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This is my third article in the series on vintage innovation. Last week, I mentioned the Astrodome Effect and the idea of embracing both vintage tools and vintage designs in a mash-up with newer technology and new ideas. I mentioned Camden Yards as a place that embraced vintage innovation and used the constraint to spark creativity. As educators, we often face similar limitations in our work. So, today, I’d like to explore how we can use a vintage innovation approach to solve three of the biggest barriers we face in designing innovative projects.

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Three Common Barriers to Innovation

Over the last few years, I’ve had the honor of leading PBL and design thinking workshops all over the world. Early on in each workshop, I ask participants to identify the challenges that they face when trying to implement innovative teaching strategies. Whether they teach in Australia or the Netherlands or Hong Kong or the U.S., certain challenges always emerge. We don’t have enough time, we don’t have the best technology, and we are stuck with a tight curriculum map (often that’s connected to a fear that students might do poorly on the test). These are the same challenges I faced as a middle school teacher in a low-income school and they’re the same challenges my teacher candidates experience in their practicums, whether they are in an innercity neighborhood or out in the suburbs or in a tiny rural school. We all experience these challenges.

Innovation is scary. It involves stepping into the unknown and taking a risk.

We need to be cognizant of these barriers. If you’re a leader, it helps to give teachers the permission to make mistakes and to innovate and experiment with their craft. My most innovative years in the classroom occurred when I had kind and supportive administrators. By contrast, in the two different years when I experienced a negative style of leadership, I found myself growing risk-averse in my practice.

Moreover, we need to be honest about the injustices that lead to less time, inadequate resources, and restrictive curriculum maps. Innovation requires us to transform systems. We need to tackle systemic injustice, such as institutional racism, and fight for change. However, innovation also means viewing these challenges as problems to be solved. My friend Chris Lehmann has spent years working within the Philadelphia public school system to create an innovative space at the Science Leadership Academy.

So, while we need to work to change the system, I’d like to focus on how we can create innovative projects while working within the system as well. Let’s take a deep dive into these problems and think about ways we might solve some of them.

Problem #1: There Is No Time

When we think about things like design thinking, project-based learning, and inquiry-based learning, it can feel daunting to pull off a project within the tight time constraints of the school day. Things often feel rushed. We have so many standards to cover in such a small amount of time. But innovation isn’t about adding something to the plate. It’s about re-arranging the plate with a focus on student voice and choice.

There are several strategies we can use to make time for innovative projects. First, we can reduce teacher talk by limiting direct instruction and reducing the time spent giving directions. This was the hardest one for me as a middle school teacher. Direct instruction can feel so efficient as a way to convey information. And it is. You talk, they listen and take notes, and that’s it. However, with PBL, students spend more time doing the work themselves. They ask more questions and find more of the answers on their own. Sometimes I am a guide, helping them out one-on-one. Other times, I am a curator, sharing specific resources they will need. But the goal is for me to talk less and for students to work more.

While this can feel less efficient, students often learn at a deeper level and retain the information for a longer period of time when they wrestle with it. It might not look as efficient but we actually save time by having students maximize their work time within a class period. In addition, it helps to have fewer tasks and fewer transitions, so that students develop a habit of deep work.

Another option is to start small. Do a one-day inquiry-based Wonder Day Project:

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Or you might do a short, 40-minute divergent thinking challenge:

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It also helps to use structures for the projects. For example, the LAUNCH Cycle builds mutual accountability and interdependency into projects. The 20-minute peer feedback system allows for assessment in the moment rather than wasting time having students “take” an assessment. I remember wasting entire class periods taking tests when I knew if students understood the concepts by doing observations, self-reflection, conferencing, and other formative assessments that fit into the idea of “assessing as you go.” In other words, assessment should be something you do not something you take.

Problem #2: I Don’t Have Enough Technology

Last week, I wrote about the value of going low-tech. Often, it can be more hands-on and more developmentally appropriate. Low-tech solutions can be simpler and less time-consuming. Often, a low-tech approach pushes divergent thinking and creativity because you’re forced to work within the constraint to solve problems.

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This doesn’t mean that we have to reject high-tech solutions. However, it’s a reminder that innovation is about better thinking and not better technology. In fact, some of the best makerspaces I have seen blend together low-tech and high-tech in creative ways. They might, for example, have two students on a computer in order to facilitate collaboration in coding. I love how Jackie Gerstein blends these ideas together in her notion of student-driven maker spaces. She combines things like duct tape and cardboard along with circuitry and coding. I love reading the updates from Sam Patterson, who blends together high-tech gadgetry with vintage things sewing and puppetry.

Problem #3: I Have To Follow a Tight Curriculum Map

The traditional approach to teaching focuses on isolating specific skills and teaching them systematically to students. However, with PBL and design thinking, we can have students learn a concept while also practicing a skill. They can work on multiple, interconnected standards at the same time instead of going sequentially through each standard. When this happens, students move more slowly through the standards rather than going through the stop-and-go traditional methods.

I’ll give a quick example here. In our Geek Out Projects, students could choose whatever topic they wanted. However, as they blogged, they were working on every informational reading and writing standard within the Common Core.

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One of my big “aha” moments was that I had to cover certain standards each week but nobody explicitly prevented me from reviewing or previewing other standards. So, I was able to group them together in a more integrated way. Again, I wasn’t avoiding the curriculum map. However, I was layering on top of the map so that we were mastering more standards.

In some cases, you might go fully competency-based and allow students to skip standards that they have already mastered. For example, in the research phase of a project, students can work on specific reading skills they need to master and skip the skills they have already mastered. For a mini-project, you might even have students use this choice grid, where they self-select skills and standards.

It’s also key to remember that a project shouldn’t be something you do at the end of a unit. Instead, students should discover the content as the project progresses. According to the PBL Works, one of the key differences between a culminating project and a PBL unit is that students should be learning through a project rather than learning first and then doing completing the project afterward.

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Note that you will still need to do direct instruction and you might even begin your project with a quick concept attainment lesson. In fact, John Hattie recommends focusing on concept attainment before ever moving into student inquiry. Moreover, there are times when you might need to review a concept or a skill together with students before they move into a new phase of their projects. However, these more traditional approaches should occur throughout the project. The goal is to integrate direct instruction in a way that feels authentic.

This can be challenging if the curriculum is super rigid. Sometimes you have a scripted curriculum you are required to follow and sometimes you have specific standards you have to teach each day. However, it helps to think about the wiggle room we have as teachers. For example, you might have a scripted curriculum in reading or math but you have more leeway in science or social studies. Other times, the prescribed curriculum is a resource. In these moments, you might be able to ask your leadership if you could pilot a mini-project. This works really well in the “lame duck” days when other teachers might be showing movies before a break. If you’re interested, I wrote an article with several mini-projects you can do the last week before winter break.

The Food Truck Mindset

When we think of innovative companies, it’s easy to imagine an open-air tech startup with table tennis tables and free drinks and huge windows and chairs so modern you’re not sure how you’re supposed to sit in them or look at them. Sometimes I look at those spaces and think, “Man, I wish schools were more like this.” But they’re not. Schools don’t have millions in startup money flowing into making the spaces perfect. And, while these companies often look amazing, many of the startups go bankrupt within the first three years.

Meanwhile, some of the most innovative ideas are happening in much more humble environments —greasy, tiny kitchens parked by the side of busy streets. If you want to find innovation, look no further than your local food truck. Food trucks continue to redefine the way we view food through a fusion of flavors that are unabashedly different than typical restaurant fare. Unlike the massive tech startup world, food trucks are often nimble, small, and focused on a very distinct mission. They often borrow ideas from unrelated places and use ingredients that you wouldn’t expect them to use.

The best food trucks pursue a relationship with their community from day one. They connect to their neighborhoods and use local ingredients. Here, food trucks build empathy with their audience by modifying their menus based on immediate feedback. This iterative thinking leads to new culinary innovations.

This is what innovative teachers do all the time. They have a food truck mindset.

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My friend and former coworker Javi has a food truck mindset. When he was stuck with a rigid four-hour language block and a tight curriculum in his ELL classroom, he asked, “Why can’t ELL students in a Title One school have the same kinds of projects gifted students get?”

When he and our tech director Chad had to create a summer school for struggling students, they redesigned the notion of summer school and made it a summer STEAM camp. When Javi and I wanted computers in our classrooms, we refurbished computers that were virtually useless and ran them on Linux.

I remember feeling frustrated by having to teach a full hour of grammar to my ELL students. Plus, I knew we would be judged on how well they did on the big ELL test at the end of the year. His response? Make the subject engaging.

When I said, “Grammar can’t be fun.” He laughed and asked, “Why not?”

So, I turned the constraint into a design feature and our grammar lessons became a vehicle for student blogging and podcasting projects. These were my vintage innovation lessons, combining old tools with new technology and embracing old ideas like curation and citizen journalism with newer, research-based strategies.

I still remember a day when our district tech director, Chad, came in and a student said, “Mr. Spencer, are we doing  grammar today.”

When I said, “Not today,” this girl began arguing with me.

Chad’s mouth dropped. Yes, this girl thought grammar was fun. What began as a challenge became a design feature. My kids loved grammar.

Similarly, when students struggled with volume, surface area, and proportional reasoning, I used the standards and time constraints as the building blocks on our Tiny House project. Again, we used digital tools for research and 3D modeling, but they created their houses with duct tape and cardboard. I used the Food Truck mindset I’d learned from Javi and we had one of our most successful projects of the year.

When we choose to design meaningful projects despite tight curriculum maps, limited time frames, and a lack of adequate technology, we are modeling divergent thinking for our students. We’re also demonstrating courage and creative risk-taking.

With a food truck mindset, we ask:

  • What is “loose” and what is “tight?”
  • What constraints or limitations might actually be a design feature?
  • Which standards can we combine or layer?
  • Are there any lo-fi materials that might actually improve the project?

There are so many teachers out there doing amazing, innovative work by experimenting and problem-solving and embracing creative constraint. This approach is at the heart of vintage innovation.

Check Out the Book

This is the third article in a series about vintage innovation. Parts of this blog post include excerpts from my upcoming book Vintage Innovation, which will be released in January. It will be a highly visual, engaging reading.

I’ll also be releasing the free Vintage Innovation Toolbox sometime in early January. For early access to the toolbox and for updates about the book, please fill out the form below:

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


  • Angie Tillman says:

    I’m looking forward to Vintage Innovation. This article had a plethora of ideas and inspirational ideas.

  • Nathan says:

    I really love this idea! As an aspiring teaching, I find this sort of thinking to be very inspirational, though I still do have concerns. I’m sure that the kind of knowledge I’m seeking will become more readily available once I actually start teaching full time, but I still wonder how much of the feedback that students give should I use when keeping a “food-truck mindset.” Additionally, what has been the best way that you or others have received student feedback? Did you send out a survey, or did you do a live Q & A with the students? Any and all responses would be appreciated.

  • Ian LaFarge says:

    Thank you for continuing to advocate for alternative routes to the end result. Creativity is a journey and worth the trials, tribulations and successes along the way.

  • Thanks for sharing such an amazing and helpful article.

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