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I still remember the day. I was in my first year of teaching and I sat there holding my printed lesson plan. This was supposed to be my greatest lesson of the school year. I had planned it for hours, revising various aspects of it until it looked flawless. On paper. But now, in third period, it was clear that students weren’t engaged.That’s not entirely true. Many of my students were engaged. They were listening, answering discussion questions, and participating. However, there something missing. Students were engaged but they weren’t empowered.

At the time, I viewed teaching as a content delivery system. I worked tirelessly to create content that would be meaningful, fun, and challenging. But still, it was always my content and I was always the person delivering it. I used terms like, “delivering a lesson” and “creating my own content” to describe this teacher-centered approach.

Don’t get me wrong. Students completed projects. However, these were culminating projects at the end of content-delivery. In other words, students were “learning with a project” rather than engaging in “project-based learning.

The truth is, these projects didn’t resemble the types of projects that people do outside of a classroom. I had strict rules on everything from formatting to topics to style. I handed students instruction manual project sheets where they could walk through the process sequentially. So, while they were physically creating something, they were not engaged in creative thinking.

These projects had always been about me:

  • I chose the topic
  • I chose the content
  • I asked the questions
  • I wrote the instructions
  • I managed the project progress
  • I chose the tasks
  • I wrote the objects
  • I picked the standards
  • I decided on the format
  • I determined whether or not the work was any good

In other words, my students were working for me rather than tapping into their own drive to create. For all my talk about valuing creativity and critical thinking, my students hadn’t experienced any semblance of creative control. However, I was afraid. I had already tried a “free time” project that tanked due to the lack of structure, guidance, or resources. I wanted students to own the creative process, but I also knew that it wouldn’t work if I simply gave them free time and said, “go make something.”

All of that changed when I asked students to do a documentary project. I took a chance. I built the unit around the design thinking framework and I allowed students to own the process and the finished product. Moreover, I asked them to launch their finished product to a real audience in the form of a video screening night.

Here, they had complete control over the content. They were making history — literally, by recording interviews, adding their own scripts, finding visuals, and then working collaboratively with other teams to create one larger documentary. It wasn’t perfect. I still asserted too much control on the process and our “authentic audience” ended up being just the kids in the classroom. Still, it was the first time I ever used design thinking in the classroom. I’d used it before in artistic projects and in program development, but I had mistakenly believed it wouldn’t work with eighth graders.

The results were astounding. Students were more frustrated and more afraid than ever before. Kids were in tears when they couldn’t get something to work. However, they were also empowered. They were excited. They were passionate. They were makers.

What happens when students own the creative process?

Over the next decade, I gradually shifted to a fully project-based approach with an emphasis on design thinking (a framework I used when I wanted students to create a tangible, fully-designed product). Along the way, I’ve noticed the following things happen when kids get the chance to be makers:

  1. Students move from being engaged learners to empowered learners. Suddenly they see that their questions matter. They begin to believe that they can do research on their own. They learn how to create and revise without much hand-holding.
  2. Students view themselves as problem-solvers. When students are makers, they run into natural problems that they have to solve by experimenting.
  3. Students are more likely to engage in divergent thinking. When students work through the entire design process, they learn how to generate ideas that go against conventional wisdom.
  4. Students see connections between concepts. Too often, concepts and ideas happen in silos with a linear, sequential approach. Students mistakenly believe that these ideas fit into mental buckets. But real learning is more like a web, where ideas constantly connect.
  5. Students grow in self-efficacy. When a student depends on teacher approval, instruction, and feedback at all times, they lose out on self-efficacy. However, when they own the learning process, they begin to believe that they are capable of continuing this learning outside of school.
  6. Students realize that mistakes are actually just iterations in the learning process. I know that it’s become trendy to say, “embrace failure.” However, this isn’t about failure. It’s about the permission to make mistakes and the time to revise those mistakes so that you create something better.
  7. Students retain that sense of wonder that occurs naturally in learning. By beginning with student inquiry, they get to chase their own mental trails and see where it takes them.
  8. Students take positive risks. School often punishes students for getting the wrong answers. There’s this deficit mindset that goes on that keeps them from trying something that might not turn out perfectly. When students engage in creative work, they begin to take positive risks and avoid the trap of perfectionism and risk-aversion.
  9. Students learn to be more empathetic. There is value in creating work for an audience of one. It’s why I love journaling. However, when students engage in design projects for an authentic audience, they learn how to put themselves into someone else’s shoes.
  10. Students see creativity as more than just art. They realize that creative work transcends subject areas. In the process, they experience a bigger definition of creativity.

Making Is the Mindset. Design Thinking Is the Process.

Looking back on it, I knew that students would thrive in a creative environment. I wanted them to embrace the maker mindset. However, I felt crippled by fear. I was afraid that I didn’t have enough resources. I was scared that their success in a creative project wouldn’t translate into higher test scores. I was concerned about classroom management issues (I had mistaken being busy with being engaged).

That’s why I needed a framework. This is ultimately why I embraced design thinking. My students needed a different way to think about creative work. It starts with empathy and awareness; working to understand on a profound level the problems people are facing before attempting to come up with ideas and create solutions. It is a slower, deeper approach that encourages research and revision.

It’s a bit of a debate where design thinking originated. Some claim that it started in the sixties with The Sciences of the Artificial. Others point to Design Thinking, which focused more on urban planning and architecture. Still others point to Robert McKim’s work in Experiences in Visual Thinking. Like all great ideas, it has been an evolution, influenced by thousands of people. We know that our work around Design Thinking has been influenced by people like Tom and David Kelley, Tim Brown, John Maeda, Peter Rowe (as well as organizations like Stanford and IDEO).

This is ultimately why I worked with AJ Juliani on the LAUNCH Cycle, a student-friendly design thinking framework for K-12 classrooms. You can learn more about it in our book Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in All Students or you could check out the video below:

Although there are many models for design thinking, we have developed the student-friendly LAUNCH Cycle. We created an acronym to help make it easier to remember:

L: Look, Listen, and Learn
In the first phase, students look, listen, and learn.The goal here is awareness. It might be a sense of wonder at a process or an awareness of a problem or a sense of empathy toward an audience.

A: Ask Tons of Questions
Sparked by curiosity, students move to the second phase, where they ask tons of questions.

U: Understanding the Process or Problem
This leads to understanding the process or problem through an authentic research experience. They might conduct interviews or needs assessments, research articles, watch videos, or analyze data.

N: Navigate Ideas
Students apply that newly acquired knowledge to potential solutions. In this phase, they navigate ideas. Here they not only brainstorm, but they also analyze ideas, combine ideas, and generate a concept for what they will create.

C: Create a Prototype
In this next phase, they create a prototype. It might be a digital work or a tangible product, a work of art or something they engineer. It might even be an action or an event or a system.

H: Highlight and Fix
Next, they begin to highlight what’s working and fix what’s failing. The goal here is to view this revision process as an experiment full of iterations, where every mistake takes them closer to success.

Launch to an Audience 
Then, when it’s done, it’s ready to launch. In the launch phase, they send it to an authentic audience. They share their work with the world!

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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


  • Emily S. says:

    Hey John – I’m in a class with Paul Bogush and we’re learning about blogging. I am so glad I found yours! I teach 1st grade and am always looking for ways to inspire (or as you say “empower”) my students! I would be interested to know if you have any suggestions for inquiry driven instruction or allowing for more creativity (while keeping some order) in a 1st grade urban classroom?

    • John Spencer says:

      I love that question! I think the biggest thing to understand is that inquiry-driven, design thinking classrooms can actually follow structure. If you check out some of the resources from IDEO, the Stanford d.School and the Buck Institute for Education, you’ll see some great structures that work with all age groups.

  • Meenakshi Ingole says:

    Hello John,
    Thanks for sharing this informative knowledge..
    I have questions what will be philosophical based for design thinking..

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