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In This Episode of School of Talk


This episode features Dr. John Spencer.

John is a former middle school teacher and current college professor on a quest to transform schools into bastions of creativity and wonder.

He wants to see teachers unleash the creative potential in all of their students so that kids can be makers, designers, artists, and engineers.

John explores research, interviews educators, deconstructs systems, and studies real-world examples of design thinking in action.

He shares his learning in books, blog posts, journal articles, free resources, animated videos, and podcasts.

Unleashing Creativity in the Classroom

Episode Highlights:

  • Dr. John Spencer shares how he unexpectedly discovered a desire to be an educator after spending a day in the classroom. Transitioning from the non-profit world.
  • John shares his passion for project-based learning (PBL), as well as simple ways educators can boost creativity and spark innovation in their classrooms.
  • Where teachers can implement voice, choice, and creativity into their lessons, without making major changes to what they’re already doing. Small changes can lead to a big difference in how students think creatively and develop soft skills.
  • How student-centered learning can actually free up a teacher’s time and allow them to connect with their students while simultaneously increasing student achievement, and allowing their learning to stick longer.
  • How school leaders and principals can differentiate for their teachers the same way teachers differentiate for their students by offering choice.
  • John discusses “failing forward” and why administrators and school leaders need to clearly give teachers permission to make mistakes.
  • Learn more about Dr. John Spencer:



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Episode 5 Transcript:

Intro: You’re listening to School of Talk. We’re creating a world where every child experiences the power of a great teacher. We believe education is the answer. It has the power to conduct change, improve lives, unlock ideas, create opportunities, and build connections.

It’s the single greatest investment we can make today to create a better tomorrow. That’s why we’re on a mission to train, inform and inspire educators around the world.

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Michelle: Today’s episode features Dr. John Spencer. John is a former middle school teacher and current college professor on a quest to transform schools into bastions of creativity and wonder. He wants to see teachers unleash the creative potential in all of their students so that kids can be makers, designers, artists, and engineers. John explores research, interviews, educators, deconstructs systems, and studies real-world examples of design thinking in action. Let’s dive into today’s episode and learn more about implementing voice choice and creativity into the classroom.

Thank you so much for being here. John, welcome to School of Talk. I’m so excited to talk to you today. I was wondering if you could start off by just telling me a little bit about how you got into the world of education.

Unexpectedly discovering a desire to be an educator after spending one day in a classroom

Dr. Spencer: Yeah, so my route to education was kind of unexpected. Like I know, there’s a lot of people who, who they knew they wanted to become teachers, you know, when they were kids, and they would dream about it, all that kind of stuff.

But for me, I was actually in the nonprofit world in college, and I was doing program development, I was a history major, and then also an education major.

And I figured you know, it’s just good to know, education, if you’re going to be working within you know, the nonprofit world and you want to teach people and that kind of stuff. And for me, it really started as like a geeky interest of like, how do people learn, and let’s figure this out for program development and everything.

And then I remember I did a practicum at a middle school. And I just knew it, I was in the classroom for you know, one day, and I thought, you know, I’m never going to need to become a teacher.

But this will be an interesting experience. You know, I was working with kind of low-income nonprofits. And I realized, like, this is where I’m meant to be. I love this. And so that was my, my route into education.

It was kind of unexpected, you know, it was one of those things where you just you sort of discovered that you’re a teacher rather than, you know, wanting to become one. It’s almost a discovery thing.

Michelle: It sounds like you kind of already had like a bit of a vocational calling for helping people.

And then once you were around children or youth of any type it, it does kind of strike a chord sometimes with certain people and you realize you can make a big difference by focusing on education. That’s amazing.

Do you currently work in an educational setting?

Dr. Spencer: Yeah, so my, my journey was I worked for a nonprofit. And part of it is I was running our tutoring and mentoring program.

I was coordinating a lot of mentors and helping design curriculum. So I was already kind of becoming a teacher without realizing it, if that makes sense.

And then I taught middle school for 12 years. And then for the last six and a half, almost seven years now.

I’ve been at the higher education level teaching teachers and that has been so much fun.

I’ve really enjoyed working with kind of a cohort of excited pre-service teachers who are coming in and becoming teachers is really exciting.

Michelle: Is there a certain aspect of education that like really inspires you or that you’re particularly passionate about?

Project-based learning (PBL) and simple ways educators can boost creativity and spark innovation in their classrooms

Dr. Spencer: Yeah, I’m really passionate about it. Creativity in the classroom, whether that’s design thinking or project-based learning, inquiry-based learning.

I just think that there’s something really powerful that happens when students get to be makers and problem solvers, designers.

I love the fact that it’s something that can work in all subjects, right. So I love seeing that the creativity has involved in, say, a stem challenge, but also a service-learning project.

And they might be really different. But there’s this common element of divergent thinking, empathy, the problem solving all of those things that are kind of interdisciplinary.

So that’s where I’m most passionate, you know, this whole idea of, of classrooms being bastions of creativity in wonder.

Michelle: You mentioned projects and STEM learning.

Where does the teacher start with trying to incorporate this like creative model into their practice?

Small changes can lead to a big difference in how students think creatively and develop soft skills

Dr. Spencer: So I really think about it in that in a few different ways. One is to figure out where you can have voice and choice and creativity, right? So where can students have more freedom in their learning, more autonomy, and more agency.

That would start with, you know, giving them options, doing a choice menu, something small like that, allowing them to engage in self-assessment and Peer Assessment, whatever that starting place will be kind of starting small.

That would be sort of in the voice and choice side in the area of just creativity.

I think it’s any type of work that inspires them to engage in creative thinking that matters to them, right?

So a small way to start would be many projects they might do an example of that would be a one-day project and one-day projects are basically students ask any question that they want related to what they’re learning, right?

So it could be weather patterns that they’re interested in, it could be, you know, studying the Civil War, and they have questions about the Civil War, it could be in Language Arts, where it’s really open-ended.

The key thing that you’re teaching them is the actual research process. But then they go from asking that question to engaging in research, to sharing their findings, either in a podcast or in a video.

You know, in our class, when I taught middle school, we did curiosity casts and so that we had one feed with all of these questions that students would ask, they would be in partners, and they would just share what they learned with their partner.

And it was real simple, but it was fascinating. So it can be something like that just a single day, you know, single class period, many projects you do, it could be something where you give students your three items and have them design something in sort of a divergent thinking design sprint that takes 15 minutes.

So it doesn’t have to be big, it can be a single class period, 15 minutes, they’re a little five-minute warm-up. And those things add up over time. And you know, they’re small things that can lead to a big difference in terms of students developing that creative thinking.

Michelle: I think that’s amazing. It sounds so engaging, and even just giving them when you mentioned a podcast, like a group of middle schoolers learning how to podcast is an amazing skill set on its own, aside from probably what they were podcasting about, and the topic itself. So that’s really cool.

Who benefits from this style of teaching? Like, obviously, the kids are having fun, but is this more work for teachers?

How student-centered learning also benefits the teacher and creativity in the classroom

Dr. Spencer: I actually wrote a blog post on this topic recently on the idea that student-centered learning can actually free the teacher up a lot to have more time.

And so yes, this benefits the students in terms of developing those soft skills, or in terms of the way that the learning sticks.

So I’ll give, you know, project-based learning, for example, project-based learning can lead to an increase in student achievement compared to traditional methods, but it’s a minor increase. It’s not hugely different.

But the key difference is that the learning sticks longer.

So at the student level, yes, there are these things where I would say yeah, it’s beneficial to students that are also developing those soft skills, all that kind of stuff.

“This is a journey that might take years, and that’s okay,” – Dr. John Spencer

But the other piece is at the teacher level, I think it makes teaching more fun. I think it makes it more enjoyable when kids are excited and engaged when you’re focused more on this intrinsic element of motivation rather than, you know, the rules and procedures and constantly, you know, hammering those things, but it’s also just less exhausting.

When students are doing more work. We have more freedom to have that one-on-one conversations and those small group check-ins and things like have that and so in a way, it can take a lot of the work off of our plate.

An example would just be with assessment, if they’re doing self-assessment and Peer Assessment, that just reduces the amount of grading that we’re doing, while also giving them immediate feedback that they need.

And so I really think that this creative style of teaching can actually make teaching become more sustainable for us as educators.

Michelle: I think that’s really interesting. And I’m hearing what you’re saying about, you know, peer feedback, and kind of like having a teacher almost, like, float around and interact with the students and have these like one on one discussions with them about what they’re learning.

Does something like this take a lot of time to set up at the beginning of the year? Or is it something that you can just jump into whenever you feel inspired to do so?

Dr. Spencer: Yeah, I mean, I really think that it does take a little more prep work, I love the way you’re thinking about it in terms of like that initial investment.

One of the challenges is it is, in the beginning, a bit of a heavier lift to go do something different, that then pays off over time.

That’s why I think it’s really helpful to start small, right to say, we’re going to do a mini project that doesn’t require a lot of extra prep, right, it’s we’re going to do a one day project, you know, I’m going to introduce you to some ideas, you’re going to have a little bit of voice and choice, and sort of do a gradual release approach where you slowly give more and more and more freedom to students.

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Dr. Spencer: And, and, you know, that allows you as a teacher to experience that learning curve on your own, you know, I give the example of self-assessments and peer assessments for me, you know, I could only manage in the beginning to do really one project per quarter. So four projects a year, before I went even more project-based.

During that time, I didn’t do a lot of peer and self-assessments, because I just didn’t know how to design them. There was a big learning curve.

I didn’t know about some of the templates that were out there and examples.

So I think it’s okay, that we give ourselves the permission, knowing that some of this takes a little bit of extra time, in the beginning, to really start small.

And recognize that this is a journey that might take years and that’s okay, that’s the fun of it is that it is a journey and that we can grow over time.

Michelle: I think that’s always important to give yourself a little bit of patience. And know like it doesn’t you don’t have to master it the first time you try it, right? It’s like a long process like it kind of you know, I taught kindergarten for a year. Yeah.

And basically, everything in kindergarten is an experiment. Yeah, and, you know, it just, it’s, of course, you can do this with older kids and middle schoolers and things like that. But it does make me think of like, you putting in the time to set them up for success.

And you kind of like, build that community around like how we learn and support each other and, and being responsible in a way. And then suddenly the independence is there. And you can let these kids go and learn and explore. And it’s very authentic to them.

Because you’re not teaching them from a blackboard or from a book, you’re teaching them from experience.

Do you have an example of someone, even perhaps yourself, who did this really well?

Dr. Spencer: You know, one of the examples I think of is, there’s a school that I work with right now called Renaissance Academy in Michigan, and I love the fact that for them, it’s been a school-wide process so they now have that for doing creative work.

In their case, It’s project-based learning, it’s gonna take a lot of time and effort. And one of the things I love is that they’ve done it through a really collaborative process.

So the grade levels plan together, there’s also vertical collaboration between grade levels, they really focused on coming up with sort of protocols or structures that they’ll use for brainstorming or for problem-solving, or for peer feedback, or whatever it may be for building empathy.

And they modify these structures, to be simpler at younger grade levels to be more complex at older grade levels. And so students learn, these structures or protocols for creative thinking as they go. And it just becomes sort of second nature for them.

But what I love about it is they were really strategic about how they were going to design it, making sure that it’s designed at the school-wide level, and really, truly collaborative.

And then they also essentially said, you know, we’re going to start small with, you know, one protocol per grade level, also, you know, one project per semester, they didn’t go big at first. Now they’re kind of in maybe year three, or year four of the journey. It’s a place that’s really built on student choice, and in-voice and project-based learning.

But I think the same thing can be true, I’ve seen departments that do this same kind of thing, so little pockets of innovation within schools.

“There was a big learning curve.”

And then I think we as teachers, you know, I’ve seen some brand new pre-service teachers that I’ve worked with that have been part of my cohort, who have sort of chosen their one thing to start with right now we’re gonna start with a mini project, that’s one class period or one week, I can think about one teacher I’m working with who’s doing that right now in his student teaching, or another student who, you’re she’s working with first graders, and they’re struggling, they, they were gone all of last year, there have been really challenging behaviors.

So she’s really focused on doing some kind of creative work that’s built on student empathy, and just getting them to be more empathetic.

It’s small, it’s structured, it’s a lot of conversations and dialogue together as a class. And she’s just starting there.

And for her the notion of peer feedback and self-assessment, she can’t go there right now, you know, and that’s okay.

But she can start with a small empathy-based mini project that she’s doing with students.

So I really think what you see in all of those examples, is teachers saying, I’m going to be intentional with this.

But I’m also going to start small, and have some of those early wins and then build bigger over time.

Michelle: Yes, I love the early wins. Start small because, you know, if you dive in with two feet, sometimes you get a little bit maybe discouraged if it doesn’t well completely.

Which I think new teachers feel often anyways, so you gotta get used to it first. But I do think, yeah, you don’t want to get scared out of trying something new. So just start with what you can manage, and then build on that.

And you were talking a little bit about a school that was working on project-based learning as a whole school initiative?

Is there a certain area that you think school leaders should invest time or resources into over the next couple of years?

Dr. Spencer: Yeah, so I think my first thought is, I think we get a little bit too wrapped up around, like the terms like, are we going to be inquiry base or project base?

Or are we going to launch design thinking or whatever it may be?

And I think the really important thing for school leaders is to first focus on what, what they want students to develop in terms of those soft skills.

And then all of the different ways to get there.

You know, it could be that they’re doing writers, workshops, it could be that they’re doing service-learning projects, and there’s all kinds of different ways to get there.

And I think it really starting with that, and then asking themselves, what are the ways that we will support teachers in order to make this a reality?

And so one of the things that kind of fails is like the the standalone workshop, right?

We’re going to do a workshop, we’ll do a PBL workshop eight hours long and then go do it.

I think it’s important that leaders ask, what is doable? What do teachers need to build those support systems?

So it might be yes, a workshop but it might be how do we improve teacher self-efficacy, how do we get teachers motivated?

Why it’s important to give permission to “fail forward”

Doing some surveys with teachers ahead of time to just see where they’re at and what they need?

You’re asking teachers, what kind of support do you need?

Some teachers, they want coaching, and they might need invest in coaching.

Some teachers say I don’t want to coach, that’s more time, more meetings, I don’t need that. And really differentiating for teachers the same way that we differentiate for students. And then also giving the permission loudly and clearly, to make mistakes along the way.

So if a, if a school leader says we want you to be creative, we want students to engage in creative work, we, we want you to take risks, and then you base all success, all celebrations, everything on standardized test score data, there’s going to be a disconnect, right, there’s going to be a bit of a culture of fear. So it’s really important that they not only provide those systems, but they create those permissions to sort of fail forward.

Michelle: I think that’s such a good point. Like, I think if we’re going to focus on these initiatives, and reframe the way that we see learning, we have to do it from a foundational level.

So everything like how we assess what we expect teachers to accomplish, all of those things have to be changed. And, you know, the data shows us that this style of learning is more effective long term.

So it does make sense to focus on it that way.

Dr. Spencer: Yeah, it does last. And so I think it’s a little bit of like, administrators and leadership, being patient to let those results happen over time.

Michelle: Of course, like there’s pressure, everyone feels pressure from different places, but I think like, every time I ask someone this question, the same message comes through if like, ask your teachers what they need.

Dr. Spencer: How do you improve their motivation, right, the sense of efficacy being like, I feel like I can do this, this motivation of like, I want to do this.

“If something doesn’t work the first time… treat it as an experiment that you learned something from.”

Well, not only that, but I also think, you know, we tend to think about, you know, how do you improve teacher self-efficacy?

But I think that in order to do that, one of the things that’s missing sometimes from professional development, and from these initiatives, is the affirmation piece.

So like one of the things that I’ve done, when, when I’ve led, you know, PBL coaching, or workshops or ongoing professional learning, is asking teachers to identify what they’re already doing.

That connects to it. Because I think we sometimes treat these things as like scary and different and everything. And we forget that like innovation really is iteration, it really is making small revisions to what we’re doing.

Over time, it creates something that’s transformative. I think that a lot of administrators forget that teachers need to be affirmed for the great work that they’re doing.

They need to see that what they’re learning in professional development, attaches to what they’re already doing.

Michelle: That’s such a good point. Because I’m sure you’ve seen like, sometimes teachers shut down when they’re given like a new approach or something new.

And it’s like, oh, my gosh, I have 32 kids in my class, I have five IEPs. Right. This week, I have four parent phone calls. I have a lot going on.

And so you know, and so I think sometimes people shut down with the idea of like, okay, there’s another new thing. So yeah, it’s, I think, combining it with like, what are we already doing? And how does it relate to this? And how can we almost simplify our lives as teachers to incorporate this and, you know, improve our our day to day work, and our students success rates and all of that at once?

That’s, I think, the entry point here, for all of us. Yeah, work smarter, not harder.

Is there a message or a recommendation or an idea or anything like that, that you’d like to leave us with today?

Dr. Spencer: Yeah, I just, I think the last thing would just be to recognize that these things will always be an experiment, there will always be mistakes.

If something doesn’t work the first time really to treat it as an experiment that you learned something from.

So I would say when it comes to trying in any of these different methods, to recognize that success, is the fact that you tried and experimented rather than viewing success as it was amazing and look at the student outcomes.

I think if we do that, and we take that approach of really redefining the success for ourselves, then that’s when a lot of the creative innovative work truly begins to happen.

Michelle: Amazing. Thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate you chatting with me today.

Is there a place that our audience can follow you or learn more about you?

How to reach Dr. Spencer

Dr. Spencer: Yeah, absolutely. So if you go to, you’ll find my blog. On the website, I have different resources.

So I mentioned like the one-day project or divergent thinking challenge, you can download those for free.

So check those out and get those free downloads and get started.

Michelle: Amazing. Thank you so much. Yeah, thank you.

Outro: Thank you for listening to this episode of School of Talk. If you enjoyed today’s episode, be sure you subscribe to the podcast. If you loved today’s episode, share this with a friend. Class is dismissed.

Looking for more School of Talk? Check out past episodes on the Teach Away blog.

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