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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.” 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 stadium 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 AstroTurf, a smooth, clean-looking, easy to manage artificial turf that added to the futuristic feel of the stadium. If you grew up in the ’80s, you probably remember the mint green carpet that used to pass as a baseball field. Unfortunately, this AstroTurf led to career-ending injuries for the players.

The Astrodome wasn’t designed for the players. It was designed for the future. 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-1980s, 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 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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Kids Need Vintage Tools

I still remember the time I embraced the Astrodome mindset. After fixing up old computers to run on Linux, I spent the entire summer configuring my “paperless classroom.” Instead of physical mindmaps, we used concept mapping software. Instead of having Socratic Seminars, we would use backchannels and online chats. I was convinced that the future was digital and my classroom would be on the cutting edge . . . no . . . the bleeding edge of the future.

However, within a quarter, it fell apart. The novelty wore off. The internet was spotty. Things took way too long to work. But more importantly, I had failed as a teacher to see the positive elements of old-school tools. So, I went the vintage innovation route and began to think about how I could mash-up the old and the new.

With vintage innovation, teachers recognize the benefits of using low-tech tools. It’s an idea I explore in this video:

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So, here are five reasons we should use vintage tools in modern classrooms

  1. Vintage Tools Can Encourage Divergent Thinking and Creativity: Camden Yards worked because the engineers and architects incorporated the limitations into the design. Similarly, when students use low-tech tools, they have to work within the creative constraints of the available tools. In the process, they engage in divergent thinking because they no longer have unlimited options.  When I taught journalism, we had a green screen that allowed students to have any background they wanted. Students could also use Final Cut to create highly produced videos that would look professional. However, their best videos were often the sketch-note videos they created with pens, paper, and cell phones. I watched students use folds, tears, and sketched-out symbols in original ways as they conveyed big ideas in their short videos. These videos were more creative because students had to incorporate the creative constraint into their design. Note that these were not tech-free projects. Students still used computers for research. They often wrote their scripts on a shared document. They filmed their videos with their smartphones. However, they embraced the vintage element of drawing by hand. Similarly, in STEM, the “tinkering” approach often blends low-tech tools (like cardboard) with high-tech tools like circuitry or programming.
  2. When Students Are Making Things by Hand, They Are a Part of the Entire Process: Sometimes the technology does too much of the heavy lifting for students. At times, a 3D printer can work almost like Guitar Hero. You think you are making something physical but you’re really just pushing the buttons. I’ve seen STEM classes where students take free templates from the internet and printing them off without making many modifications. While the end result looked impressive, the students haven’t actually engaged in creative thinking. By contrast, when students prototype by hand, they have a better sense of the actual physics involved in prototyping. They can use a digital model to create a roller coaster and test it out using a simulation. However, when they make tiny tweaks to the roller coaster that they’re building by hand, they get to feel it evolve and experience it in a more temporal way. This doesn’t mean we abandon 3D printers. But it is a reminder that we shouldn’t abandon duct tape and cardboard for 3D printers and filament.
  3. Sometimes Low-tech is More Developmentally Appropriate: Younger students especially need to make things with their bare hands. It won’t be as polished, but they will learn in a way that fits human development. There’s a very real danger in asking students to use abstract programs when they are still in a more concrete phase developmentally. We might want to have students using manipulatives in math rather than using math apps on their tablets. We can still have young students type a blog post or make a video, but we also want journals and small group discussions.
  4. Often Analog Tools are More Efficient: For all the talk of students being digital natives, advanced programs are often complex to learn, which can be a challenge for teachers with limited time (which is pretty much every teacher ever). For visual design, it can take months to learn the ins and outs of Photoshop. In engineering, the 3D modeling programs often require multiple direct instruction lessons and a series of tutorials. Even something as simple as a concept mapping program can take three to four times as long to create compared to the paper-based version. It requires additional cognitive load for students to learn a new software application and when this happens, it not only takes longer, but it also reduces students’ ability to focus on the learning task at hand.
  5. When Students Use Analog Tools, the Learning Sticks: Each time I get a new cohort, I have students who scoff at my suggestion that they take notes with their laptops closed. After all, I’m the techie professor. However, handwritten notes force you to slow down and actually provide more options. You can change sizes and styles, sketch out visuals, and make diagrams more smoothly by hand than with typed notes. According to the research, handwritten notes can improve conceptual development and lead to higher retention of information compared to typed notes. Similarly, elementary students improve in their mathematical thinking when using hands-on manipulatives.


Nine Vintage Ideas to Embrace in the Modern Classroom

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, 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. 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.
  5. 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 more curious while also engaging in creativity.
  6. 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.
  7. Hands-On 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.
  8. 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 at the moment aided only by a 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.
  9. 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. These 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 1920s or the old photo album and postcards they were able to access from the 1800s. When I taught math, I used to have students use slide rules because they could see, visually, how numbers scaled. 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 educational 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 standardized 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.


Check Out the Book

This is the first 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 mid-December. 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


  • Katie Guzdial says:

    Hi John!

    Thank you for this awesome read. I am currently a student teacher at the University of Michigan and I have just discovered the world of edublogs. I agree so much with your vintage design ideas to implement in the modern classroom. Over my many years of being in the classroom as a student, the topics that I remember most are those that involved a game, a hands-on element, an experiment, or just having a lot of fun. While I think that technology in the classroom can be utilized in terms of learning how to do research and using tools to give quick feedback, a classroom should not be centered around technology. Technology has flaws, and in a school that has only one laptop for every three students, there are many logistical issues with using technology as well. I hope I can implement many of your suggestions into my future classroom!

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