Innovation in the Classroom

My journey transforming lesson plans into learning experiences.

Adrian Neibauer
20 min readJan 23, 2022

I’ve never been much of a DIY-type of person. I’m really good at locating a mechanic, plumber, or electrician. I make the call instead of trying to figure out how to do it myself.

I wasn’t raised to think in terms of DIY. My father made a point of not fixing his own car or remodeling his own house because he wanted to communicate to others (especially his family) that he could afford to hire someone else instead. Unfortunately, this meant that I did not do much tinkering when I was a kid. I did plenty of manual labor, though(e.g.: endless yard work and house cleaning). I developed a strong work ethic, but that ethic only led me to take pride in jobs I knew how to do. What happens when I encounter a task that I don’t know anything about?

People who self-identify as “Makers” pride themselves in figuring things out. They tinker and engineer (or reverse engineer) fabricate and MacGyver solutions to any problem then encounter. I loved the television series MacGyver. From 1985 to 1992 I eagerly watched Richard Dean Anderson get himself into and out of the craziest situations. Using his infinite amount of scientific resourcefulness, MacGyver could disarm a nuclear bomb using nothing more than a paperclip! Each week I was amazed at his magical capabilities. As a child, if I ever met anyone who could makeshift a solution (or repair a machine), I would envy their MacGyvering abilities.

The Maker movement burst onto the educational scene in the early 2000s with shows like MythBusters. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman would use elements of the scientific method to test the validity of rumors, myths, movie scenes, adages, Internet videos, and news stories. They were like modern-day MacGyvers! Soon enough, teachers were using these videos in class to illustrate various principles in physics and chemistry. Kids love explosions!

What many people don’t realize is that the Maker movement (and subsequently makerspaces) didn’t start with MythBusters or Maker Faires. Seymour Papert is considered the “father of the maker movement.” During the 60s and 70s, Papert understood the power of a “coercion-free learning environment”, otherwise known colloquially by educators as “hands-on” (Martinez & Stager, 2013, p. 18). Throughout Papert’s career, he collaborated with educational behemoth and psychologist, Jean Piaget (cognitive development theory in children). Papert’s work with technology and education led to the constructivist learning movement in schooling. By connecting his academic work on LOGO, (the children’s computer programming language) and the seminal work of educational theorists such as Maria Montessori, Paulo Freire and Lev Vygotsky, he created the MIT Media Lab. His career teaching and researching at MIT directly influenced the use of technology and makerspaces in schools. Papert legitimized, through research, what many computer hobbyist and tinkerers had known for decades: learning and inventing and sharing knowledge is the most powerful way to learn, especially with the “absence of external pressures of schooling — assessment, curriculum, lecture, and demands for note-taking” (Martinez & Stager, 2013, p. 25).

Since I never grew up with making of any kind, my first exposure to the maker movement was in June 2012 with the national publications of Wired and Make. These magazines featured tons of technology projects for students, including programming, robotics, space exploration, ballistics, and reverse engineering. I had never been so excited to experiment with innovation and creativity in my classroom!

I decided to build a makerspace in my classroom. I had no idea what I was doing. I dove into research about what a classroom makerspace would look like and stalked garage sales for junk supplies. I added batteries and duct tape to my classroom supply list and brainstormed ways to integrate making, tinkering and engineering into my curriculum. I even built workbenches for my students and got Lowe’s to donate supplies!

My first student workbenches.

It wasn’t pretty; I removed my teacher’s desk and replaced it with a cart of junk supplies and covered my bean-shaped table with tools. However, having a classroom makerspace gave me multiple opportunities to help students learn with their hands. I wanted them to mess around with materials in order to understand the content and show me their learning. Students could investigate, ask questions, and use the space to tap into their own initiative and creativity. We used a ton of cardboard and duct tape to prototype various projects throughout the year.

One such project was a catapult unit. I wanted students to build a catapult that could launch a payload and hit a target. Students needed to learn everything from how to operate basic power tools (thanks to a maker mom who worked at a local hardware store) to physics, engineering and basic trigonometry (I made it very basic for 5th graders). Students learned that engineering a working catapult involves using stored energy to hurl their projectile. The stored energy came from building mechanisms that used tension, torque and gravity.

Student testing tension and torque

I was in over my head. I let this maker movement transform my classroom. I created an active, student-centered, investigative space designed for innovation, invention, spontaneous questioning, and creating projects for real stakeholders outside of the classroom. Everything was happening so quickly (almost too quickly) and I was the first to admit that I was out of my depth. Luckily, I had a very supportive parent community that appreciated the excitement in my classroom. Even as I struggled to connect everything to a learning standard, students were learning faster than I could teach. On more than occasion, I had to Google mathematical terms that I had forgotten in my college trigonometry course, and then figure out how to translate to a ten-year-old!

Not surprisingly, all of the students hammering and cheering strained relationships with my teammates. While their students were quietly completing math worksheets, my students were applying scale measurement to cardboard prototypes and then calculating area and perimeter. While their students were reading aloud, my students were outside testing their catapults and cheering for each group that launched. To be fair, my teammates didn’t understand what I was doing and I didn’t have a strong enough knowledge base to convince them that what I was doing was not only worthwhile, but research based. All I knew was that my students were having fun and other students were complaining that they wished their teachers did more projects like Mr. Neibauer’s class.

Student applying scale measurement

A traditional classroom is not set up for a makerspace. Can a classroom be re-outfitted to support interdisciplinary, collaborative learning using the makerspace model? Absolutely! However, traditional furniture is not designed to be hammered on and the close proximity to other classrooms does not lend itself to louder activities (what I call radical collaboration). I wasn’t the only one testing out makerspaces in the classroom. All across the country, teachers and librarians were experimenting with making with students. Not surprisingly, school libraries started including how-to-books, books of projects, computer magazines, and DIY magazines like Make. Fewer students used the library for reading and school library spaces quickly became centralized, functional, and flexible spaces that could encourage creativity. As Sylvia Martinez explains in her book Invent to learn making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom, “The functionality of the space is crucial to making it a better place to work. Good lighting, space to spread out, and organized resources go a long way towards making your space functional” (Martinez & Stager, 2013, p. 169). Soon, tinkering studios and hackerspaces were popping up in schools nationwide. Classroom furniture started including caster wheels so that they could be rolled out of the way for “creativity time.” Teachers started dedicating a few hours a week for “Genius Hour” or “20% Time” because they heard about how Google’s employees are more innovative in their jobs because they are allowed to spend 20% of their work time studying, tinkering and building something they are passionate about. Passion projects started replacing book reports, and soon, many classrooms claimed to be creative.

Feature creep

In the design world, there is a phenomenon called “feature creep,” where engineers and designers continue adding unnecessary functions that can add “expense and complexity to otherwise straightforward products” (Brown & Kātz, 2019, p. 75). Have you ever looked at the back of your shampoo bottle and wondered why there are 42 different ingredients? How many of these “essential oils” are really necessary to clean your hair? A decade into the 2000s, I saw a lot of teachers adding too many elements to their classrooms in an attempt to be creative. Since teachers didn’t fully understand why adding a Passion Project, for example, might be creative, these new classroom activities didn’t have much substance. The more teachers were pushed to be creative the more they were floundering for guidance. Without an overarching framework (remember, having a clear vision and skills are necessary for successful change), teachers were left confused and anxious about how to make their classrooms authentically innovative.

Design Thinking

As an educator, there are many different frameworks one could use to innovate their classroom practice. George Couros (2015) took the work of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset (2006) and created the Innovator’s Mindset. In it, he describes the importance of eight characteristics for innovative students: (a) empathetic; (b) problem finders; (c) risk-takers; (d) networked; (e) observant; (f) creators; (g) resilient; (h) reflective. Notice here that being a problem finder (as opposed to a problem solver) is an important characteristic of innovation (Couros, 2015). Couros describes his Innovator’s Mindset as “the belief that the abilities, intelligence, and talents [of students] are developed so that they lead to the creation of new and better ideas” (p. 33).

John Spencer’s (2016) LAUNCH Cycle is another great framework, centered in design thinking, for guiding both teachers and students to take ideas and see them through to a final product. His LAUNCH Cycle is not formulaic and does not require teachers to teach each step in a linear fashion. Instead, it’s a cyclical process that makes “creativity an authentic experience” in classrooms (Spencer, 2016, p. 24). Spencer believes that “there is no single creative type” (p. 37).

Executive Director of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program at Stanford University, Dr. Tina Seelig, understands that “opportunities are abundant; [and] at any place and time you can look around and identify problems that need solving….regardless of the size of the problem, there are usually creative ways to use the resources already at your disposal” (Seelig, 2009, p. 8).

These frameworks put the student at the center of their learning. In doing so, teachers can “co-construct the learning experiences with [their] students to meet the desired learning goals” (Martin, 2016). In her book, Learned-Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion and Unleash Genius, Katie Martin (2018) empathizes with the increased demand for teachers to have more creative classrooms. She discusses how learning opportunities and teaching methods need to evolve to match the ever-changing needs of today’s students. When we tell kids to complete an assignment, we get compliance. “When school is characterized by compliance and mandates, opportunities for creation, exploration, and developing connections between people and ideas are limited” (Martin, 2018, p. 22). On the other hand, when we empower kids to explore and learn how to make an impact on the world, we inspire problem solvers and innovators.

I fell in love with design thinking as a framework for my classroom. I started embedding Spencer’s (2016) LAUNCH cycle into every lesson or project I created. I used George Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset for conversations with my teammates about the characteristics of creative students. I learned that I could integrate design thinking into any subject as long as I gave my students control of their learning process and let them show their learning through finished products. I built in time for students to research, plan and create learning portfolios, making sure to direct final products toward authentic audiences. I started to feel freer and more creative as an educator. I structured my lessons around design thinking challenges and let students discover skills and knowledge, instead of just memorizing facts. I learned that I still needed to facilitate direct learning, especially when managing multiple classroom projects, but overall, I was confident that design thinking was making my teaching better and was improving the classroom experience for my students.

The more I researched, the more I understood that design thinking is everywhere. At its core, design thinking is a human-centered process during which designers examine all aspects of an issue and engage in a series of divergent and convergent thinking to arrive at novel and relevant courses of action. Tom and David Kelley, author and founder of the and IDEO, respectively may not have coined the term “design thinking”, but their focus at IDEO on human-centered design allowed them to scale creativity and innovation throughout their organization.

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, commonly known as the, is a design thinking institute on Stanford’s campus. The birth of the was a collaborative effort between David Kelly (IDEO) and other Stanford professors (Terry Winograd from Computer Sciences, Bob Sutton from Management Science, and Engineering and Jim Patell from the business school). They wanted to create a space where they could empower students and teach them how to develop a more creative confidence in their work. David envisioned “a place in the university where students from different backgrounds could come to nurture their creative talents and apply their newfound skills to tough challenges” (p. 27). In 2005, The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design opened and immediately created a hexagonal design thinking visual in their courses with students. These deceptively simple five stages (Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test) contain a wide variety of nuance and application for challenges of every scale and within every industry. In the world of design, these stages are fairly common. IDEO uses an alternating divergence and convergence flow from Inspiration to Ideation to Implementation (Boyle, 2017).

It’s simple, but not easy. In fact, no one ever told me that innovating would be easy. When you look at the long list of innovators: Steve Jobs, Leonardo Da Vinci, Ada Lovelace, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, etc… not a single one of them innovated easily. They all struggled at one point in their lives. When I look back at those early experiments in my classroom, I remember how much I reflected at the end of each day.

End-of-day reflection

We all love certainty. There are plenty of examples of things or events that you definitely want to be guaranteed will happen. When I pick up my child from school, I want a guarantee that he will be there waiting to go home (and I am positive that he feels the same way). When I get in my car each morning, I want it to start every time; I don’t want my starter to stop working or for my car to be out of gas. When I wake up in the morning, I expect the sun to be exactly where it is supposed to be. These guarantees aren’t bad. They are things we rely on. When John Spencer (2016) asks: Am I sure this will work? what he is really asking is Are you comfortable with taking a risk? When I open up a blank document and begin typing a poem or story or blog post or chapter to a book, am I comfortable with it not going as expected? When I go for a walk and take a different path, am I prepared to get lost and possibly see something I have never seen before? When I walk over to that person at the other end of the restaurant bar, am I comfortable with being turned down? When I try something new in my classroom, am I prepared for it going horribly wrong? Am I prepared for possible criticism from my teammates? All of these involve a good dose of fear and require us to push past our fears in order to take risks.

Doing innovative things with my students doesn’t make me a fearless teacher. I am terrified most days. Looking back, I believe that pushing through my fear of failure was a huge part of me beginning to self-identify as a creative person. Over the course of my 20 years in public education, I’m continuing to build my creative confidence. I love guarantees, but if I’m really serious about teaching in a coercion-free learning environment, or creating a learning experience out of a lesson plan, or inspiring my students and colleagues with my ideas and actions, then I need to be uncertain and live in that uncertainty.

I use a mental exercise created by Tim Ferriss called Fear Setting. He starts by asking some pretty large What If questions. He details each one, listing all that is preventing him from accomplishing his goal. Then he describes what he would do if the absolute worst were to happen. How would he repair the damages? This exercise helped me begin living in that uncertainty and wrestling with my fear. Ferriss asks, what might be the benefits of an attempt or partial success? Ferriss draws out the cost of inaction over a period of 6 months, 1 year, and 3 years (Ferriss, 2017). By doing this cost-benefit analysis, he often observes that the scariest things we want, the craziest ideas that we never act on, often are not that scary and oftentimes, failure isn’t as devastating as we imagine.

I wish I heard that early in my career. Once I began a daily routine of asking myself Am I sure this is going to work, I practiced living in my discomfort of things not working. By adequately and realistically gauging the risks involved, I kept moving forward. Each day was a new day to test out my ideas using design thinking with students. When I often failed, I knew that I was stretching myself (and my students) outside of of our comfort zones.

Using a design thinking framework has allowed me to see myself as a DIY designer. I’ve never felt comfortable with tinkering, electronics or taking apart machines, but I have started feeling more comfortable with engineering my classroom learning experiences. When something doesn’t work, I tweak it and try again the next day. If I am failing hard in the middle instruction, I immediately pivot and change course with my students. When things feel particularly out of control (either with classroom management or teaching), I pull my class together for a hard restart. Sometimes we even redo the first day of school and completely start over as a course correction.

Those early days of designing with my students and turning my classroom into a makerspace are what set me on a course to create the best learning experiences possible. I may not be a full DIY MacGuyver, maneuvering my way out of dangerous situations using chewing gum wrappers and a paperclip (or repairing my dishwasher), but I do believe that learning to hack traditional public education has made me a more innovative educator. Learning and inventing and sharing knowledge is the most powerful way for students to learn.

Equity Defined: The Teachers Guild & School Retool (TG X SR)

The Teachers Guild is a professional learning community where teachers think and act like designers, becoming creative leaders with the confidence to create change and the ability to embrace, act on, and share ideas. Instead of waiting for someone else or an outside entity to innovate public education, they believe that public school teachers are the innovators education has been waiting for. By supporting teachers’ creative leadership capacities, they provide design thinking workshops and resources to help prepare teachers to be the complex problem solvers of tomorrow. The Teachers Guild is a non-profit initiative of Plussed at Riverdale Country School, incubated by IDEO’s Design for Learning Studio.

The Riverdale School District and IDEO first collaborated on the creation of the Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit in 2011. The early toolkit became a global phenomenon with 100,000+ downloads, and led to the creation of The Teachers Guild. IDEO is the premier design firm that popularized design-thinking, leading to its evolution in public education. Since 2015, The Guild community has grown to over 9,000 teachers who have shared over 1,500 ideas for schools and helped each other with over 7,000 supportive contributions to each other’s ideas. They have also worked with over 30 partners who are committed to mentoring, amplifying, building and investing in teacher ideas like The Carnegie Corporation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Former First Lady Michelle Obama and her Reach Higher Initiative, Google, Salesforce, Facebook, 100kin10, Steelcase, and others.

Through their online platform and personalized learning experiences the Teachers Guild meets teachers where they are and offers collaborations and nationwide open innovation design challenges to surface best-in-class solutions. They also host chapters (local workshops and partnerships with schools to activate and sustain a culture of creative leadership) and organization diagnostic consultations to better understand and track personal and organizational mindset and culture shifts. They believe that if teachers think and act like designers, then it will lead to (1) improved ideas for students and schools, (2) a system that welcomes and adopts teacher-designed solutions, and (3) an ultimate increase in teacher self efficacy as creative leaders.

School Retool is a professional development fellowship that helps school leaders redesign school culture using small, scrappy experiments called “hacks.” Hacks may start small, but they’re built on research-based practices that lead to deeper learning. Deeper learning makes content relevant to students, focuses on the process of learning, increases students’ voice and choice, encourages peer learning, makes student projects public (having a real-world audience), and provides support for students to be successful in school.

School Retool has been collaborating with IDEO and the since 2015 to support school leaders and build toward deeper learning in their schools. By the spring of 2017, nearly 280 school leaders from 18 School Retool regional cohorts had been introduced to the concept of educational hacking toward deeper learning. The demand to redesign school systems spread exponentially! At the time of this writing, they are continuing to build a network of deeper learning educational hackers. They are in a perpetual state of learning as they continue to ask, How might School Retool support this growing network of school leaders to accelerate their progress toward bringing deeper learning to their students? Since 2017, they have scaled their work with educational organizations and institutions such as the PBLWorks, Envision Learning Partners, High Tech High, Latitude 37.8 High School, and New Tech Network.

In May, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Teachers Guild and School Retool merged and (TG x SR) put out an all-call to action: COVID-19 Reimagine Learning Challenge: How might we help educators, parents, and students adapt to remote learning while also using this moment to radically reimagine what we need our education systems to be? The challenge was launched to surface collaborative ideas from those who are impacted most by school closures including parents/caregivers, students, and educators. More than 400 creative ideas from around the world were submitted by people striving to reshape schools and learning post-COVID.

Following the Challenge, a team of designers and researchers from IDEO synthesized submissions to radically reimagine what we need our education systems to look like. OpenIDEO learned seven insights during the challenge:

Time Warp.

What if we bent time to better meet the needs of students?

During this global pandemic crisis, students are managing their own time. They are balancing school with hobbies, work, and family care. The former school day, school year, and split up subjects are all just constructs.

What if we made time flexible to better meet the needs of students?

Make it Count.

What if we thought about evidence of learning more broadly?

Grades, attendance, and standardized test results feel small right now. The small indicators of success — like watching a student struggle through a math problem — are harder to see while students learn from home or in a socially-distanced classroom.

What if we developed new definitions of mastery, and new indicators of success?

Let’s Get Real.

What if this is our big chance to catalyze relevant, real-world learning?

This moment has thrust students out of the classroom and into the real world. They are out of the practicum environment, but maybe not out of the practicum mindset.

What if students worked on real world problems, and we treated them like genuine members of our communities?

Spread Out.

What if we expanded the physical learning space?

Schools around the world are thinking about social distance and physical school buildings.

What if we saw this not as a space constraint but a space opportunity? How could we make learning better by spreading out?

Play Time.

What if we made joy and play a formal part of the curriculum?

The joy and fun that’s essential for student engagement is fading.

What if we brought it back earnestly and with purpose? What if we made games, competition, fun, and friends an intentional part of the future of learning?

Fair Share.

What if this were the moment equity took center stage?

This moment has shone a light on the divide between what some have easily and what others still strive for. We are inspired by the creative and thoughtful methods to reach students with no technology access.

What can we learn from being radically inclusive in a time of crisis?

Family Force.

What if families served as ongoing education allies and co-teachers?

Parents and families are learning about just how hard teaching can be, and they are becoming more intimate with the details of their child’s instruction.

Were this to be a permanent shift, how might it change the relationships between schools and families moving forward?

It is clear (and exciting) from these insights that equity and innovation will no longer be something that is added to discussions after the fact. Educators will not be able to opt-out of diversity trainings or anti-racism workshops. This pandemic has exposed, for some, the urgent need to acknowledge our history and actively work to heal. The classroom will no longer be inside the brick-and-mortar buildings spread throughout neighborhoods. Students are learning everywhere and anywhere. Students are in control of their own learning and figuring out what that looks like from their communities. This includes lots of scheduling trials and error during quarantine. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to be more flexible in order to meet the needs of our students. Teaching is hard and many families are “developing an intimate understanding of all that goes into helping their children learn — and schools are developing an intimate understanding of how ill-equipped they are to help families serve their children” (Stolzoff & Wesp, 2020). We are all receiving a healthy dose of empathy and understanding and realizing how ineffectual standardized testing is for measuring our students’ success.

During this “Great Pause,” we are experiencing a profoundly human moment. Everyone is coping and figuring out what is the next step. The good news is that there is hope. OpenIDEO took their learnings and created a Co-Designing Schools Toolkit for resources in building capacity of school communities to set and pursue equity aspirations, so that every student is future-ready, no matter who they are, where they live, or how they learn.


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Adrian Neibauer

I am a learning experience designer. I’m an intellectual thinker. I push the boundaries of what’s possible. I have lots stories to tell and change to make.