The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 96 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, host

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For as long as I’ve been aware of makerspaces, I haven’t quite understood them. I have seen plenty of photos on social media, with the towers made of marshmallows and toothpicks. I’ve walked through exhibit halls at conferences where the coding and robotics displays cause me to stop, stare, and try to look like I have some idea of what I’m looking at. I even stumbled into a Twitter chat one night where a group of school librarians was throwing around some pretty great ideas about building makerspaces in their libraries.

And yet, I still feel like I don’t get it. I have this picture in my mind of kids kind of messing around with Legos instead of, I don’t know, reading primary source materials that would shed light on some period in history. Or taping together some cardboard strips to make it into a car. Or attaching some kind of wire to a banana. And the more traditional, stodgy, control-freak part of me says it looks like a bunch of hooey.

But some of the smartest people I know are pretty into makerspaces, and the part of me that’s not a stodgy control freak, the part that knows there’s a lot about tradition we need to question, that part of me wants to find out once and for all what’s so great about makerspaces.

So I asked one of those smart people, my friend John Spencer, who was a classroom teacher for a number of years and currently teaches at the university level. He’s also the co-author, with A.J. Juliani, of the books Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student, and Empower: What Happens When Students Own their Learning. He teaches online courses about Project-Based Learning, Design Thinking, and Makerspaces, and I really trust his thinking, so I knew he was a great choice to come on the podcast and help me demystify the makerspace.

In this episode, John and I look at what a makerspace actually is–and how the definition is actually a lot broader than you might think. We also talk about the value a makerspace can offer to any classroom, how to keep a makerspace from becoming totally chaotic, and where to begin if you want to put together your first makerspace.


Before we get started, I’d like to thank our sponsor, Peergrade. Peergrade is a platform that makes it easy to facilitate peer review in your classroom. Students review each other’s work, while Peergrade takes care of anonymously assigning reviewers and delivering all the relevant insights to teachers. With Peergrade, students learn to think critically and take ownership of their learning. They also learn to write kind and useful feedback for their peers. Peergrade is free to use for teachers and students. To learn more visit

Support for this episode also comes from Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook. OneNote Class Notebooks have a personal workspace for every student, a content library for handouts, and a collaboration space for lessons and creative activities. The collaboration space encourages students to work together as the teacher provides real-time feedback and coaching. Teachers can provide individualized support by typing, writing, or inserting audio or video directly into each student’s private notebook. OneNote is free and available on any platform. Learn more at

Now here’s my interview with John Spencer.


GONZALEZ: The reason that I invited you on the podcast is because you do a lot of work with design thinking and makerspaces, and although I am no longer in the classroom, I know that if I were, I would probably be that teacher who saw the makerspace movement come along and thought, “Eh. I don’t even know why I would need to want to bother with that.” And I was a middle school English teacher, so I’m sort of coming at this interview with you with the attitude, I’m sort of asking the questions that I think that type of teacher would ask. Like, was is the point of this, why would I need it, how does it help kids, why is it good for learning? So let’s just start by you giving us a little bit of a background about the work that you do and sort of how you came to care so much about makerspaces and design thinking.

SPENCER: A little bit about my background, I was the same type of teacher. So if something became popular, if it seemed like it was a fad at all, I was always the teacher who kind of rejected it or at least took things with skepticism. And so I never bought into the float classroom thing when that was popular, I’ve never been really into interactive notebooks. When anchor charts first became all the rage, I just didn’t like them. And I had my reasons why for each of those things, so I’ll point out that being a skeptic is a beautiful thing. So I taught for 12 years in a Title I school in Phoenix, Arizona, and now for the last three years I have been a college professor, I’m also an author, a blogger, a maker, and I’m passionate about seeing classrooms become bastions of creativity and wonder. I mean, that is what I’m all about. And so for me, I first got into, I’m going to clarify terms for a second, if that’s all right.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.

SPENCER: I know this is getting a little off script.

GONZALEZ: No, no, that’s good.

What Is a Makerspace?

SPENCER: So I see a makerspace as simply a space designed and dedicated to hands-on creativity, and the key thing there is they’re actually making something. Creativity is sometimes idea generation, it’s sometimes problem-solving. But a makerspace, you’re actually going to create some kind of product. Now it could be a digital product. It could be a physical product. But there is an actual product, so you’re not going to, say, design an event or a service project. That’s not what a makerspace is for, so it’s a space devoted to and differentiated and set up for making. Design thinking is a process, or if you’re Canadian it’s a pro-cess for — I learned that they always say pro-cess —

GONZALEZ: Yeah, they do.

SPENCER: So it’s a process for getting the most out of creativity, and in particular, design thinking typically is empathy-driven and you’re really focused on solving a problem that is actually impacting people. And so for design thinking, it may be a physical product, but it could also be a service, event, it could be something different than just something that you specifically make. And so while a makerspace is more about the space, design thinking is a process.


SPENCER: And the maker movement is just the larger movement of getting people involved in some kind of hands-on making.

Why Would Teachers Want a Makerspace in Their Classrooms?

GONZALEZ: Got it, got it. Okay. So as we’ve sort of already established, the term makerspace and this whole maker movement has really gotten quite big in the last couple of years. If a person is, here’s what my impression is: When I hear “makerspace” I picture a corner of a room and it has, like, Legos and cardboard and Post-It notes and pipe cleaners, and I don’t quite know what students are doing with it, maybe building a tower out of toothpicks and cardboard, and I don’t quite know why they’re doing those things. So if I’m a teacher, and for right now let’s not necessarily look at specific, but if I’m teaching, say, language arts or social studies or science, why would I want to add a makerspace to my classroom?

SPENCER: So I first set up a makerspace in my classroom actually when I was teaching social studies, which is typically not, right? I mean, we hear STEM, we hear STEAM, and the one left out subject in the midst of all of that ends up being history. And so again, I go back to this idea that the makerspace is simply a way of thinking about your space so that you have differentiated it and allow for multiple hands-on making to occur within that space. And so when I taught social studies, we did have a prototyping area, we were making some things with duct tape and cardboard sometimes, we did have an entrepreneurial thing where they would design prototypes, we had some circuitry work being done, and those fit in with a particular economics unit we were doing. But then those supplies were gone when we were focused on a different type of project. And so in our makerspace in social studies, we had a green screen, we had a podcasting area, because all of that is hands-on making as well. We had whiteboards where they were doing whiteboard videos, and it looked a lot more like a media studio. When we shifted into STEM, it looked a lot more like an engineering space. I would argue both of those were makerspaces. So anytime you’re doing something where you’re physically making a product, whether that product is digital or whether it’s tangible and you want to differentiate the space effectively and allow people to move between those spaces, that’s when you design a makerspace.

GONZALEZ: Okay. Okay, I want to rewind a little bit to something you just said. You were talking about a project that you did, and this was in social studies and it was something that you did with circuitry. What was that, what was that project? Because I think hearing examples is really going to help people understand how this all fits together.

SPENCER: Well the circuitry project fit into an entrepreneurial project. So we were basically doing like a Shark Tank-style project.


SPENCER: So what I had for that was we were bringing some elements of engineering into it, and at this point I was tying it in with some math that they were learning, and so we were doing some kind of multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary things. I was on a middle school team, and so I was the social studies teacher, but I was also really focusing on how to do persuasive text and how to do informational text and in particular more the functional style of informational text. And so at that point I pulled the standards that fit in with those, and they did these Shark Tank pitches, and they had to physically make specific things. And so because of that, I brought in some types of things that they could make, and circuitry was just one of the areas that they could get into. We did a lot more of the circuitry in STEM later when I taught a STEM block, but that was just one of the examples of where they could do that. A lot of students were making things with cardboard and duct tape. I never did the Lego thing, which would have been fine, but we did a little bit, along with the circuitry things, we had some robotics that they could work on. It was really, it was all tied to this entrepreneurial unit that they were doing that connected to economics.

GONZALEZ: To economics, okay. I’m sitting here racking my brain thinking, “What is the social studies tie?” I gotcha now. So you ended up tying that into a lot of other, like the economics-based standards?

SPENCER: Yeah, because I think what I’ve seen is that the, social studies isn’t, I don’t want to get too much into this, but social studies isn’t just history, right? You have all these standards that are supposed to be taught, and what I saw in our curriculum map is we didn’t even address the economics standard that by law we were supposed to teach. And so I put together this entrepreneurial unit, it was a weeklong unit, it was interdisciplinary, like I said. We brought in a lot of research that they had to do, and it was an example of where we were using the makerspace and we were using kind of design thinking as our framework within the makerspace. And then I also did, and this is one of the, I love the term that you use there, I use this all the time: It was a lame duck session. Right? So it was also done at a time where it was the week of make-up state testing, so we kind of had this week where I actually wanted to teach the standards and not just show a video or anything like that, and so it fit in perfectly.

How does a makerspace benefit students?

GONZALEZ: If somebody needs to be convinced, like if I’m thinking, “Why is it worth the trouble to have this making going on in my classroom? How does it benefit the students?”

SPENCER: So I would say it benefits the students in a couple of different ways. The first way is that we know that students learn at a deeper level and they retain more when they’re engaged in creative thinking connecting to the subject, right? I mean that’s Bloom’s taxonomy, that’s depths of knowledge, that’s everything that we know about learning that when they’re engaged in creative thinking, they will learn it at a deeper level. So to begin with, just within the content area, that’s going to allow for deeper learning.


SPENCER: The second thing that I think about is the maker mindset is the goal, right? The space is just how you set up your space, but what you’re wanting them to develop is a maker mindset. And for me this is where I’m really passionate, because there was a time when you could follow the formula, and the formula was basically work hard at school, go to college, and climb a corporate ladder. But because of the complex global economy, because of the creative economy, the information economy, our students are going to have to navigate a maze. The ladder is now a maze. And because it’s a maze, what do they need in order to navigate that? They need to be able to engage in iterative thinking, creative thinking, critical thinking, they need to know how to pivot, how to change, how to revise, how to persevere. They need to solve complex problems. They need to think divergently. Well all of those are involved in that maker mindset. And so if you can embed that maker mindset inside of the curriculum, and you tap into the standards that you’re teaching, then they’re able to develop that maker mindset. And again, the space is just the platform that facilitates it.

Some Examples

GONZALEZ: Okay. Let’s maybe walk through a couple more examples of, you know, different subject areas, different grade levels.

SPENCER: Absolutely.

GONZALEZ: So teachers can see, how does this actually look in practice? So I’ve got this one idea with the entrepreneurial stuff. So let’s, do something else.


SPENCER: All right. So I taught, after teaching social studies, I shifted into self-contained and that’s where I taught the STEM block and I taught a humanities block. And so obviously that’s kind of a lot of, well that’s every subject, but taught in a way that’s a little bit interdisciplinary.


SPENCER: So I’m going to give examples from each of those.


SPENCER: So one of them is, in our humanities class, we were constantly doing creative projects. We filmed documentaries, we recorded podcasts. There were some times where they did some more kind of hands-on making, like building catapults to try to figure out how you would get through a medieval fortress, and things like that, and there were challenges connecting to it. And it really depended on the subject and the standards, and the key thing there was it was very topic-driven because we had these specific topics we had to cover in history and there wasn’t a lot of free choice on the topics, but there was a lot of free choice on how we got there, and that’s where the hands-on making, there was a lot of freedom in terms of how we could actually do some creative thinking within it. The key pieces? It had to feel real to the students. And so I think the worst ones are those projects that feel like recipes, they’re the ones that have pseudo context where it doesn’t actually fit the way people learn. But these were authentic because it felt authentic to the students. And again, there were a lot of media literacy involved. In the midst of it students were constantly engaging in research. A pet peeve of mine is that teachers often do research at the very end of the year as a last thing that they do. They do their animal research project, right?


SPENCER: And to me, research is an embedded part of what they should be doing all the time in writing. So sometimes this was blogging, writing, whiteboard videos, green screen videos, podcasts, all of these things. And that’s what the makerspace really looked like in the humanities class.

GONZALEZ: Okay. So it wasn’t so much like cutting up cardboard and —

SPENCER: No, no. It really wasn’t. Now there were times when it was, like I said, the entrepreneurial thing, the catapult thing, but it had to specifically fit it. You don’t do World War II and decide to do a craft on the Holocaust. That’s a disrespectful way to learn about the Holocaust, right?

GONZALEZ: Right, right.

SPENCER: You do a documentary where you actually get the chance to interview a Holocaust survivor and really hear the stories. So you have to make sure that the context fits. And again, in this case, there’s not, we’re not cutting felt pieces, there’s no pipe cleaners. That’s not what we were doing in the humanities side.

Math and Science

SPENCER: On the other hand, in the STEM class we were constantly doing that. And so again, sometimes this was reinforcing the math concepts we learned. So I’ll give some examples that are more science-math related.


SPENCER: We did the create a roller coaster project, and that was forces in motion and things like that. Another one was the tiny house project. So we looked at examples of what is a tiny house and that was very much the hands-on cardboard, duct tape, that style, and the tiny house project was very challenge-driven, and they were learning volumes, surface area, and proportional reasoning, which were the three lowest standards. Now a lot of people ask the question, “Well how do they do on the test?” They aced the test when it came to volume, surface area, and proportional reasoning, and the reason why is teachers typically practice the algorithm and then students would take a test where there were all these word problems. The assumption is that kids don’t understand word problems because they can’t read them. But what they actually lack is the ability to connect the context of math to the math concepts they’ve been learning. And so this reinforced that. Now I want to point out, I still did some lecture, we still did small group problem-solving, we actually did, God forbid, worksheets, right?


SPENCER: Those things still happened.


SPENCER: They’re not all evil. I’m not saying you would just throw everything out and make your class a makerspace.


SPENCER: But the makerspace was available for those times that we were engaged in that.

GONZALEZ: Okay, okay. I want to drill down a little bit more into this example, because this tiny house thing. So they’re making tiny houses —


GONZALEZ: And one of the things you said a few minutes ago is that what you didn’t want was pseudo context and recipes. So what were they actually tasked with doing?

SPENCER: So they were all given a specific scenario of people who would want a tiny house.


SPENCER: Right? Because those have become really popular.


SPENCER: And they are competing in their mini architecture firms, basically, for the best tiny house design.


SPENCER: And the criteria for the competition is most innovative solutions, how multi functional is it, and would people actually choose this particular tiny house?


SPENCER: So they’re given a list of specific needs that the family would have in wanting this particular tiny house, and not every group has the same —

GONZALEZ: Clients?

SPENCER: — people that they’re working for, clients basically, yeah. And this was actually, I did this twice, for two different years. This actually worked best with partners and not small groups. So that’s part of why we broke it up into different clients and different pairs.


SPENCER: And so they had to create a description of it, create a walkthrough for it, design a small website that would go with it, and then have their physical prototype that they could walk people through. And the physical prototype had to have proportional reasoning. And so what they’re doing a ton of is if this is this long, and this is this long, then how long would that need to be in order to solve it? And so all they’re doing is reinforcing it. There’s rules about the parameters that it has to meet, and they’re looking at, they’re being forced to solve problems like, “How much of the space is devoted to this? How much of the space is devoted to that?” And that’s where you’re kind of getting into the volume, surface area pieces that they’re practicing at the same time.

GONZALEZ: So how would that actually, what would that look like on a day when they’re, what I’m wondering about is when does this sort of vocabulary of proportional reasoning come into play? Is it while they’re working with the physical pieces to try to put them together, or is it while they’re, like, sketching things out on graph paper?

SPENCER: It’s really happening in both places.


SPENCER: So it really begins, they’re starting to sketch it out with graph paper as they’re learning the concepts of proportional reasoning in class.


SPENCER: Right? So there’s some direct instruction on proportional reasoning. There’s some hands-on things that they’re doing in terms of just measuring things around the room. And all of that’s happening. And then they move into the graph paper piece, and they’re actually sketching that out, and they’re looking at it, and there’s reflective questions that we’re asking, you know. “Determine the surface area of the bedroom,” and then “What is the ratio of the bedroom to the kitchen? Is that a reasonable ratio if you’re actually going to have living space? If you want most of your space should be — ” you know. And so it’s a lot of that, and a lot of it’s verbal. I mean a lot of it’s quick problem-solving. And what they’re doing is they’re getting the repetition that they need in math.


SPENCER: But it’s not just a worksheet, right?

GONZALEZ: Right. Right, right.

The Stuff

What’s the deal with 3D printers?

GONZALEZ: I wanted to, I made myself a little note here to remind me to ask you about 3D printers, because that seems to have come along with the maker movement. What’s your opinion about them?

SPENCER: So I think there’s a lot of amazing things that can go into a makerspace: A 3D printer, CAD machines, and this and that. My issue with a 3D printer is that often 3D printers are, they’re basically, it’s the same thing as a printer, it’s just 3D, right? So if a student downloads something online like a keychain or something, and they just customize a few pieces and 3D print that, how is that any different from a kid downloading an image from Google Images, plopping that onto a sheet of paper, writing something underneath it, and printing it? Where’s the problem-solving? Where’s the creativity? And so my issue with 3D printers, and this is part of why I didn’t have one, we were all so poor because we were in Arizona, and so we just didn’t have the money for it. But my issue with 3D printers, and again, they’re not awful, but if we want students to be doing hands-on making and physically prototyping and engaged in that iterative thinking where they’re tweaking things, often in a 3D printer, that’s not possible.

GONZALEZ: Right, right. Mhmm.

SPENCER: See? And so I’m not opposed to 3D printers, I just think for as expensive as they are, and now they’ve gotten a lot cheaper, I’m just skeptical because unless they really learn how to use 3D modeling software, which is a lot of work to learn, it’s like learning Photoshop. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if that’s what they’re doing, I’m just a little more skeptical about whether or not the machine’s doing more of the thinking for the students or they’re actually engaged in the creative thinking.

GONZALEZ: Got it. So if a school is really wanting to move in the direction of doing more makerspace stuff, the purchase of a 3D printer is not a must-have?

SPENCER: I don’t think it’s a must-have. I mean I think there are a lot of, I would rather that money be spent on things like robotics, circuitry, materials, raw materials. Now there’s again, nothing wrong having that 3D printer, but I think sometimes we get so focused on the stuff —


SPENCER: — that we forget that what makes a makerspace a makerspace is that there’s actually making going on there.

What about robotics?

GONZALEZ: Okay. Let’s talk for just a minute about the robotics, because as soon as you said that, a small part of my brain went into deer in the headlights mode. Because I’ve been to ISTE , I’ve seen all the robotics, I’ve got a section in my tech guide on robotics, but I still feel like the blind leading the blind, because I still don’t quite get the applicability. So what do you really like out there right now in terms of the robotics kits, and how do you see those playing into maybe a sixth, seventh grade classroom?

SPENCER: So I really think robotics kits and certain things like that that are very engineering driven fit really well with certain areas of science, and then also the logic side of math.


SPENCER: But again, they’re a little more subject-specific, so I would just point that out. I couldn’t think of too many areas where robotics fits into, say, a social studies class.


SPENCER: But what I love about robotics is that there’s a good chance to learn programming, and there’s a good chance to learn logic as you work on something and maneuver it and make it do specific things. The other thing I like about it is that typically you don’t have to be an expert on robotics to make, to have students engage in robotics. So the kits themselves usually have a pretty good amount of instructions, students learn how to read the instructions, they play around, they explore, and then slowly they start modifying it, and I think that’s a piece of creativity that sometimes people forget is there’s often this shift from sort of awareness into consuming, into copying, into modifying, into full-scale creativity. And we need to let students walk through that process, and that’s what I love about having them do something like robotics. The same thing happened when they were doing whiteboard videos for the first time. I would love to say that they just knew how to make it happen, but I had to walk them through a tutorial, and they watched it, consumed it, they copied my style the first time, and then they started kind of hacking it, and then next thing you knew, they were actually kind of creating their own style and doing something different.

GONZALEZ: That’s so interesting, because that’s exactly how I teach kids how to write. You know, we read a lot in the genre, we talk, we sort of break it apart — “How did this writer do this?” — and then you do a lot of scaffolding and eventually they’re able to sort of write their own thing in that genre. So I never really thought about that in terms of robotics, but gosh, I’m just really glad you said that. Of all of the sort of products that are out there right now in robotics, like right now I’m thinking about Spheros and Lego Mindstorms and littleBits. Have you played around with a lot of those? Do you have sort of a favorite?

SPENCER: You know, I still, my favorite, I mean we did this with part of a STEM camp that I did with my last school district. I still really liked the Lego robotics. They’ve been around for a while, and I think they’re solid. But honestly, a lot of robotics kits will have some component where they program, and I like that because I think when students learn how to program a robot versus just build, it’s the same thing with Scratch, the learning of language and logic together I think, it’s the thinking that’s involved that allows them to become systems thinkers, and when they’re great systems thinkers, they can navigate complexity. And so I actually think that learning how to program is so much closer to learning, say, a foreign language than it is to something that we typically think is maker-y, but the thinking involved is really similar.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. And then that transfers, my son right now is doing a genius hour project on coding, and he’s very, very, very early in it because he’s 10, and he’s just now trying to learn, which language do I even learn? And like so much of the research that we’re doing on this together is telling him it doesn’t matter, pick one.

SPENCER: No it doesn’t. Yeah, and even early on, early on having them do things on Scratch and again, like, this is something I would have, I had programming as part of our makerspace in science. Something like Scratch is perfect for that, because learning the logic and manipulation is the hardest side, it’s that systems thinking and then the language comes in, and it’s really just putting the vocabulary to processes.

Managing a Makerspace

GONZALEZ: Let’s shift over to the concept of sort of managing a makerspace. If a teacher wants to sort of designate a space in their classroom for this, and they don’t tolerate mess and disorder very well, do you have any tips? I’m especially thinking about, because if we’re talking about things like podcasting and green screen, that is a little bit easier, I would think, but if you’ve got, you know, two or three groups of kids working on tiny houses, how do you manage that mess, ongoing, over the course of a week?

SPENCER: Yeah. So I want to point this out. I always hear people in the maker community who say things like, “Embrace the chaos,” “Embrace the noise,” “Learning should be messy,” I mean these are the phrases we hear all the time. But as a middle school teacher with a space that was not incredibly large and 38 students in there, I did have to manage the noise and the chaos and everything else. And just, you know, personal confession here, I’m not somebody who deals well with noise and chaos.

GONZALEZ: Me neither.

SPENCER: I’ve got three kids at home, and I can tell you, my kids are not the type who are running and screaming through the house and jumping on the couch and stuff like that. Like that’s not the kind of house I have, or we have, I should say, my wife and I. We, I need a certain level of calmness and quiet built into where I am otherwise I personally get edgy, I get anxious. It feels unsafe to me, even if it’s not unsafe, and that’s not every teacher, but that’s my comfort level. I’ll also point out that if that’s true of me, that’s probably true of certain students. So for that reason, I always said we’re going to have some rules and procedures and things like that. And so the upside that I will say is I had some cringeworthy classroom management moments as a teacher over 12 years. There are some times where seventh- and eighth-graders will push buttons — I know that’s a little surprising — and I didn’t always respond well. I had some time that I yelled at my class and apologized. I had some times where I shamed a student and I was so embarrassed. But that being said, those moments almost always happened in the midst of direct instruction, and it almost always happened when kids were bored and confused.


SPENCER: Those moments never happened when we were in a makerspace. And I think it’s because a part of, the upside of it is when kids are engaged, fully engaged in their learning, there’s less incentive to goof off.

GONZALEZ: Right, yeah.

SPENCER: Right? And so I think about a couple of education theory, I know it’s Cult of Pedagogy here, so I can geek out for a second. You think about Schlechty’s Levels of Engagement. At the very top you have this student who’s engaged, and they have high attention, high focus, high everything, high interest. They love what they’re doing. At the very bottom you have the students who are in rebellion. They have no focus. They’re actively diverting attention. Well, if it’s meaningful to students, and they’re engaged in creative thinking, and they’re solving problems, and it’s hands-on, then in those moments, there’s not an incentive to rebel and act crazy.

GONZALEZ: Right, right.

SPENCER: So you begin with that, right? It’s the same thing, you know, often what would happen is we would actually kind of hit a state of flow in the classroom, and it got quieter and there was sort of this hyperfocus and people would walk in and say things like, “I thought they were making stuff,” or “I thought we were doing this,” and it was kind of quiet. That being said, yes, there were some times where it could get loud. When we were testing our roller coasters, it was crazy loud in there because it was the testing day, right? They’re prototyping and they’re testing and they’re screaming and cheering when it works. There was a difference between a boisterous happy cheering loud versus an off-task loud, right?

GONZALEZ: Oh yeah.

SPENCER: So the lesson there for me was focus on the engagement, go preventative, and then in the midst of all of that, embed moments of silence into the makerspace. So I would still have some times where I would say, “Hey guys, we’re moving into silent mode for two minutes so that you can process and think about what you’re working on,” or “I want you to just, I’m going to give you a prompt, you don’t have to write it down, but I just want you to think through this question about what you’re learning,” and that would allow them to kind of recenter, and it was just two minutes of silence is not much, but it just was enough to kind of restore certain students who were getting tired of the noise, and then they could come back in.

GONZALEZ: Gosh, I love this idea of giving them just a thinking prompt. They don’t have to write it down, but you just have everybody hush and think about it for a while, right in the middle of an active project. That is, that’s good, John.

SPENCER: Thank you. The last thing I’ll say is, you know, it is a different type of space, and it’s a different type of learning that’s going on, and so the other thing is there is nothing wrong with coming up with makerspace rules, especially if you go at it democratically, and then walking through the procedures, and just reminding students, “Hey guys, we have robotics here. They’re kind of breakable. What do we do about that?” “Hey, quick reminder. You can be excited and there’s free movement from table to table, but that shouldn’t mean that you run between tables.” I’m just thinking about some of the younger primary grades that I’ve seen where you really have to teach the students specific procedures, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

GONZALEZ: Right, right. Yeah. And I’m thinking too it’s an opportunity to sort of co-construct that stuff, even with them, and make that even a bigger part of the lesson. So that’s fantastic.

Starting Your Own Makerspace

GONZALEZ: Okay. So I wanted to talk about your, well wait. No. If a person wants to start a makerspace in their own classroom, what would you recommend that they start with?

SPENCER: So I would start not with a space, but I would start with a maker project.


SPENCER: And so I would say begin with a maker project, and decide what you’re going to have kids create that’s hands-on. And you might do multiple maker projects in different locations, or you might have the entire class do one thing, and either option works. We did something, I started something at the beginning of the year called Maker Mondays, and there’s different teachers who have been doing that. They’ve been sharing it out on Twitter, sharing it on Facebook. But it’s the idea that instead of waiting for Fun Fridays as like the cool day where you do something fun, you just start your week off on a Monday, and you have students do some kind of maker activity to spark that creativity at the beginning of the week.

GONZALEZ: That’s a great idea.

SPENCER: And so this was more sort of your, I would say your K-5 teachers who teach multiple subjects, and a lot of them said, you know, that they would have students before that talking about their weekend and sharing how things had gone. Well this lets them still do that with each other. They still want to be social, but it also took some of the pressure off of students who maybe didn’t have a great weekend, and this is always something I’m a little bit sensitive to because of the students that I taught. When a student’s coming from trauma, they don’t want to re-walk the trauma when they come back into class, right? So asking them to talk about their weekend, I don’t think is the best way to start a Monday.


SPENCER: And so instead, getting them excited about creating, and for some it’s a chance to talk about their fun weekend, but for others it’s a chance to escape into a refuge that’s creativity at the beginning of the week. And so I love this idea of kind of starting with the Maker Monday, and I did that even though I taught seventh and eighth grade self contain. I did that at the beginning of the week every single Monday as the way we would start our week off. Now I will say that if you are interested in kind of starting a makerspace, and you want to move it to the next level, I think there’s a couple of different options, and so I’m going to try to walk through these quickly. The first one is a mobile makerspace. If you don’t want to totally redesign your classroom but you want to be able to use a makerspace, you basically, sort of like what you have with a computer cart, you put together a mobile makerspace cart, and you put the items in different boxes, you label them, you put them onto a cart or a couple different carts, and then you can move them from classroom to classroom, and I’ve seen teachers on a team do this where a teacher will basically say, “I want to use a makerspace type thing. We’re all doing a STEM activity, but I want to use the makerspace today, and then tomorrow I want to give that to another teacher, and they can have that in their classroom, or they can just physically move classrooms.” And so that’s kind of one way that you can do it is having this sort of mobile makerspace. Another thing that you can do is you can have those makerspace items kind of put together and you set up a station rotation, and you move students systematically through those centers where they do some type of maker activity.


SPENCER: And then the other option is to do something similar to that, but basically at all times in your classroom have sort of a makerspace-type of classroom and still have tables and everything, and have those items available, and then what you’re doing is you’re just differentiating the space. So at any time during the day, if someone wants to go to the corner and use the green screen, they can. If they want to use the podcasting area, then you’ve got a word-proof, not word-proof, gosh, a soundproof, not word-proof, sorry, soundproof phone that they can talk into that cancels out the noise. You do that and they can move. And so the class is sort of permanently a makerspace and you can just use the space whenever you want to. So it really depends on your style. If you think that those items will be a distraction, then I think having it as stations or mobile makerspaces works best, but if you think that, you know, “I always want to have a makerspace at all times, whether we use it as a makerspace or not, then something like a differentiated space model might work better.”

GONZALEZ: And if somebody’s sort of, “Eh, I don’t think I even need — ,” is there any way that they could sort of dip their toes lightly into, like I’m thinking, you know, a cart or something, what would be on that? Especially if it was me teaching language arts. Like what could be in a makerspace cart for me?

SPENCER: And you’re thinking language arts, right?

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.

SPENCER: So it would really depend on the standards, because language arts is so topic neutral, right? So you could actually have something very engineering oriented. You could have the duct tape and the cardboard and the circuitry. I wouldn’t do robotics in the initial part for language arts, and have a very hands-on makerspace mobile cart. And then the standards that students would be working on would be functional writing, so writing the directions for how to do a particular thing or describing how to make something. Maybe they’re designing something in particular using those and then they have to create an ad campaign that would go with it. I personally think students should be learning marketing at a much younger age, both to see how things get manipulated with to them, but also to understand kind of the art of persuasion.


SPENCER: And so you could set that up. I would say the items that I would put for a first-time makerspace is I would have some kind of physical prototyping items, like duct tape, cardboard, packing tape, that type of stuff. I would have circuitry, because it’s so inexpensive and easy to do, I would buy like one or two Snap Circuits. I would have a couple computers devoted specifically to using something like Hour of Code or Scratch, and then I would probably do some of, have a podcasting area and a green screen area.

The Makerspace Master Course

GONZALEZ: Got it. Okay. Let’s talk for a few minutes about your course. You teach an online course about makerspaces, and you also have a free webinar that teachers can go to to sort of learn a little bit more about some of the things that we’ve talked about. So tell us a little bit about what the course itself actually does.

SPENCER: So the goal of the course is to walk you through how you would create a makerspace in a week. So how you would design it in a week, and the focus of it is how do we create makerspaces with intentionality? How do you connect maker projects to the standards? How do you think through all of the classroom management components? There’s the creation of a classroom management plan that you would have. How do you communicate this with parents who are skeptical, administrators who are skeptical? What types of items do you put into your makerspace? How do you arrange the physical space for optimization? Which type of makerspace model would you choose? Again, the mobile model, the differentiated space, what type of model would work best for you? And the goal is that you kind of, not kind of, that you in the end have a plan set up. You don’t physically have to have made your entire makerspace in a week, but that you have a full scale plan set up in a week so that you could implement that either in the summer or at the end of the school year, whenever you think would work best, and then kind of test it out at that point. As you do that, the finished product you submit to me, and I give feedback on it, you can ask me any questions throughout the course. So I get a lot of people who ask very specific makerspace questions connecting to their space that they’re creating and we just have a quick coaching conversation.

GONZALEZ: Oh that’s great. I don’t think I even realized that, that people can get personal coaching from this too. And in the webinar, I don’t know if this is true for the course, but I know that in the webinar, you actually offer some free downloadable makerspace projects. I think the tiny houses project is in there, is it not?

SPENCER: Yep, yeah, yes. I believe that’s in the webinar, yeah.

GONZALEZ: Okay. So I’m going to be providing people with links to learn more about, if they’re really sold on the idea of makerspaces and they want to learn more of that they can go to either one of those resources and really dig in. So just real quick, tell us where people can find you online.

SPENCER: So my blog is, and you can contact me at I have a Facebook page, and it’s, and I have a YouTube channel that is, so just my last name and “videos” dot com. Oh yeah, and I’m in Twitter @spencerideas. I forgot about that one.


SPENCER: I’m sometimes on Twitter. When I’m writing a novel, I’m not on Twitter.

GONZALEZ: Oh, and you are writing a novel right now.

SPENCER: Yeah, so yeah.

GONZALEZ: John is going to become super, super famous, we’ve decided.

SPENCER: That’s not true…

GONZALEZ: I think you’ve had such a cool idea. I’m just going to like put it down on record right now that you’re going to eventually be like a big deal, a bigger deal than I think you are right now. Okay. I guess we’re done for now. We’ll probably get back together after you’ve written this novel. Thank you so much, John.

For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, including John’s makerspace course, visit, click podcast, and choose episode 96. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.

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