A.J. Juliani and I led our first ever LAUNCH Academy last week. At first, I was nervous and even overwhelmed by the epic feel of the ARC building. Seriously, this looks like something out of Hogwarts.

(Picture by Autumn Elizabeth)

But if the building was epic, it paled in comparison to the experience. I knew within minutes that I was surrounded by educators with the common goal of transforming their classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. I wandered around during breakfast, listening to people sharing ideas and geeking out on how to make design thinking work. It was a reminder that I didn’t have to be the expert or have all the answers. The room was packed with people who were already doing amazing things.

We started out the first day with a deep dive into the LAUNCH Cycle, followed by a hands-on design-related maker project:

We ended with an exploration of what it means to help students develop a maker mindset. Then, we held an open meet and greet at this really cool old pub across the street. After making things together and then hanging out in the evening, I noticed something. We were moving from a workshop to a community. In fact, one person started a shared folder for our photographs.

The next day, we started with a discussion around the seven types of creative teachers and then got into the nitty-gritty of how to structure unit plans, how to use authentic assessment, and how to align the standards to design thinking projects without losing voice and choice. After a truly Philly lunch (cheesesteaks), A.J. led everyone on a design sprint and closed it with a powerful story of a former student who had chosen to launch her work even when things around her were failing.

Check out the following video for highlights:


Five Key Takeaways from the LAUNCH Academy

When we ended on Friday, I wanted to spend another week with the folks in the room. It was an incredible experience. The following are a few of the key takeaways from the experience.


#1: Amazing Things Are Happening in Schools

One of my favorite aspects of the LAUNCH Academy was the opportunity to hear from people who were already using the LAUNCH process. As they shared their stories, it was a reminder that amazing things are happening all the time in our schools. There are these cool places of innovation that somehow become inkblots that drip into other spaces until suddenly an entire school or even a district begins using design thinking. When I heard these stories, I was reminded that I don’t have to be the expert. I’m just a guy who has experimented with these ideas and studied the research and now I get to help share the tools and blueprints and resources with other teachers who are doing great things.

My hope is that some of the participants felt affirmed for the work they are doing as well. But I also want to challenge teachers to share their stories of the design thinking projects their students are doing. It’s easy to feel like your project isn’t epic. You begin to believe that it’s not changing the world. But it’s changing their world. Your students are different because of the creative thinking you inspire. These small moments are helping them grow into critical thinkers, makers, and problem-solvers. Although design thinking isn’t a fix-all solution for creativity, it is one of many strategies you can use to inspire students to become empathy-driven makers:

This is why I want to see teachers sharing those stories and inviting the community to see how their classrooms are becoming bastions of creativity and wonder.

#2: Don’t hide your creativity.

Flashback to the eighth grade. My whole goal was to remain invisible. I had one friend, this kid named Matt. We were two nerds in a pod.  And, fortunately for me, he had perfect attendance year after year. Until one day he was sick. It had never occurred to me that my best friend’s immune system could let him down. So, there I was. Alone. I stood in the cafeteria, looking out at the sea of students, hoping someone would invite me over. But it didn’t happen. I hid in the boy’s restroom for the next 22 painfully long minutes.

I was invisible.

But not to Mrs. Smoot and Mr. Darrow. They knew me. They knew I cared about social justice and baseball and history, so they invited me to do a History Day project. It was both exhilarating and terrifying. I had never had to own my learning before. When I begged Mrs. Smoot and Mr. Darrow to choose the topic for me, they both said, “This is your project. You need to decide.” When I engaged in research and asked, “How many sources do I need?” they answered, “until you feel like you know the topic inside and out.” At one point, I recorded my script at a local radio studio. When I heard my voice played back to me, I said, “No way. I’m done with this project.” Then, Mrs. Smoot said something that stuck with me forever.

That moment changed me forever. I went on to present to the class and to compete in the local, state, and national competition. But I also developed creative confidence. And yet, I also had the opposite experience. I loved to draw. It was a refuge for me growing up. However, when someone told me, “Advanced art is for real artists,” I hid that part of my world. But that changed when my wife and I co-wrote Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard and then when our publisher encouraged me to include sketches in Launch. 

I believe we should share our creative work with the world. This was a major theme of the two-day experience. It began with the freebies. Instead of going with a “professional” look, we used my sketches for the stickers and the t-shirts:

We also asked participants to share their work with the world. They shared their design thinking stories with the folks inside the room. Many of them shared their sketch-notes with the people around them. However, they also shared their Maker Videos and Design Sprint videos on social media. This community not only wanted to empower their students to share with the world; they were willing to take the creative risk of sharing their own work with the world as well.


#3: Culture and climate are vital to creativity.

Although we focused on pedagogy and structures, I was reminded that the greatest creative element is the human element. Yes, design thinking is great. True, we need to incorporate project-based learning. Yes, makerspaces are awesome. However, if we want students to develop a maker mindset, we need to build a culture of creativity, where students engage in divergent thinking and problem-solving. We need spaces where students feel comfortable taking creative risks.

The LAUNCH Cycle is a framework. And we have tons of tools we can use to spark creative thinking in students. But even so, teachers are the architects that design the learning experiences that inspire creativity. Teaching is inherently creative. It is a craft that takes years to develop. There is no formula or instruction manual for this.

This craft is often messy and confusing. You doubt yourself when things go wrong (and inevitably, they do, because we are human). But that’s the beauty of it. You get to explore like an astronaut and experiment like a scientist. You get to solve problems like an engineer. You get to have instructional jam sessions like a jazz artist. There’s no point when you “have arrived.” You are always arriving and pivoting and moving on.

And as this happens, you create an environment where creativity thrives. Your students are different. They grow into makers and problem-solvers and builders and creative thinkers.


#4: We need to change the policies.

When we explored the practical elements of design thinking, teachers shared their frustrations about teaching to the test or not feeling the permission to innovate in their practice. They talked about time wasted on a scripted curriculum. On some level, these roadblocks become opportunities to innovate, pushing us to think creatively about our practice.

But on another level, we need to advocate for policy changes. We need to take a bold stance against things like  VAM scores, high-stakes testing, and rigid curriculum maps. Yes, this can work as a creative constraint. However, teachers feel crushed by unjust policies and we need to continue to fight for policy change that can lead to the instructional changes we want to see.


#5: We need to connect to a community.

There’s power in a community. This was the biggest takeaway for me. The people were amazing. I’m an introvert but I spent the entire first evening hanging out with participants because we developed trust with one another. We have shared values and ideas. We have many shared experiences, including shared mistakes and frustrations. I was inspired by the people I met and the amazing work that they are doing.

If you’re on the design thinking or PBL journey, I encourage you to reach out to a community. It could be in-person or online. But find a place where you can share ideas and resources. Connect with people and share your stories. For me, this started on Twitter but eventually moved to Voxer and Facebook. But these communities are the spaces where I can be vulnerable with mistakes while also celebrating those really cool epic wins.


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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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