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The Astrodome was a modern miracle, a Space Age wonder, with a glass dome, high-tech air-conditioning, and the world’s biggest scoreboard. When it opened in 1965, reporters dubbed it the “8th Wonder of the World.” (Wilson, 1965) This was the future. No more bad weather or quirky dimensions or anything else that made baseball messy and unpredictable. With the largest JumboTron, the trendiest color choice and a very modern, symmetrical design, it embodied the Space Age. It was the anti-Fenway (the oldest existing ballpark).

It was the ballpark of the future.

But within minutes of the first pitch, people noticed a fatal flaw. A simple pop fly nearly blinded the players, so they had to paint the ceiling tiles black. But this, in turn, killed the grass, which led to the patented Astro Turf, a smooth, clean-looking, easy to manage artificial turf that added to the futuristic feel of the stadium. If you grew up in the 80’s, you probably remember the mint green carpet that used to pass as a baseball field. Unfortunately, this Astro Turn led to career-ending injuries for the players. (Weeks, 2015)

The Astrodome wasn’t designed for the players. It was future-focused, not player-focused or fan-focused. Within two decades, this “8th Wonder of the World” became a concrete relic of the false promise of futurism. In constructing the stadium of the future, the design team had mistakenly believed that innovation was future-driven rather than purpose-driven. In the process, they created something flashy and novel rather than timeless and innovative.

By the mid-1980’s, nearly every Major League Baseball team had built a massive, modern, donut-shaped stadium. But the architects in Baltimore had a different idea. Oriole Park in Camden Yards would be quirky, creative, connected to the community, and built with the players and fans in mind.

When the team’s owner pushed for a multi-purpose stadium, the team president, Larry Lucchino, pushed back. “Let’s look at the most successful baseball franchises out there. The Yankees in Yankee Stadium. The Cubs in Wrigley Field. The Red Sox in Fenway Park. And what did they have in common? They all played in a baseball-only facility, a facility that was designed for baseball and did not compromise architecturally for other other sports.”

The architectural team chose to look backward to look forward. Their vision was “an old-fashioned traditional baseball park with modern amenities.” They borrowed ideas from Ebbets Field, Shibe Park, the Polo Grounds, and other ballparks that had been demolished and replaced with concrete donuts.

Instead of building with a clean slate at the edge of the suburbs, they designed the ballpark in the heart of the city. Instead of bulldozing the enormous old B&O warehouse, they incorporated it into the design. Similarly, the oddly-shaped plot of land contributed to the quirky field dimensions and unique sightlines. In other words, they embraced limitations and treated barriers as design features.
In the end, they had a cozy ballpark with a view of the city skyline and an atmosphere that felt timeless. Decades later, Camden Yards has already lasted longer than the Astrodome. It’s still relevant. Camden Yards was a case of vintage innovation – incorporating old ideas and approaches into a new design in a way proves timeless rather than futuristic.

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What is vintage innovation?

Vintage innovation happens when we use old ideas and tools to transform the present. Think of it as a mash-up. It’s not a rejection of new tools or new ideas. Instead, it’s a reminder that sometimes the best way to move forward is to look backward. Like all innovation, vintage innovation is disruptive. But it’s disruptive by pulling us out of present tense and into something more timeless.

You see it with hands-on maker spaces that use duct tape and cardboard or in classrooms where students are making their own sketch-notes. It’s a reminder that innovation isn’t about creating something new so much as relevant — and that relevance is often something disruptive. Sometimes relevance doesn’t mean a deep dive into augmented reality or artificial intelligence. Sometimes it’s a deep dive into a novel or a meandering philosophical discussion on what it means to be human. It’s often in the analog that we find a different perspective. T.S. Eliot put it this way, “A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”

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This isn’t meant to be nostalgic. There are certainly horrible things in the past that we don’t want to repeat. However, in the ed tech drive toward collective novelty, we often miss out on the classic and the vintage. Yet, in a world heavily shaped by technology, students who are able to embrace the vintage are often more innovative because they are different. Here’s what I mean:

  • In a world of constant change, students will need to be divergent thinkers.
  • In a world of Artificial Intelligence, students will need to be philosophers
  • In a digital world, students will need to use analog tools
  • In a connected world, students will need to be empathetic
  • In a world of instant information, students will need to be curators
  • In a globalized world, students will need to embrace the local
  • In a world of virtual reality, students will need to study nature
  • In a distracted world, students till need to engage in deep work (or in a fast-paced world, our students will need to slow down)
  • In an automated world, students will need to do physical prototyping
  • In a world of infinite possibilities, our students will need to be curious.
  • This is not an either/or idea. We want to see students learn how to code and how to use modeling software with 3D printers. But we also want them to make things with duct tape and cardboard and find inspiration in biomimicry.

Ten Vintage Ideas to Embrace in the Modern Classroom

So, with that in mind, here are ten ways you can embrace the vintage in your classroom.

  1. Sketch-Noting: I love having students doodle out ideas. Sometimes it’s a mind-map. Other times, it’s a diagram or an annotated picture. It’s cool to see them change lettering size and thickness, add colors with colored pencils, develop their own iconography and create a syntax through lines and swirls. The tools are simple but the thinking is complex.
  2. Commonplace Books: Like sketch-noting, commonplace books use simplicity to drive complexity. Students can sketch out ideas, diagrams, and observations. They can tape in clippings and pictures that can fold and unfold in bizarre ways. Over time, students can create an internal organizational structure that both reflects and facilitates how their thinking. Commonplace books are a vintage idea of community curation. For centuries, people kept commonplace books as a way to curate fascinating ideas. They would often pass the books back and forth, leaving comments in the margins and even developing their own organizational structures.
  3. Prototyping with Duct Tape and Cardboard: I love the fact that so many schools have embraced things like cardboard challenges. It’s the opposite of setting up a model on a computer and then printing it to a 3-D printer. But this physical manipulation actually allows students to engineer things in a way that focuses on problem-solving. Moreover, the limitations created by physical prototyping often push students to think divergently.
  4. Apprenticeships: This is an older idea that I’d love to see more of in schools. There’s something powerful about getting a chance to see how the world works while slowly learning a craft. It doesn’t have to be a permanent lifelong decision. However, the process of observing, trying, and getting feedback in a real context is something that doesn’t happen enough in schools. My friend Russ Goerend is part of a program that takes a 21st Century twist on this idea. Instead of apprenticeships through internships, students work within the school system and create products for local small businesses.   
  5. The Natural World: One of the things I used to love about Tim Lauer’s Instagram feed was the sheer number of pictures that take place at the Lewis Elementary School garden. (I still love Tim’s Instagram feed, but he’s no longer the principal at Lewis.) It’s a reminder that in a techno-digital age, there is value in feeling the dirt between our hands and watching life grow from virtually nothing. There’s an idea in engineering called biomimicry, which is what happens when people study the natural world in order to solve human problems.
  6. Play: The idea is simple. Play matters. For all the talk of adding movement and creativity to classrooms, one of the best fixes a school can offer is an unstructured period of time to just play. Watch the worlds that kids develop. Watch them craft new games. Watch them design new worlds. It’s pretty amazing. When students engage in meaningful play, they grow mmore curious while also engaging in creativity.
  7. Socratic Seminars: This has become a bit of a buzzword in language arts circles and often they’ve added a set of structures that make it surprisingly un-Socratic (like accountablity structures for how often people talk). But the idea here is to have a conversation. Ask questions. Talk back and forth. One of the things I love about the actual Socratic Dialogues is that they often begin with an intentional examination of language. We need more of that. I recently wrote about how philosophy has become a critical skill for the future of learning. In an era of artificial intelligence, wisdom is at a premium.
  8. Games and Simulations: When I taught social studies, we created a mock factory to learn about industrialization. We did a modified version of Risk to see the way the alliance system, nationalism, and imperialism would lead to World War I. We learned about total war through a paper ball fight. We analyzed communism, capitalism, and socialism by hacking Monopoly. However, whenever I attempted an online simulation, the student discourse suffered and students had a harder time remembering the concepts. There was something about the physical movement and the tactile experiences that led to a deeper understanding of the content. This is why I love doing hands-on simulations to teach concepts.
  9. Experiments: Yes, it’s possible to watch an experiment on video. Someday we’ll have virtual reality glasses that will allow students to experience the experiments firsthand. But that pales in comparison to a science experiment performed in the moment aided only by natural curiosity and whatever stuff you have around to make the experiment possible. In fact, there’s some great research showing that students will learn more from the experiments if they draw their observations rather than taking pictures.
  10. Manipulatives: When I taught students about slavery, we analyzed primary sources. We looked at videos. We had discussions about power and privilege and race and injustice. However, when they needed to learn about the power of the cotton gin in transforming the institution of slavery, it felt foreign to students. I wish we had been able to look at a working model of a cotton gin. However, I was able to give each student a physical piece of cotton with the seeds inside of it. This hands-on manipulative helped students launch tons of discussions on this topic. It became a reference point for them throughout the unit. The same was true of the stock notes they had from the 1920’s or the old photo album and postcards they were able to access from the 1800’s. And yet, with the push toward multimedia content delivery in one-to-one classrooms, I worry that students aren’t always given the opportunity to learn about concepts by actually using physical artifacts.

Maybe it’s time we abandon the idea that certain education practices are outdated and realize that the best learning is timeless and sometimes some of the best ideas are buried under the industrial carpet of factory schools. Some of the most innovative ideas are not based upon boldly looking forward but on quietly looking back; to turn away from the collective gaze at all things novel and to look backward at what we’ve lost.

The Power of Vintage Innovation

Camden Yards and AT&T Ballpark are both vintage but they also employ modern engineering principals. For example, they don’t have any poles that can reduce the sightlines. Instead, they used modeling software to guarantee better sightlines for the fans. These ballparks work because they are a mash-up of the old and the new.

The same is true of vintage innovation. It’s a mash-up of the old and the new.

So, while sketch-notes are great, so are sketch-note videos. While hands-on simulations work well, students can then research the concepts using connected devices. A garden is valuable but students can videochat with an expert at a greenhouse. It’s powerful to bring in World War II soldiers to talk face-to-face about their experiences. There’s something amazing about the vintage element of human connection. And yet, it’s also powerful to take that to the next level by filming a documentary and screening it at a theater (which my friend Trevor Muir did).


John Spencer

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


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