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If we say we want students to become critical thinking life-long learners, we need to provide projects that encourage them to engage in creative collaboration. But what does this look like in each subject area? How do turn this idea into a reality? We’ll be exploring that idea in my second blog post in a second in a series about how to take collaborative projects to the next level.

My Passion for Creativity

I believe that all people are naturally creative. Too many people have believed the lie that there are certain “creative types” who are the exception to the rule. But we are all creative. Every one of us. And we can tap into this natural creativity when we embrace a maker mindset.

I want to see teachers transform their classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. I want to see them unleash the creative potential in all of their students so that kids can be makers, designers, artists, and engineers.

School gets busy. I understand. Materials can be scarce. The creative process can seem confusing, especially when you have a tight curriculum map. So creativity becomes a side project, an enrichment activity you get to when you have time for it. But the thing is, there’s never enough time.

We can do better.

I believe that creative thinking is as vital as math or reading or writing. There’s power in problem-solving and experimenting and taking things from questions to ideas to authentic products that you launch to the world. Something happens in students when they define themselves as makers and inventors and creators.

All students deserve the opportunity to be their best creative selves, both in and out of school. And I think it begins with creative, collaborative projects. Epic projects. The kind of projects that students remember for a lifetime.


The Power of Collaborative Projects

Ask people about the ultimate goal of education and you’ll probably hear a phrase like “life-long learner,” “critical thinking citizen,” or “prepared for the real world.” While these goals vary, there is a common idea that we want students to become creative and to engage in critical thinking. We want them to be prepared to tackle the challenges of the creative economy.

We often hear about the need for students to hit the 4 C’s in 21st-century learning:

Critical Thinking

We are nearly a fifth of the way into the 21st century and yet we are still in a system where students passively consume content. However, I would argue that those four C’s aren’t “21st-century” skills. They’re timeless skills. They were relevant a century ago and they’ll be relevant 200 years from now. These are the ideas Dewey wrote about a century ago and the ideas Quintilian wrote about two thousand years ago.

I love this idea that students should be engaged in collaborative projects, where they are thinking critically, engaged in creativity, and learning how to communicate.

I recently asked teachers to list the benefits they see in collaborative projects. Here are some of the things they learn:

  • Perseverance: how to keep going even when a task is difficult
  • Project management: how to plan, monitor, and assess projects
  • Communication: they learn how to communicate, resolve conflict, and show empathy toward others
  • Maker mindset: they define themselves as problem-solvers, designers, creators, and builders
  • Systems thinking: how to navigate external systems
  • Ownership: they increase in their sense of agency and they develop their own voice
  • Critical thinking: they have an authentic context to engage in analysis, evaluation, and the generation of new ideas
  • Adaptability: they become flexible thinkers
  • Inquiry: they learn how to ask great questions

There were other great answers, like this tweet:

People are quick to call some of these things “soft skills,” but I’d argue that these are the very skills students need in order to thrive in life. Notice how it ties back to the goal of what people want for students? Notice, too, how it connects to the 4 C’s? So, we know that collaborative projects help our students become the kind of people we want them to become. But what does this actually look like in each subject area?

What Does This Look Like in Each Subject?

It’s easy to think about creative collaboration through the lens of the arts and the humanities. However, creativity is much bigger than being artistic. It’s about problem-solving and divergent thinking. You can find it in every field and every discipline; which is why collaborative projects work in a math or science class as much as a language arts or humanities class.

So, let’s dig a little deeper. What do collaborative projects look like in different subjects?

Language Arts

You might film documentaries, record podcasts (you could do inquiry-based Curiositycasts or thematic podcasts), do collaborative blogging, or immersive world building (such as Minecraft in storytelling). You can also align the Common Core ELA standards to design projects. Every time students are doing research, going through ideation, and launching to the world, they are hitting specific standards ELA standards.

Here’s an example of a maker challenge I developed that requires students to engage in research as they collaborate with their group on their final design:

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Social Studies

Students in a history class can create documentaries, whiteboard videos (similar to RSA Animate or Common Craft), thematic blogs, thematic podcasts, history-themed theater production (here they might use a makerspace to do everything from set design to costume creation to multimedia elements). In economics, they can work collaboratively on Shark Tank-style projects, going through the LAUNCH Cycle to design a full project.


Students can work collaboratively to create a board game or arcade game, which ties to the probability standards. They can also do the tiny house project, by using proportional reasoning, volume, and surface area. One of my favorite partner projects was the Scratch game, which reinforced the x-y access and helped students learn logic.

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When I taught 8th-grade science, my students created their own Myth Buster inspired projects, where they had to test out some myth that they had heard about. They worked collaboratively through the entire scientific method as they designed the experiment from scratch. Students also engaged in tons of STEM-related ideas, like solar energy designs, engineering projects, building lunar colonies, etc. If you check out this set of maker challenges, you’ll notice that many of these tie in well to STEM.

Here’s one example of a prompt for a STEM-related collaborative project:

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Elective classes provide tons of opportunities for collaborative projects. In P.E., students can design a sport or invent a way to get people to naturally want to exercise (there’s a whole field of design-based methods for inspiring movement). In art class, students can move from doing projects alone and into collaborative works of art. A former art teacher at our school used to have students do steampunk sculptures and models of cities together in collaborative teams. We also had a music teacher who had students design their own music videos. In a culinary class, students can work collaboratively to design their own recipes given specific ingredients.

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This is by no means an exhaustive list because collaboration happens everywhere in our world. You can’t tie it down to a specific subject. In every profession and in every discipline, you will find people engaging in creative work as a team.

Design Thinking for Collaborative Projects

We know collaborative projects are important. But here’s the challenge. We have standards and curriculum maps. Students have to pass the standardized tests. Besides, there’s always a time crunch. This can feel like yet another thing to add to your plate.

This is what I love about design thinking. It’s not a new thing to add to your plate. Instead, it’s a different way to organize your plate, where you still hit the standards and follow the curriculum map while designing meaningful creative projects for students.

A.J. Juliani and I developed the LAUNCH Cycle as a framework for creative projects. Here, students learn how to collaborate and communicate in small groups but also with the world. They engage in critical thinking as they work through the research process and as they ideate, prototype, and revise. Ultimately, they develop a maker mindset as they work through the entire creative process.

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If you are curious about what an authentic collaborative project looks like, check the Tiny House Project. This is a design-centered project that uses the LAUNCH framework as a way to structure meaningful collaboration. I’ll be exploring the LAUNCH Cycle more in-depth in my next blog post. But for now, you might want to check out the sample project to see what a collaborative project looks like when it’s built around creativity.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Sean Smith says:

    These are some amazing ideas. I remember working on something similar when I was obtaining my credential. It was a PBL project and the kids were to create solutions to problems they might encounter after being stranded on a desert island. One project was to create an efficient coconut cracking machine. All this was meant to go along with the book “Hatchet” that the kids were reading at the same time. It was an awesome collection of projects and got them using math, science, geography, and language arts together. Creativity is an awesome thing when you really see the kids begin to utilize it in all fields rather than just art.

  • Paula says:

    I’m with you, but found in initial attempts that scaffolding is necessary. Going from traditional schooling to project based work for some students is far out of their comfort zone, and while I’m all for struggle, too much ends up in demotivation and giving up. So I am looking for some tools to assess readiness. I’m looking for some micro activities you can do around whatever the project subject is, to warm them up. The PBL course you’d do for kids who are brand new to it is very different to what you’d do for kids used to teacher-lecture-assignment with a bit of group work thrown in. Thoughts?

    • John Spencer says:

      I totally agree with you. I typically have more scaffolding in the beginning and then take it away as the year progresses.

  • Megan S. says:

    Hello John!

    My name is Megan and I am currently a student at Concordia’s Master’s Program, pursuing a teaching career in math. I wanted to thank you for blogging. I enjoy reading your posts! When reading this one, I initially didn’t agree with your statement that all people are naturally creative. Then I thought about it, and my mind went to my husband. Our first child is six weeks old and watching him come up with some very odd ways of holding our son or moving about trying to soothe him has made me realize that we, indeed, are all creative in our own way.

    The number one thing you said that resonated with me, is that there is never enough time. Teachers struggle to cover the minimum curriculum requirements to their liking, much less have time to plan for fun, collaborative projects. When you ask someone what their favorite academic memory is, however, they usually refer to some type of project like building a bridge out of toothpicks, doing the egg drop, or dissecting a squid while eating calamari. They recall times where they were engaged in their learning versus just being a spectator. They got to be hands-on in the learning process and utilize their creative thinking instead of following a step by step process and being told what to do. Indeed, those are the educational moments that people remember for a lifetime.

    So instead of trying to make time so we can add things to our list, we need to take your advice and think of it more as reorganizing the list to give us more options for implementing creative projects. We want our students to be excited about learning and make it a memorable experience while still covering all the standards and promoting the four C’s. I look forward to trying this by implementing your Tiny House Project curriculum. So thank you again for blogging and for sharing your creative process with us!

    ~ Megan S.

  • I love this post. As an instructional technology coach, I push this a lot. However, my teachers struggled with students’ lack of collaboration skills. In response, I created this infographic to help teachers scaffold collaboration skills to the point at which I hope they are able to successfully work in a collaborative setting. I’d love some feedback from anyone willing to take a look.

    • Kim Kiser says:

      I realize that it may be too late, since it is almost 6 years from your original post, but is there a way you can save your infographic as a pdf to share? I would love to take a look at it!

  • Mier Beja says:

    Hi Mr. John! I’ve been an avid follower of your works as I’m a Design teacher for middle school students in the Philippines.
    I believe in the power of the “maker mindset” and have fallen in love with design thinking as I grew in facilitating (yes, not teaching) learners in classes everyday.
    Thank you for this passion of yours and for sharing what you do to educators around the world!
    I’ve recently given a short session on interdisciplinary projects to fellow Filipino educators on a nationwide conference and there’s hunger for such a design concept in our country.
    I hope you won’t mind if I share some of your resources, including this podcast to some colleagues and the fellow educators whom I’ve met a couple of weeks back.

    God bless your endeavors!

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