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When I was a kid, I spent hours drawing pictures. Even when I wasn’t supposed to be drawing, I doodled. I sketched cartoons on the back of sermon handouts. I drew characters on the margins of the notes I took in class.  For me, drawing was an escape and doodling was the biggest time-waster of an escape.


I never thought I would be using doodles for any practical purpose. Today, I’m going to sketch out cartoon characters for Write About — goofy things to make the platform fun and maybe a little whimsical. Last year, I illustrated Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard.  


Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to make cartoons for other people’s keynotes and websites and book covers.

I still don’t feel like a “real” artist or cartoonist or anything like that. However, I find it interesting that the escape I chose as a child has become practical. It’s come in handy in teaching (turns out I can doodle on a whiteboard) or in leading professional development. I feel like the same has been true of writing or Twitter (where seemingly random opportunities popped up as a result). There are things that I chose as fun, quirky little escapes that turned into something practical by accident.

So, it has me thinking about the classroom.

The focus is often on “How will you use this in the real world?” (which is, by the way, nowhere near as fun to answer as “How would I use this in a galaxy far, far away?”) It’s practical, pragmatic, almost to the point of being utilitarian. Certain classes are called “fluff” classes. Certain jobs are pushed away for more “intervention” (a term that has always reminded me of drug addiction rather than phonemic awareness).

And yet . . .

Some of the most practical things in life have turned out to be those things that were time-wasters. They’re the things where I worked leisurely took risks, knowing that sometimes things would suck in the beginning. In other words, they were the things that required more slack than grit. It has me wondering if maybe we need to couple the notions of standards and expectations with words like “fun” and “diversion” and “geeking out.”

Maybe we need more time-wasters.

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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


  • Your experience reminds me a lot of the education TED talk given by Sir Ted Robinson about creativity and schools (the basic idea being that many teachers are not fostering the artistic talents of students who appear to be distracted or unengaged). Since I first heard Robinson speak, I have wondered about my own middle school students who hum/sing, fidget, doodle, etc. during class. My first instinct is to ask them to stop and to pay attention/participate, but after hearing Robinson's ideas I try to consider that maybe they are just expressing their interests and strengths. Even if they are just humming or doodling (and not really expressing themselves), I do not want to be responsible for crushing anyone's creativity. I also appreciate your comment regarding making standards fun-I bet your students really appreciate that kind of approach to teaching! Thank you for sharing your experience!

  • Mark Wolfram says:


    You make a great point about the importance of creativity and freedom in learning. I recently read the book “Drive” by Daniel Pink, and Pink discusses how the problems and work of the 21st century often are more complex problems that force people to use creativity to solve these them. In the book, he talks about intrinsic motivation and how autonomy one is important piece of the equation for finding creative solutions.

    I think it fits right in with your idea of time wasters. In both the corporate world, and the classroom I think it is important to give people freedom and autonomy to develop creative skills. If we allow students to think critically and outside of the box, then they can go through the learning process to discover new solutions and ideas. Some people may call it wasting time, but research would show that autonomy can actually lead to more productivity and creativity. It seems as teachers we could do our students a favor by giving them a little more freedom in which they could “waste time.” This could be harness to further their education. Maybe they will be like you and develop skills or find ideas that are useful in their future careers.

    Thanks for your article and blog. I just recently started following it.


  • John,

    You couldn't be any more right about this subject. Individuals needs to realize that "wasting time" has its perks. It's the activities we do and hobbies we keep that really make us who we are. I always felt so pushed to stick to my schoolwork and think about the future that anytime I began to do something I enjoyed, I felt as if it really was a waste of time. As I read your post, I realized that the things I chose to do with my life were those things that I always spent my time on. Kids need to be encouraged that they should pursue and spend time on what they love to do, not just to spend time on what schools tell them they're supposed to learn. Teachers should provide creative outlets for their students and encourage them to think for themselves!

    –Heather Howton

    • John Spencer says:

      Thanks for the comments. I still haven't figured out how to get kids to waste time productively (not sure if that makes sense). But it's part of what I'm hoping to get students to do over time.

  • I too was, and still am an avid doodler. It definitely has its perks and I have on many occasions been reprimanded for it in class. The issue is just what you are referring to in the sense that we need to pay attention to what our students are doing when they waste time. Each is an individual learner and if we can channel it in our classrooms, we can be much more successful. I really enjoy your insight, and think this is an issue that needs attention.

  • Your example of how your child like doodling for enjoyment grew into opportunities to use your skills for others' enjoyment also reminds me of the importance of tapping into children's passions. Author of "Creating Innovators", Tony Wagner, stresses the importance of creative play and less structured activities for children to allow them to be creative. I keep this in mind as I give my students brain breaks after periods of learning and practice. Activities are usually student choice and I gather great info from what I observe: the technology cravings are satisfied by those that gravitate to the classroom computers, the deeper thinkers and whimsical dreamers grab ahold of a book and settle down, the problem solvers set out a board game or puzzle, and the imaginative grab ahold of a tool to draw or create something with their pencil and paper. These interests or passions that they have now at such an early age can lead into greater skills in their future if they are allowed to pursue them without force. As Wagner states in his book, "I think this will be the biggest hurdle for this generation of innovators – making passion pay the bills".

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