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When I was in middle school, one of my teachers called the entire class up to the front of the room. He held up a shiny golden disc in wild excitement.
“This will change education forever,” he said, eyes gleaming. “Someday, you’ll be able to pick up one of these discs and learn exactly what you need to learn. No more taking notes from a teacher. You won’t have to learn from someone like me.”

I felt uneasy about learning from a golden disc instead of a human. I liked my teacher. I liked how he would change his explanations on the spot just by reading our body language. I liked the way he made us laugh. I enjoyed the inefficient way he got off-topic and we randomly learned things that weren’t in the textbook. Why would I want to replace him with a golden disc?

“This is the future of education, kids,” he said with a grin. “This will change things forever.”

But it did not change education forever. I haven’t seen a laserdisc in three decades and I feel pretty confident that my own kids’ teachers will not be replaced by golden discs. Not now. Not ever.

And yet, this is the same sentiment I have seen in many iterations. I’ve watched as one-to-one devices, laptops, and adaptive learning programs have all promised to replace teachers. In a few years, it’ll be A.I. Just get a Siri-styled assistant who can answer every student question with absolute precision without the messy mistakes that a teacher might make. But I don’t buy it. Teaching will always be a deeply relational endeavor filled with mistakes and missteps and false starts. That’s the beauty of it.

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The False Promise of Futurism

It’s true that our world is changing. The prevalence of social media means our students will grow up with a worldview shaped by algorithms as much as families or neighborhoods. Meanwhile, robotics and automation continue to replace manufacturing jobs. Rapid prototyping is now easier than ever and we’re just beginning to see what can happen with automation and machine learning. Virtual reality is still in its infancy and we can’t predict what it will mean for the way we perceive our world. Moreover, our students will enter a world where artificial intelligence will replace a significant number of analytical jobs. We can’t predict what the future will hold with advanced robotics and nanotechnology.

In the face of these rapid changes, it’s easy to think, “Let’s prepare them for the future. Let’s transform our schools into places that are cutting edge and new.” Maybe add some high-tech makerspaces. Let’s teach students how to use the 3D printer. Let’s teach them how to use Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality. Let’s teach every child to master coding.

But here’s the counterintuitive truth: if we want to prepare our students for this future, we shouldn’t focus on the solely future. As a teacher, I’ve seen the promise of interactive whiteboards, personalized learning programs, and one-to-one netbooks to revolutionize education. Years later, many of these gadgets are now obsolete.

But certain strategies will never be obsolete. Deep conversations. Meaningful collaboration. Epic projects. Creative thinking. Curiosity. These are the strategies that will help students become adaptable, nimble, and able to iterate. If they can think divergently and make connections between unrelated ideas, they’ll actually anticipate change more quickly. This idea is at the heart of vintage innovation.

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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.

Vintage Innovation is a both/and mindset. It’s the overlap of the “tried and true” and the “never tried.” It’s a mash-up of cutting edge tech and old school tools. It’s the overlap of timeless skills in new contexts. Vintage innovation is what happens when engineers use origami to design new spacecraft and robotics engineers are studying nature for innovative designs.

As a teacher, it’s what happens when you do sketch-note videos mashing up hand-drawn sketches with digital tools or blend Socratic discussions with podcasting. It’s that service-learning project that combines deeply human hands-on learning with photojournalism. It’s the old idea of shared commonplace books to explore new ideas and research. It’s a design project that includes duct tape and cardboard and sticky notes and markers but also digital modeling.

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.”

Redefining Relevance

For years, Google focused on recruiting the best computer science students who excelled in their studies. They assumed that innovation required the students from the best universities. But when they tested this hypothesis with their Project Oxygen report (an inventory of what factors were the best predictors of employee success), they were shocked by the results. The top skills were the “soft skills,” like being a problem-solver, being teachable, communicating effectively, having empathy, and making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. Notice that these aren’t 21st Century Skills. They’re timeless skills. They’re the skills hunter-gatherers needed and the skills we’ll need in 300 years.

Instead of focusing on technology skills to compete with Artificial Intelligence or automation, students should develop soft skills. They need to develop deeply human mindsets and habits that will set them apart. This begins with the question, “What can humans do that machines can’t do?”

The answer is oddly vintage. Artificial intelligence is amazing in its ability to determine patterns and follow algorithms, which is why students will need to take a more vintage approach and think divergently to solve complex problems in unique ways. Engineers will use 3D printing to make amazing products, but the best design will always start with empathy and is often inspired by studying nature. Moreover, some of the best creative approaches borrow from older disciplines.

Surrounded by a sea of information, students will need to learn the vintage art of curation. In a globalized world, students will need to embrace the local. With augmented reality and virtual reality at their fingertips, students will need to engage in play and imagination and curiosity. In other words, to be more relevant, they will need to be different.

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.

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 video chat 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).

Core Questions of Vintage Innovation

With vintage innovation, teachers ask:

  • How do I innovate when I don’t have the best technology?
  • How can I use vintage tools, ideas, and approaches in new ways?
  • How can I use constraints to spark creativity?
  • How do I blend together the “tried and true” with the “never tried?”

If you are a teacher, you are an innovator. You are the experimenter trying new strategies. You are the architect designing new learning opportunities. Apps change. Gadgets break. Technology grows obsolete. But one thing remains: teachers change the world. And one way to do this is through a vintage innovation approach.

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


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