#132 – The Power of Empowering Students, Part II, with Dr. John Spencer

Unpacking Education November 16, 2022 29 min

In this episode, we finish our conversation about empowering students with Dr. John Spencer. We explore a few more sections of the book, Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning, and then dig into his previous book, LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student.

If you missed our initial episode with Dr. Spencer, be sure to go back and listen to the beginning of this insightful conversation about empowering students.

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

In a world of artificial intelligence, automation, and all these trends that we’re seeing, creativity becomes, I think, the most essential skill.

Dr. John Spencer, author and educator

Launching Student Empowerment

In this second half of our conversation, we unpack the LAUNCH design process as a way to empower students as makers in the learning process. We look at each step in the process and explore approaches that can lead to increased success through the implementation of design thinking and the use of creative prompts in our classrooms. Here are a few highlights from this part of the conversation:

  • Ways to Offer Choice: Dr. Spencer suggests that we begin this process by conducting an audit of our standards. We should ask, “Where do I see the ability for students to make decisions from within the standards?” For example, in ELA, we might find the output formats tight but the topic selection loose. Conversely, in social studies, we might find that the topics are tight but the formats are flexible.
  • Take Ownership Daily: For students to get comfortable being empowered in the learning process, they need to take ownership regularly—ideally every day. They might choose their note-taking format. They can own the project management process as well as peer and self-assessment. They can even develop team agreements and group norms to drive how their small groups work together.
  • Failing vs Failure: Dr. Spencer explains the difference quite concisely: “Failure is permanent. Failing is temporary.” He points out that engineers, artists, writers, composers, and athletes all grow by failing forward. For them, it’s a temporary experience that informs their next attempt.
  • Providing Space to Fail Forward: To make sure our students can fail forward, we need to give them opportunities to fail and then to grow. He sums up this approach, saying, “We need to give them slack, so they develop grit.” This might include building in a flexible timeline or offering the chance to resubmit revised work.
  • High Expectations: Providing slack does not mean lowering standards. Dr. Spencer says, “High expectations are really, really important, but we also need to give the permission to make mistakes along the way to reach those high expectations.”
  • Be a Maker: “Students need to be makers and not just takers. They need to be creative thinkers, problem-solvers, iterative thinkers, designers.” One way to get them there is through the LAUNCH design thinking process. Spencer says, “Being a maker is important because it develops all that creative thinking. . . . They [students] become divergent thinkers. They become iterative thinkers. They’re more empathetic. They become problem-solvers. All those critical skills are necessary.”
  • Student-Initiated: He points out a key aspect of the LAUNCH process, saying, “Every phase of the LAUNCH process is student-initiated.” Students should be the ones to ask the questions, do the research, manage the project, own the prototypes, choose the audience, and create the marketing strategy.
  • Passion Projects: Allowing students to complete passion projects is one way to introduce creativity in the classroom. Dr. Spencer has practiced what he preaches during the writing of his book Vintage Innovation. Because this book arose from his personal passions, it became his favorite book to write. He says, “I just kind of ‘nerded out’ on a bunch of things that I thought were fun.” We need to let kids do this in our classrooms, as well, so they can develop their personal passions.
  • The LAUNCH Process: This version of the design thinking process is made up of seven stages: Look, Listen, and Learn; Ask Tons of Questions; Understand the Information; Navigate Details; Create; Highlight and Improve the Product; and Launch! The stages are detailed in the book, LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student.
  • Points of Emphasis: When creating their LAUNCH process, Dr. Spencer and A.J. Juliani wanted to make sure that the act of asking questions was explicitly called out. They also wanted to emphasize the importance of a launch activity at the end to give it an action step.
  • Deeper Learning: “I also think that in almost every domain, you understand the discipline at a deeper level when you make something than when you only consume.” Dr. Spencer has repeatedly found that students who apply and create with their new learning perform better on tests and consistently demonstrate an overall deeper understanding of the material.
  • A Final Tip: “Start small,” he says. “Really begin with that question, What is something I can do that is small that gives students a sense of agency in their learning, and then how do I build on that?”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • Where do you see the ability for students to make decisions from within your academic standards?
  • How can your students take ownership in your classroom on a daily basis?
  • How can you give your students slack, so they can develop grit?
  • How can you allow your students to become makers?
  • How might you use the LAUNCH process in your classroom?
  • How might you integrate a passion project into your classroom?
  • Where might you start on your journey of empowering your students, allowing them to create, and encouraging creativity?

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