Book Review: Vintage Innovation

As someone who has followed John Spencer for a few years, I have enjoyed the ways he explains innovation, design, teaching and learning. His latest book — Vintage Innovation (Leveraging Retro Tools and Classic Ideas to Create Meaningful Learning) — revisits some of his previous ideas around project-based learning and design cycles, but he looks at it through the idea of student inquiry dependent less on technology and new-fangled digital tools, and more on duct tape, cardboard and deep thinking.

His aim, or my take-away, is to remember that technology may be flashy and the “thing” in the moment — maybe something to hook the interest of our students — but in looking to what’s new, let’s not forget what has worked, and to revisit those “vintage” concepts in the age of the new.

The book explores concepts of integrating more divergent thinking that opens up wonder (as opposed to convergent thinking, which narrows the focus); encouraging students to be local historians and local journalists in their own communities through writing, interviews and publishing; tapping the power of imagination to think through and grapple difficult problems; reaching for the duct tape and cardboard before the laptop and phone; and more. John peppers the pages with his own illustrations, his own stories and his own sense of writing self, which is curious, compassionate and quite lighthearted and funny at times.

Three concepts really stood out for me after reading Vintage Innovation.

The first idea stems from the chapter in which John reminds us that nature and the outdoors provides plenty of ways to think about design (bio-mimicry), to inspire writing, to consider projects to help the larger world, and to use the quiet long walks or getting lost in the wild to mull over problems and solutions, all on their own time. (As a facilitator of the Write Out project, this entire chapter of his is right up our alley.)

Second, John spends a solid chapter reminding us that the teaching of Philosophy soft skills is as important, if not more so, than many of the harder skills of the STEM framework — that the philosophical underpinning of students thinking about problems, and devising solutions, can guide student innovators into ethical and important decisions about which path to take, and it is that point in which technology and other things may be tools for design. (If only Zuckerberg and company had done more of this …)

The final take-away for me is his powerful message that, at the end of the day, teachers are the most important player in helping our students grapple with modern day problems, not screens; that the ability to challenge critical thinking is something that can create magic in the classroom, beyond anything a website or app can do; and that the tools for innovation are easy found, and require neither elaborate MakerSpaces, 3D printers or any of the other expensive hardware that technology companies pitch our way.

“Apps change. Gadgets break. Technology grows obsolete. But teachers will continue to take creative risks and experiment with new ideas. They will continue to build relationships and inspire new possibilities in their students. When our tools have grown obsolete, teachers will continue to impact lives and change the world.” — John Spencer, in Vintage Innovation, page 224

Peace (in people),

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