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When I was a kid, my brother and I built a “roller coaster” in the backyard with a wagon, some scraps of wood, and tons of pipes. Was it safe? Probably not. Did it ever work properly? Not really. But it didn’t matter. We were makers. 

In the fourth grade, I wrote my first “novel.” It was a derivative mess with flat characters and a predictable plot. I’m pretty sure I based it on what I’d seen on Scooby Doo. But it didn’t matter. I was a maker. 

We created our own “music studio,” where we recorded sounds on layers of tapes to create our own beats. We made our instruments with rubber bands and buckets and anything else we could find that sounded cool. Did it sound any good? Probably not. But it didn’t matter. We were makers. 

That was my childhood. Whether we were designing baseball stadiums, building structures or writing stories, we spent hours making stuff. We were designing, tinkering, building, tweaking. We were makers.

But here’s the thing: we didn’t need a maker space to make it happen. All we needed was a little freedom, some encouragement, and a few random supplies. And time. Tons and tons of time.

See, I love makerspaces. I’m excited about the new makerspace our engineering department is building at the university where I work. I love visiting STEM labs and STEAM labs (or, if you drop the science from it, a MEAT Lab). However, I never want students to believe that making must be confined to a specific space. I never want teachers to believe that a fancy makerspace is somehow a prerequisite for having a creative classroom.

Making Can Happen Anywhere

Last year, when I gave a TEDx Talk, I toured an innovative makerspace where students were prototyping with 3D printers. They worked collaboratively in a state-of-the-art space. They were thinking deeply and solving complex problems.

I then talked to a student volunteer running the TEDx Talk and said, “Don’t you wish you could be in a class like that?” He shook his head. “It’s not my thing. I want to make stuff, but I want to make art. I want to move people. It’s why I’m in theater.” This student reminded me that we have makerspaces all over our world. A kitchen, a theater, a cafe packed with writers — these places are makerspaces. Making happens all around us if we’re paying attention.

We just need a bigger definition of creativity:

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When it comes to making, it’s about a mindset and not a space. True, the spaces are great. However, it’s more about the creative thinking that occurs. It’s about that powerful transformation that occurs when students view themselves as makers. It’s about imagination and problem-solving and design thinking. It’s about seeing the world differently so that you go beyond merely being a consumer.

I don’t want that type of mindset to be confined to a physical space. I want students to be empowered to think creatively in any context, at any time. I want them to engage in divergent thinking and figure out new ways to solve problems. I want them to dream up things that nobody has ever considered before. I want them to take creative risks. None of this requires a specific location.

Making Can Happen With Any Tool

Technology can be a powerful way to share your process and your product with the world. In many cases, you can leverage technology to do things that were previously unimaginable. Technology is great. However, there’s also power in all things analog. A 3D printer is amazing, but so are human hands. Sometimes the best tools for prototyping are cardboard and duct tape. Kids can snap a picture at any time. But sometimes the best way to make sense of the world is to draw it or paint it. I’m a huge fan of blogging. But journaling can create a safe space to explore ideas through webs and charts and sketch-notes. Global Twitter chats are great for conversations, but so are Socratic Seminars. I love virtual field trips but kids also need gardens and parks and playgrounds. Video simulations interesting are but there’s power in doing actual experiments. The point is, digital tools are amazing, but sometimes in making, the best option is vintage.

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One of the things I love about design thinking is that it’s not dependent on technology. I love when students share their process with the world and leverage digital tools in their creativity. However, it’s all about the thinking — and sometimes the best tools available are analogy, vintage, and lo-fi. It’s less about the gadgets and more about the pedagogy.

Making Can Happen with Any Subject

People tend to toss makerspaces and design thinking into STEM or STEM. But some of my favorite design thinking projects were the ones I saw in a social studies class at Kent Innovation High, where students engaged in a service learning project with refugees. We need to see design thinking as something that transcends subjects.

I used design thinking with my students when I taught self-contained (the same students for all subjects) in the years that I taught both ELL and Gifted. Students used design thinking in every subject area. Students used design thinking in math as they invented their board games and arcades. They used it often in science as they experimented. They used it in economics when we invented products and in language arts when they filmed documentaries and created media packages.

What about the standards? What about the curriculum map?

You have two different approaches that work here. The first is to find standards that will encourage creative thinking and allow students to create products that matter to them. For example, when I taught social studies, design thinking worked well with the documentary project and the shark tank project. However, I’m not sure that design thinking would have worked as well in our World War I unit, where it was more of an immersive experience with a lot of discussion and debate.

An alternative approach you can take is to develop a design thinking unit and then find the standards that correspond to what students are doing. So, when they do research, you find the research standards in the ELA standards. When they launch, you look for the publishing standards.

The Power of Design Thinking

Students can be makers in any classroom, in any grade level, and in any subject. It’s why AJ Juliani and I created The LAUNCH Cycle to bring design thinking into every aspect of K-12 and let every teacher know that any student can be a maker.

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It’s why on April 26th (in two days) we’re having the first ever Global Day of Design where teachers and students from around the world focus on how they can make, build, design, and launch projects and products with/without a maker space. We have hundreds of classrooms signed up already and thousands of students ready to participate in the Global Day of Design. We hope that you’ll join us to for this awesome event meant to engage and empower all students to make.


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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


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