards along the way, which is why you’re an expert designer, and which is why, as teachers, we are all really designers to design these meaningful learning experiences.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, John, you have shared so much greatness in such a short amount of time, so I know that our listeners will want to continue to learn from you, and keep up with you, and connect with you. What is the best way to stay connected? Any website to share with us?
John Spencer: Yeah. The best way to contact me is SpencerAuthor.com. That’s my website and blog. I also like to make these little sketch videos, sketch animation videos. You can find those at SpencerVideos.com. Those are probably the two best ways to check out my stuff. Yeah.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Those sketch videos are amazing, so I would ask all of the listeners to definitely hop on that website and check out those videos. It’s definitely another form of [PD 00:13:34], or just another way of thinking about something in a really cool visual way. It’s amazing, John.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Hey, thanks again for being on the show. Such a pleasure chatting with you just for a few minutes.
John Spencer: Yeah, thank you. I appreciate it.