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When my middle son was in the third grade, he volunteered to share a joke with a big audience at a family camp. As I watched him standing in the line with older kids and quite a few adults, I felt nervous. What would happen if no one laughed? Would he be crushed? Did he fully understand what he was getting himself into? Maybe he needed a little more time.

I turned to my wife and asked if we should pull him back to the table with us. We whispered back and forth, debating whether or not we should let him speak in front of such a large crowd. My pulse was pounding as the line grew shorter and Micah looked at the stage nervously. Finally, his turn arrived and he stumbled toward the microphone. Voice wavering, he introduced himself and paused, looking out at the crowd. He took a deep breath and then shared his joke and beamed as the audience laughed.

It was a small moment. Just a single joke at a family camp. However, I’m convinced that these “small moments” can have a profound influence on who they become as people, which is why I want to see students share their work with an authentic audience.

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Seven Things That Happen When Students Share Their Work

The following are some of the benefits of having students share their work with an authentic audience.

#1: Students become more empathetic.

If students are going to share their work with an audience, they need to take the time to get to know the audience. They might do interviews, research, needs assessments, or surveys. In the process, they have the opportunity to develop empathy and this empathy will shape the products they create.

Empathy is a critical element to great design. When students begin with empathy, they are able to design products, services, and art that actually reflect the needs and desires of an authentic audience. The Stanford d.School begins their design thinking model with empathy. I love the way Tim Brown of IDEO describes it. “It’s not ‘us versus them’ or even ‘us on behalf of them.’ For a design thinker it has to be ‘us with them.’”

Note that there can be a danger in false humility with design projects. This happens unintentionally when students fail to address injustice and inequities or think about power dynamics. When I taught middle school, I noticed moments when students adopted a colonialist mindset of fixing for a community rather than working with a community. This is why we need to explore cultural humility and culturally responsive practices when asking students to develop empathy.

Ultimately, empathy goes beyond design thinking. Yes, it will help students create better products. True, it will help them in the future as they enter a globalized economy. But it’s much more human. When students grow in empathy, they learn how to see multiple perspectives and show kindness toward people who might seem different. Hop onto social media for a few minutes and you’ll notice how desperate our world is for empathy.

#2: Students work harder.

It’s easy to slack off when you are creating something for a teacher. However, when students are creating work for an authentic audience, it suddenly has a bigger purpose. They are fully committed, which moves them from being strategically compliant to fully engaged (according to  Schlechty’s Levels of Engagement).

When students share their work with an authentic audience, they experience positive peer pressure. They want to create something that people will enjoy. Occasionally, this can lead to risk-aversion. If students are too scared to screw up, they can slip avoid taking a positive creative risk. However, if they know that they have time to revise, they will be more likely to work through the revision process and persevere.

#3: Students engage in iterative thinking.

Traditionally, students complete their assignments and turn things in to their teachers. They might go back and fix their mistakes. However, they typically do this to improve a grade. By contrast, when students launch their work to an audience, they go through an iterative process of testing and revising before eventually launching their work to an audience. At times, they might even test out their products with a small group within the audience. Other times, they might take feedback from the audience and do a revised version of their initial product.

This iterative process more closely resembles the types of creative work that students will do outside of school. True, they will have deadlines. They’ll need to know how to engage in project management. But they’ll also learn how to fix what’s failing and make little tweaks in their design before they eventually succeed.

The following is one of my favorite videos showing the iterative nature of the engineering process.

But this requires an openness to criticism. Which leads to the next point . . .

#4: Students learn to embrace criticism.

Sometimes students struggle with criticism. Okay, not just students. We all struggle with it. The truth is it sucks to hear that we need to fix  our work. This can be especially hard for high achieving students who are used to earning A’s by turning in quality work quickly. However, when students work through the design thinking process, they explicitly seek out criticism so that they can revise their work before launching it to an audience.

In the process, students grow more resilient. They realize that mistakes are a part of the learning process. In the long run, students grow resilient as they develop a growth mindset.

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#5: Students see learning as authentic.

“When will we actually use this?” Those were the dreaded words that could deflate my lessons faster than anything else. Although I hated hearing this question, it nearly always demonstrated the disconnect between school and the world outside of school. However, when students share their work with an authentic audience, they get to see the connection between the content and the context. So, history isn’t just an abstract idea. It’s a vital part of the immediate context of being a citizen journalist writing blog posts and making podcasts. Math isn’t just a series of algorithms. It’s a part of that needs assessment you did as you worked on solving a community issue.

#6: Students learn how to market their work.

For what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of the word “branding” and “personal branding.” Kids aren’t brands and our schools don’t exist solely to prepare students for the workforce. However, there is a value in teaching students how to reach an audience. Perhaps the word “marketing” isn’t the best choice here. But it’s the idea of helping students learn how to find an audience for their work.

I remember resisting this idea at first. I worried that students would get arrogant or that they would be manipulative. However, marketing shouldn’t be deceptive or sketchy. Instead, it’s the idea of a “product-market fit.” Here, students learn how to get their work into the hands of their intended audience in a way that is intentional and transparent. This is especially true, given the fact that most of the work your students create will be free.

#7: Students become brave.

This might seem like an overstatement. However, it can feel scary to share your work with the world. I remember when I first started putting out sketch animation videos on YouTube. I was terrified that someone would call me out for not being a “real artist.” I wondered if the videos were even worth sharing. This was true of my first keynote, my first book, and the first time I ventured out into fiction. Every time you share your work, you are vulnerable to rejection, to mockery, and to indifference.

Students experience these same fears. But when they share their work with an authentic audience, they are saying, “I’m not afraid to be known.” Too often, student work ends up on a refrigerator. They publish it to an audience of the kitchen. However, when they share their work with an audience, they face these fears and they learn how to find their voice and share it with the world.

Earlier I mentioned the fear I felt when watching my son telling a joke in front of a large audience. I remember feeling the same fear when a struggling, socially awkward student decided that he wanted to create a video game blog and share it with the world. It was the same thing that I felt when we painted our first mural and I wasn’t sure whether or not it would be vandalized. But each time, I remember also thinking, “Yes, there is a risk in sharing your work with the world. But there is a bigger risk in not sharing it with the world.”


Don’t Rob the World of Your Creativity

I often quote my 8th-grade teacher, Mrs. Smoot, who said, “When you hide your voice, you rob the world of your creativity.”

It’s easy for students to buy into the myth that their work doesn’t matter. And it’s easy to forget just how vulnerable students can feel when sharing their work with an audience. However, as educators, we can provide the platforms and the opportunities for them to create work for an authentic audience.

This is why I love design thinking. It provides a blueprint for creative work as they move through curiosity, research, ideation, prototyping, revising, and ultimately launching to an authentic audience. Although there are many great design thinking models, A.J. Juliani and I developed the LAUNCH Cycle with a focus on the core idea that students should share their work with the world:

This doesn’t mean that students always need to share their work with an audience. Although I love blogging, I also believe in the creative power of journaling. Although I love to see students build things for their community, sometimes they need a smaller audience where they can play around with ideas in a low-stakes environment.

However, at some point, students should have the opportunity to design something meaningful and share it with the world. As the teacher, you are the one who can make this a reality.

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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


  • Gjoa says:

    Excellent points. I have my students do peer review before they submit an assignment. Your message here supports the strength in my strategy —and grades are high as a result of this sharing. Thanks for the post.

  • Ngaire says:

    You make some great points in this article, including the need for students to learn first about their audience and share in an informed manner. Also I really enjoyed the anecdotes of students (and family members) who experienced moments of transformation through taking risks and sharing. Very relatable! I look forward to checking our your model for design thinking in more detail.

  • Jeff says:

    my child did the same thing and it was wonderful. such a funny joke.

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