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This is the first in a month-long series on design thinking. This is an elaboration of an article I wrote in 2015. 

My Maker Journey

When I was in the eighth grade, my entire goal was to go unnoticed. Fly under the radar. Keep away from the Cool Patrol (the people who ran the school social hierarchy). I had one friend, this kid named Matt, who I knew from church. We were two nerds in a pod. And, fortunately for me, he had perfect attendance year after year.

me in the 8th grade - instagram

So that was my system. Find one friend and hang out with him and fly under the radar. And it worked . . . until one day it didn’t. One afternoon, he was gone from school. Nothing serious. He had a cold. But I remember looking out at the sea of students and thinking, “I hope one person invites me to the table.” It didn’t happen. I tossed my food in the trash and hid out in the restroom (which was nasty because the boys’ restroom was like a little patch of the third world in our fancy first world school).

But here’s the thing. My plan had worked. Nobody had noticed me. And it felt horrible.

Despite all of this, I had two teachers, Mrs. Smoot and Mr. Darrow, who saw me as a person. They knew that I cared about social justice and baseball and history, so they invited me to do a History Day project.

Everything about it felt terrifying. I had to plan the entire project and track my own progress. I had to figure out what questions to ask and where to find the answers. I had to narrow down my topic to something I cared about — in this case, Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball.

None of this was terrifying. It was more overwhelming than anything. The terrifying part happened when I wrote letters to newscasters and made phone calls to former players. I remember picking up the phone, my hands trembling, as I read aloud my pre-recorded script and waited for the stranger to respond. I eventually worked on a slide presentation (back in the day when you had to take pictures and go to the drug store to have them converted into little plastic slides).

However, the most nerve-wracking moment occurred when I sat in a radio studio recording my script. I would play the giant magnetic tape back and use a razor to cut it and Scotch tape to splice it together. I listened to my voice and hated it.

At one point, I threw my hands up in the air. “I’m not doing this,” I said.

But Mrs. Smoot looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m not going to let you get away with that. Your voice is good. What you say matters. And when you hide your voice, you rob the world of your creativity.”

That moment stuck with me forever. That’s what gave me creative confidence. It wasn’t just the moment, though. It was the entire project, including the diverse perspectives I got from interviewing dozens of former Negro League players. I began to see the power of making and sharing. And I was forever changed as a person — not because of project-based learning but because of a teacher who saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself.

The Creative Chasm

A few years back, I surveyed my students to see how they use their devices (tablets, laptops, and smartphones). Here were the results:


Quick nuance here: I actually think consuming is necessary for creating. Students often move in stages from consuming to creating.

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My concern was that I had many students who remained consumers only. And not just consumers. Passive consumers.

Meanwhile, I had a group of three or four students who were outliers. One student wrote novels. Another had a YouTube channel and created resources for parents that he planned to sell when he reached high school. One kid had a podcast. I realized that the real divide wasn’t a digital divide. It was a creative chasm — a break between the consumers and creators, the makers and the takers. And, though “taker” might sound a bit extreme, I couldn’t help but remember the words of Mrs. Smoot. We rob the world of our creativity when we never make anything.

Meanwhile, the students who were makers all had one thing in common: teachers. Each one of them had a Mr. Darrow or Mrs. Smoot who had encouraged them to share their voice with the world. We often hear about “digital natives,” but in my experience, students didn’t automatically use their technology to create. They were consumer natives, which shouldn’t surprise us. We live in a consumer culture. Think about the first YouTube channels kids start watching? They’re usually unboxing videos — literally watching people open things they bought. It’s the worst part of a birthday party turned into a channel. I remember when my daughter was in kindergarten and she wanted to watch an unboxing video. My answer was, “No, let’s watch someone make something instead.” But later, I turned on the TV and said, “I wonder which of the three houses they’re going to buy.” See, consumer culture.

As my former students move into college and step into careers, I notice that the makers are better equipped for life. They are taking ownership of their careers and forging a way into whatever vocation they have chosen. But this goes beyond economics. The makers have better endurance and deeper thinking. They know how to handle frustration. They’re having fun making stuff. And, in many cases, they’re changing the world.

What Does It Mean to Make?

When you hear the word “create” or “make,” you might be tempted to think of a tangible, physical product. However, in design thinking, students might design other types of products. So here are some of the types of things students might create.

#1: A Digital Work

Students might create a podcast, a documentary, or a website that they publish to a global, connected audience. Even when this is the case, it’s important that students can identify an audience that goes beyond merely “online.” In other words, who online do you want to reach and how will you reach them?

#2: A Tangible Work

This is what we often think of when we hear about maker spaces. This is what happens when kids do a cardboard challenge or code with Arduino or paint a mural. When we do our Shark Tank style projects, kids typically create a finished tangible work.

#3: An Event

This might be something like a car wash or a dance or a graffiti removal evening. It might be something like a TEDx event or a play.

#4: A Service

Sometimes you make stuff,  but sometimes you make a difference. Here, students are building movements instead of physical products. Similar to an event, a service is an ongoing activity that students design to help others. Here, what they are designing isn’t a typical finished, tangible product, but rather an action for others. Often, this works in a service learning activity.

The Power of Design Thinking

There are many ways to help develop a maker mindset in students. Some of these are short-term processes (like rapdid prototyping) and others are long-term (like PBL).

One of my favorite creative approaches is design thinking. It’s a flexible process for getting the most out of the creative process. It is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, at universities, and in social and civic spaces. You can use it in every subject with every age group. It works when creating digital content or when building things with duct tape and cardboard. It can even be used in planning events or in designing services.

I love design thinking because it adds interdependency and structure to the project process. Plus, it’s built around the idea of empathy. The following is the design thinking framework I co-developed:

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For the rest of this month, I’ll be posting a new design thinking article each day. Want to get started with design thinking? Check out this page with free articles, videos, and resources. Also, check out the toolkit below, with structures, resources, projects, and a free eBook to get you started with design thinking.

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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


  • I love the contrast of “digital divide” with “creative chasm”

    Mrs. Smoot’s “And when you choose to stay silent, you rob the world of your creativity.” deserves to be written on every classroom wall.

  • Danielle Berg says:

    Mrs. Smoot sounds like a wise lady, and I agree with the previous comment. Her statement, “And when you choose to stay silent, your rob the world of your creativity.” does belong on the wall of every classroom. I feel that a lot of students tend to fly under the radar and do what they need to do, to move forward to the next grade. They are afraid to take risks, and step out of their comfort zones. To them being creative could mean ridicule and failure. They don’t want to be noticed, they just want to be. It is because I have observed this mentality in my students, that I really get to know them as individuals, encourage growth mindset, and encourage them to get creative with the things that really ignite their interests. I think that it is amazing, that your former teachers knew you as an individual and could see all the potential you held within you.

    While your tried to remain under the radar, they were observing you, and learning about your interests and capabilities. The project they invited you to do, sounds a lot like Genius Hour, which is something I do with my students. At the end of the day, three days a week, my students are allowed to research and learn about any topic they are interested in. I only have a few parameters that need to be followed, The topic has to be approved by me before they can begin, it needs to be something that will educate their classmates, and they have to be creative. I try not to limit the creativity, because a technological savvy student may make an amazing presentation using technology. Where as the non- technological adept student may make just as an amazing project with Paper Mache.

    I am of the opinion, that creativity knows no bounds. I want my students to be creative, I want them to push the limits, and I want them to have a growth mindset that allows them to accomplish these things. At the end of the day I want my students to hear my students, and I want them to be heard. I want them to be successful makers, rather than consumers who are taking from the makers.

  • Keeghan Gelrud says:

    John, thank you so much for this post. I am a first grade teacher working on my masters. We are in our technology class right now and it is terrifying. I am being asked to be creative and push my self our of my comfort zone and not only for myself but with my students as well. At my school my grade level is one-to-one ipads. In our district we have multiple electronic programs to support reading and math. That is really the only way our students are getting exposure to technology. It very much reminds me of the consuming chasm. I refer to it as plug and play. But I know I can be doing so much more with my students. I really struggle with finding time and opportunities to give my students a chance to get creative especially with technology. My students need that exposure to creative thinking and problem solving. I really like your four suggestions on how to give students that opportunity to get creative. I also appreciate that they are not just digital. We don’t have to have technology to support our students in being creative.

    I also really appreciate what you said about the teachers. Ultimately its up to us. We are the ones who can make that difference for our students. We can be that support, encouragement and leader for them. You learned a very valuable lesson in eighth grade and it helped make you into the teacher you are today. We, as teachers, have to make sure our students know how much we believe in them and allow them to blossom and bloom in the classroom. It is not necessarily about what we have them do its about how we make them feel during the process. Relationship is the best thing we can give our students.

  • Wes Branchflower says:

    Thanks John for your article. I am encouraging all of my colleagues to read and engage with your thoughts. Understanding Design Thinking is so important in this age of passive consumption of everything

  • I am reminded of this quote too often incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela:
    “Our deepest fear is not that we are weak. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world … As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianne Williamson (the actual author of the quote)
    The future has always belonged to the makers (thus they own the past as well). But we only believe that when we see the successes in hind-sight. We pay a lot of lip-service to failure and iteration, but history doesn’t highlight those efforts unless there was success. Our jobs as educators, parents, co-workers, bosses, village members is to see those efforts as valiant and worth while. We need to make room for those efforts and call them out for what they are – growth.

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