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Last October, A.J. Juliani shared an idea for a book we should write together. After we had talked about student choice, voice, and ownership, he said, “I want to do a follow-up to Launch called EmpowerLet’s make it a why book. Let’s make it a book about a big idea.”

We decided to make a different kind of book. It would be a book about ideas, a place where we both shared our journey of empowering students. It would be about paradigm shifts. It would be about the why in education. We would share practical ideas but it wouldn’t be an instruction manual offering step-by-step, explicit instructions on how to teach. And here’s why — because there is no instruction manual for teaching. There is no magical formula or secret elixir. There are no shortcuts that promise you will avoid mistakes.

Teaching is a craft. It’s both an art and a science and it can’t be accomplished by following a recipe. There is no guidebook or instruction manual or how-to video for how to be a great teacher. There is no secret formula or codified list of best practices that will guarantee success in your classroom.

This craft of teaching is often messy and confusing. You doubt yourself. You get frustrated. You make mistakes. Tons of them. And improvement is painfully slow.

And yet . . .

That’s the beauty of it. You get to explore like an astronaut, experiment like a scientist, design like an engineer, compose like a musician and create like an artist.

There’s no point where you “have arrived.” You are always arriving at new places and new ideas and new insights. As a creative teacher, you’re always exploring, always experimenting, always innovating. That’s what makes the journey so amazing.

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We Need Roadmaps, Not Instruction Manuals

Right now, teachers all over the country are meeting in small groups, doing book studies to refine their practice. Without prompting from a district or a principal, they are are taking ownership of their learning. They own their learning.

Go to Twitter at any given moment and you’ll see teachers wrestling with big ideas, engaging in deep discussions about how to transform their practice. Some of these are formal chats. Others are doing it informally. They own their learning. 

Meanwhile, teachers like Nick Provenzano are spending the summer making things. They are experimenting with new ideas, diving deep into the maker culture, and building new things. They own their learning.

These teachers are reading books and blog posts. They’re watching YouTube videos to get ideas. But they aren’t treating this as instruction manuals so much as road maps. There’s a key difference there. An instruction manual is about requiring, a road map is about inspiring. Instruction manuals demand compliance. Roadmaps inspire possibilities.

If you’re geeking out over design thinking frameworks (like Stanford or LAUNCH) or if you’re getting into the BIE project-based learning framework, you’re using a road map. But you’re not using an instruction manual. Because design thinking and project-based learning aren’t about formulas. They can’t be distilled down into step-by-step directions. They are meant to be adjustable frameworks rather than packaged curriculum.

Instruction manuals fail because we are deeply human and messy. There are no average students. Every student is different. This is why formulas fail. There are simply too many variables at work. Teaching is inherently relational and that means it’s always changing. It’s why great teachers are always experimenting.

maps should inspire possibilities

The best maps are the ones that inspire us to explore new places and set out on an epic journey.

But if this is true of teachers, isn’t this also true of students? What if we took our classrooms off-road? What if we allowed students to own the learning? So, here’s the challenge I would offer. Do a choice audit of your class and ask yourself, “What am I doing for students that they could be doing for themselves?”

Your Invitation to Innovation

When I was a brand new teacher, my team leader Nancy created a “New Teacher Card” for me. It was a simple 3×5 card inviting me to experiment, make mistakes, try new things, and fail forward. It was an invitation to be different from day one.

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I know that some people hate the word “innovative.” It has a business-y, high-tech, overused feel to it. But I’ve grown to love this word because I see it more as a chance to experiment and try new things and refine my craft.

You don’t always know if it’s going to work.


But that’s the beauty of it.

So, consider this blog post an invitation to a journey full of mistakes and scraped knees and moments of infuriating confusion.

Pretty glamorous, right?

Trust me, it’s totally worth it because epic things happen when you empower your students to own the learning.



Here’s the thing, when you accept the invitation to innovation, your students become innovators as well:

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Empower Your Students with Voice and Choice

Want to get started with student ownership? Check out this page with free articles, videos, and resources. Also, check out the Empower Blueprint and Toolkit below.

Empower Toolkit

Get this free Empower blueprint and toolkit along with members-only access to my latest blog posts and resource

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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


  • Judy Clark says:

    I love your transparency and honesty you share on your journey.
    My teaching partner Joel and myself are Design Technologists at a large school in QLD Australia. We have been teaching a basic Design Process to all our students from Prep to yr6, however, over the past 6 months after reading your website and then the LAUNCH book, we adopted the Design Thinking Framework of LAUNCH.
    It has taken off!! Every year level knows the framework and both the students and ourselves have used it to teach everything we all designed and made this semester. Now we have begun to share it with other classroom teachers and slowly it’s extending across the school.

    We have used the framework as a layer over making decesions on bigger building renovation projects and also on simple things such as approaches to my grandkids homework ideas.
    I have found if has helped to slow down so many ideas to help us make better more accurate decisions, yet has developed more of an innovative informed approach on many things. It is beginning to develop more risks and creativity in teachers and students. We are no longer trapped under a simple Design Process but set free to design with a bending flexible framework of inspiration that is not teacher directed but student infused and driven with student passion.

    Classroom teachers also adopted the Inquiry approach in Prep to yr4 from ‘Dive into Inquiry’by Trevor McKenzie and we are currently attempting to frame LAUNCH across any of their different projects. Where as our year 5 and year 6 are fully fledged PBL year levels and we are adopting LAUNCH frameworks across their innovative approaches on final projects. A great mesh of fresh ideas to teach with. Surely we must be making a difference in their learning?

    Thank you so much again for a great book and I’m looking forward to reading Empower that you AJ Julian have co – authored.

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