Thursday, December 22, 2011

Classroom Design Challenge 3: The Science Room

In this post, I talk about a room that has really stymied me: a science room.

sci 004
First, let me talk about the space.  R has a science room in a 25 year-old school.  She teaches middle school science, but the school used to be a junior high so the room is equipped with things you'd find in a high school science lab (that go almost unused in a middle school classroom): a fume hood, big counters and cupboards that line almost every wall, and the sinks.  Let me tell you about the sinks.  They are the biggest pain if you don't use them on a daily basis.  Because it used to be a science room, there are 6-8 sink/plug/gas (yes: GAS but disconnected) stations spaced just under every two metres about the floor.    Because the high sink stations take up so much floor space and are spaced out around the room, it makes for very limited choices in terms of desk/furniture arrangement because you can't go very far without bumping in to one of these archaic monuments.  And that's just one of the challenges of many that the sinks present (others: visibility; an abundance of water and available electricity; aesthetics; the students get snagged on the protruding gas taps; etc.). 
sci 001
Second, let me tell you about R.  As per my usual Modus Operandi, I observed her in her room.  R teaches math and science in this room.  Like E in the previous post, she uses technology (a Mac with an interactive interface and a projector) in her lessons.  Like E, R also likes to have direct eye contact with her students. Part of R's problem though is that the room forces her to space her students out so that some of her students sit way in the back.  One really clever technique that R uses for math is: during the formative/working together part of her lesson, she will give a problem and the students use individual whiteboards to try out possible solutions.  The students love the whiteboards because they have a clear place to work, and because their work is erasable, the students seem willing to take a few more chances and are not as worried about making mistakes.  After a given amount of time, the students hold up their boards and at a glance, R can see who needs more support and if she needs to adjust her instruction. 
Here are some suggestions for R:
  • Get rid of the sink stations.  Easy to recommend, not so easy to execute.  R has requested that the sink stations be removed for years, but she is still waiting.
  • Put R on a stage.  Elevate the teaching area at the front by her whiteboard.  This way, R will have a better view of her students, especially those in the back, and vice versa.  She could increase her whiteboard area too by putting two together, stacked like tiles on her teaching wall.  I also recommended getting one of those mic/amp systems so she could be heard easier (the room, with the tile floors, high ceiling, and hard walls, is one noisy space), but it is an expensive suggestion.
  • Clear out a space at the front of her classroom during instruction times.  Have the students bring their chairs and whiteboards to the front during instructional times so that she has immediate contact with her students, and them send them to the "work areas" at the back and sides if they can work independently.
  • Bring desks back in.  I know, an unusual suggestion coming from me, but it might be the most practical.  R and I were able to rearrange her large tables a bit so she had more students sitting at the front and less students in the far back, to improve the student contact, but even that was challenging with the sink stations blocking the way.  Smaller desks might give R more choices about how to arrange students in the "in-between" tight spaces between those pesky sinks.
  • Make your own furniture.  I think I recommended to R that she attach plywood to the tops of her existing tables to make longer, more dimension-friendly tables. 
If you have any ideas, please pass them along!  (My Comments boxes seem to have technical difficulties, so please use Anonymous commenting or email me.  Thanks.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Classroom Design Challenge 2: The Portable.

In my Tuesday Innovation job, I get to go around to a bunch of interesting classrooms.  Sometime teachers ask me to come in to their classrooms to help them with the classroom environment because they have heard about what I've been doing in my own class or they have seen this blog. 

In the next few posts, I am going to talk about a couple of classroom challenges that I have found, well, challenging.  In this post, the classroom belongs to E.  E teaches high school math in a portable classroom built 25 years ago.  It has that long beam running down the middle length of the ceiling, and a large seam running likewise down the floor. 

E's portable is not this one, but looks like it.

Inside, the portable has a long bank of shelves down one whole wall under the 3 windows.  Her biggest class has 30 students which means that there are 30 large desks in her class.  The desks are bigger than the ones I am used to in elementary, and hers measure 60 cm by 60 cm.  The desks are a bit of a necessity because: they came with the portable; there is no place to store the desks even if she wanted to get rid of them; the desks actually are useful in that they can hold the students' notebooks and textbooks at the same time; and no tables are available anyway.

Before I made any suggestions to E, I went in and watched her teach in her current setting.  She is a great teacher. She has every lesson stored on her tablet computer (I can't imagine how long that took!), and she displays the lessons on a screen using a projector.  Her lessons are very interactive: she gives examples, and gets students to try them out, sharing their possible solutions.  The whole time, she is talking to the students, asking questions, and giving feedback and assistance.  She seems to have eyes in the back of her head because she can detect movement and off-task behaviour without even looking at the wayward student. 

Here are a couple of things I noticed about E and her classroom:
  • E likes eye contact (despite having eyes in addition to ones on the face portion of her head).  She can tell when students need more help or more challenge just by looking at them.  By taking the temperature of the room, she knows how to adjust the lesson as a whole.
  • E likes to move.  She moves around her students in a graceful flow instead of sitting in one spot and waiting for students to come to her. 
  • E uses technology to make her lessons more effective.  She uses her tablet and projector the same way any skilled artisan does: it is used like an instrument, a tool, a natural extension of her craft. 
Here are some recommendations.  (Some of them I passed on to E, and some I did not.)
  • Don't do anything about the desks.  They allow enough surface area for what the students need.  By having them in horizontal groupings of 2 or 3 facing the front, it allows the amount of student to student interaction that E needs when students are working on problems together.  Tables actually might not give the eye contact that E requires to monitor her students' understanding.
  • Free up floor space to allow E unimpeded movement.  The desks take up almost all of the room so anything else that is not necessary should be removed.  E brought in this screen from home because the provided one wasn't big enough.  But her screen also takes up a lot of space because it has that big tripod base.  If there is anyway to get a big wall mounted screen, that would free up more floor space.
  • Move the projector to the back of the classroom off the floor.  Currently the projector is on a rolling cart.  It takes up prime real estate because it is in the centre of the classroom.  By getting the projector up high and at the back of the class would allow this centre lane to be used by desks or even E herself.  By using hooks along the ceiling, the wires would also be out of the way (one thing I don't like about media carts). 
  • Put the tablet on a podium.  E doesn't really stand and lecture, but a podium would still be useful because I noticed that every time she wrote on her tablet she had to bend down to this low table.  If the tablet was on a high podium she would not have to do all of these core exercises, and she would maintain more eye contact with her students.  If the podium had shelves she could keep all of the papers and books she needs for the day there, instead of having to use a big table that cut into her floor space.
  • Unscrew the long bank of wall mounted shelves, and rejig them into a set of raised platforms (yeah, you know me and my risers). By reinforcing these shelves and laying a sheet of of plywood over them, E could raise the back row of desks so that she could maintain eye contact with even the lurkers in the back. If she ever left the portable, she could just screw the shelves back to the wall.

    Here's a potential floor plan I made for E. 
    I'd actually angle those side desks for more eye contact,
    remove the shelves and raise the back desks.
  • Here's the (elaborate) sketch I sent E to explain how the podium, projector, screen, and wire set up would work.
    Mind you, see how having to bend to low table has done wonders for her waistline in my pic?
As it turns out, E found the most elegant situation to this design challenge: her admin told her she could change classrooms!  E let me know her future move and maybe we'll work on this less challenging project together.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

It turns out I am a Person of Colour.

I am starting to rethink the colour debate.  (I've posted about this a couple of times before; once promoting a neutral colour scheme here, and then again talking about how the classroom has to match the outlook of the teacher here). My school district is promoting a neutral colour palette because that bright splashes of colour are overstimulating.

Kindergarten class with natural wood furniture and a few muted pastel accents.

This Kindergarten class is pretty mild in terms of colour and is not too overpowering.  I guess the theory is if we are going to teach students about self regulation, then we have to give them a gentle atmosphere so we don't set them off right from the start.

I experimented with colour in my own class at the beginning too.  I had this one bold blue wall (with the smushed sheep sponge painting disaster), plus a couple of commercially-made alphabet strips with a rainbow background.  See below.

But when I moved to a different classroom, I pared the colour right down. NO commercial posters, NO big walls of colour, NO borders. Okay, I did have some burgundy drapes and a couple of other accents. And for a long time, I was very happy with it. 

Here's my calm, happy window space.  Ahhhh.

But then my contentedness ended.

The first reason is: over the summer, my stinky carpet (that had stains of suspect origin) was replaced with clean, blue-grey lino tile.  After 3 months, it looks pretty much the same as it did in August.  Clean, bright, and hmmm, a bit sterile.  My colour is the best out of the other colours that went in (and yes, I picked it, so I can't celebrate or complain) because the other ones look like baby vomit, or like the rich blue tile, they looked great in September, but show every single scratch since.  My floor looks clean!  Bright!  Think: New Hospital!  Not really the look I was going for.

The second reason that the non-colour honeymoon is over is: with my job to explore interesting classrooms, I have the opportunity to visit lots of other classrooms.  Last month, I invited myself into a couple of classrooms in another district.  Many of the classrooms looked pretty much as you would expect: a bunch of desks, mostly in rows with the usual displays with the background paper and borders that look like Walt Disney had a hemorrhage in a rectangular shape.  But a couple of classrooms were pretty terrific.  See below.

The four pictures above come from a grade 3/4 class. 
Every space in the classroom is used in a beautiful, inviting, and useful way.

Okay, I admit it.  I had colour envy.  It wasn't just colour, though, it was warmth.  My classroom lacked the warmth that colour gives.  I have to say that as ugly, stained, and nasally repellent as my old carpet was, it muted the atmosphere of my classroom, and oddly the muddy brown tone of the carpet added a certain richness.  The pictures of this other classroom actually don't do justice to the overall impact of the space.  To get everything to show up on the camera, I had to use a flash, so the colours are more subtle in real life because of the way this teacher used accent lamps.  And there were lots of them.

Actually, the classroom I originally visited in this district belonged to L.  She was kind enough to invite me in to see some of the things she was trying.  I was particularly interested because she teaches grade 7.  She had removed almost all of her desks and replaced them with small group tables.  She also had a number of floor spaces to use as well.  It turns out that her classroom was inspired by the classroom in the photos above.  I recognized elements like the dramatic use of table lamps and the corresponding throw rugs to cover the cords.

I love this shot.  It is of L reading a picture book to
her grade 7 students while they sit on the floor.
Also check out the multilink, multicoloured foam carpet they are sitting on.

L uses furniture and lighting to define her spaces.

Above: a couple of oasis spots.
I love the fact that L was able to make changes to her classroom and that they were inspired by a primary classroom.  Her students really bought into the design changes too.  They are very proud of their classroom, and think it is a great place to learn because it feels interesting.  Also, they love the freedom of having different spots to work.

I'll probably use some of the lessons I learned from these other classrooms to return some warmth to my classroom.  Maybe I'll bring in some accent colours and then mute them with lower lighting.  I already have some cool spherical fixtures in my class, so maybe that will be enough.

So a gradual return to colour.  In moderation.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Classroom Design Challenges 1

It is pretty easy to create a nice looking classroom when you have a new school with new furniture.  New desks and tables in rooms with new carpet or flooring with good lighting and freshly painted walls look nice if not just for the sake of being clean.  But what do you do when your classroom presents a serious design challenge?

Meet C.  Her school is slated for demolition, but that does not really help her this year, her first year in the school.  You can probably picture her classroom.  It looks like it was built in the 60s.  It has a nice window that runs the length of the classroom, but the shelving underneath it (that also runs the length of the classroom) is painted in that glossy, institutional Smithrite green.  And the top of it is about four feet off the ground, so it does not work well as a workspace or a display area.  The floors are a non-descript, but luckily unobtrusive lino-tile.  The walls are a scuffed off white, and she has three massive whiteboards on two of the walls.  The final wall houses her desk and a small cupboard.  Probably the ugliest things in her classroom are the light fixtures.  You know the ones?  The open fluorescent fixtures from back in the day that look like overturned ice cube racks.

None of this would matter, but she felt the space just wasn't working for her.  She felt cut off from her students because of the labyrinth of desks she has.  Her room is skinny and long, and the defacto teaching area was at the end of one of the long parts which forced her into a lecture style of teaching.  After talking with C, I came to know that she was all about community and that she needed to connect more with her students as individuals.  The room did not allow this.  She could only really see and hear the kids in the front rows of desks.  But the hardest part was that her kids had no interest in giving up their desks or even seeking alternate arrangements for the room.  In their eyes, this was the way school was supposed to be.

Taking the feedback from her students and what I knew about C, I went away and tried to come up with some suggestions.  It was really difficult because: there was no budget for any of this, the students were resistant, and the room had some inherent problems (Did I mention that there were only two outlets in the room?).  This is what I came up with:

This is not to scale, but will give you the basic idea.  Here are the suggestions I gave C:
• Put the desks along the walls for the kids that must have desks, but during instructional time, they turn their chairs inward or toward where you are teaching. If they are working independently, they can turn their chairs back towards their desks.
• It might be a good idea to have a chart paper stand. Why? When you pull down your screen, you block your white board, so sometimes it is good to have a screen to show things from your computer, and then have the chart paper for quick brainstorming or for criteria. Also, if you need to have a homework chart, you can put it on chart paper; that way you can eliminate at least one of your whiteboards (which can be unsightly and take up too much room for kids’ work, etc.).
• Have a set of low risers along the shelf/window wall. These serve at least two purposes. Kids can sit on them when you are giving instructions. Kids can stand on them and work standing up using the window counter as a workspace. You mentioned some of your kids work best standing up. Your window counter really is the only space for this unless they stand at a desk.  The risers can be rearranged easily later for group work, art projects, campfire, etc. I only include low risers in this particular set up. You can always use high risers for the tables in the centre.
• I like the table in the corner. It is a nice intimate place to work or conference.
• The rug could be a place to work or meet. You could put a low riser on it and that great padded bench you have to create a lounge. I recommend that you put a rug down in any big blank floor space just to cut down the echo of the floor. I originally had the rug up by the screen, but you mentioned that your students are resistant to sitting on the floor, even with rugs. (I realized that mine aren’t as willing to sit on the floor this year either. Must be the cold lino).

Flashforward to a month and a half later.  C invites me back to see her classroom.  I walk in and a big smile spreads across my face.  I realize she has adopted almost none of my suggestions because what she came up with is better.  The fluorescent lights are off which takes the attention away from them.  Instead, she has a number of accent lamps and natural light coming from her big windows.  There are nice area rugs in places with throw pillows on one rug, and a padded bench and some faux suede cubes on the other for a casual meeting area. 

The biggest thing I notice is that ALL of her desks are gone.  There are tables instead with their ends up against the side walls.  Now, there is a large, unimpeded walkway down the centre for C to travel on so that there is no separation between her and her students.  When I ask her about how she was able to "convert" her students she told me that it happened gradually.  It kind of began when I sent her my suggestions, and she showed a Powerpoint document I had also sent her that had slides of all kinds of different possibilities for classrooms on it.  When the students saw some possibilities that didn't look like preschool, some of them jumped on board.  It was one student in particular, F, who really got into it and would come in every day and ask what changes they were going to make next.  He was the one who really got others excited about the possibilities.  The changes to the classroom were not going to be done to them, but with them.

A recent addition: I love this room within a room idea.

There are so many lessons here:
  • Students can be advocates for change if you let them.
  • You will get greater buy in if students can see what their part is or how they can benefit.
  • Sometimes students can't see their way in unless they are given a few non-prescriptive possibilities.
  • There is no one way to do anything, but there are some right ways, and you know when it is right when it feels right.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Secret Life of Classroom Innovators

 I posted that I have this one day per week job (as well as my regular classroom) to seek out and spread innovation.  It has been so much fun!  I get to see big, little, and medium-sized ideas.

A lot of teachers who I have seen have put a lot of thought into their classroom environments.  They have come up with some really creative ways to personalize their spaces for themselves and for their students.  (In future posts, I will post some examples of things people have done to their classrooms, but for this post, I will concentrate more on innovation in general).

In broad terms, I have seen:
  • teachers reaching students in unusual ways.
  • creative uses of tools and technology to present ideas and to allow students to show their learning in non-traditional ways.
  • integrating curriculum to meet the needs of students.
  • building community within the classroom walls, but also schools reaching out to the community so that the school is a place that helps adults as well.
  • a conscious effort to bring imagination back into the classroom (to downplay the idea that school is just a place where we disseminate information, and instead to promote the idea that schools foster wonder and creativity).
  • collaboration among teachers, classrooms, schools, and community groups to improve learning and educate the whole student.
  • learning in the natural world, and not just reading about it, but experiencing it first hand, plus finding ways to improved our environment.
I don't want to go into too much detail.  The teachers I have visited over the past few months know that I will be sharing the details of my investigations with my own district first, so I can't give too much away here yet.  But I can talk about some non-specific things until I get permission from my teachers. 

Here are some interesting patterns or observations I have found out about innovation so far.
  • Innovation is supported in my district.  We have a lot of mechanisms to try new things.  A lot of the teachers I interviewed also said that it was important to have some kind of support (e.g. administration, colleagues, district structures, university cohorts, etc.).  In some cases, the support was in the form of being a sounding board, and for others, for example, it was a bit of financial support.  I found it interesting that many of these "innovators" thought it was important to have support from others because I always envisioned innovators as "lone wolves." There was some time that the innovators had to work out things by themselves, but for the most part, my small sample enjoyed the support of others.  It seems like there is no "set mind" for innovative teaching, but the support aspect seems to suggest that even if innovation can or can't be taught, it might be able to be cultivated in the right circumstances. 
  • Innovation is somewhat community-minded.  The changes that these teachers made all seemed to have an impact on the classroom, the school, or the neighbourhood.  It usually was not targeted to one student or to merely the teacher him or herself.  It might have started with a narrower focus, but always seemed to expand to create some kind of change with a wider audience. 
  • Innovation seemed to originate from a specific need or a problem.  Here are some examples: 
    • "I felt cut off from my students, so I rearranged my classroom." 
    • "Not all of my students were getting the same or correct information, so I tried _______________."
    • "My students have such challenging lives at home that I had to help their parents first."
    • "My kids don't sit and read, so I had to find a different way for them to learn and show what they learned."
  • The path of innovation is not a straight one.  Though the original need may have been specific, the course of action was not.  People tried many things and either failed miserably or went along fine and then met some unforeseen obstacles.  Sometimes the need was there at the beginning, but NO courses of action presented themselves (for a long time), and then one seemingly random event would change things, or a series of occurrences would converge together.    
  • Innovation has a playful nature.  One of the reasons why these teachers hung in there so long was because of how much fun they were having.  Though the problems were important to them, the teachers did not take themselves too seriously.  It is like when we played when we were kids: we just tried all sorts of things until one of those things stuck.  It didn't have to be perfect; it just had to feel right.  Innovators still play. 
  • Innovation has a slightly subversive feel to it.  When I talk to these teachers, they get this strange gleam in their eyes, or their voices go into a low conspiratorial, but proud whisper.  They know what they are doing is not traditional, and it is actually one of the reasons they find it so fun.  Picture leaders of the French Resistance and you get the vibe (without the cool berets). 

So, if I was to sum up my findings about innovation in a few sentences, it would be something like:

"I've got this interesting problem that's bugging me, so help me or get out my way, because I am about to try something weird and I have no idea where it might go." 

Okay, one (long) sentence.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

A New Classroom Design Website

I was checking out my blog stats the other day, and I noticed in the Referring URLs section a site that said, . I was eager to look at it because there are so few sites on my new favourite topic. It turns out that the site belongs to a really great guy named James Clarke.

James once contacted me because of my blog and the post in particular that I wrote about Isis's Stepseat.  James is a (real) designer and over the months, we have been picking each other's brains about classroom design.  We are like-minded people: James comes to classroom design as a designer first, but with the heart of an educator; whereas I have the mind of an educator with a strong new passion for design.  Mainly, we corresponded in broad strokes: things we thought were important, the directions we wanted classroom to move, etc. 

James also told me about the wonderful things he had done with his company about getting people to use their spaces and their furniture in meaningful ways.  He told me about this one event in particular where they brought in students from his son's school (where James is also a governor) to teach them about the situation in Ireland and the IRA.  They used video footage, had guest speakers, and used simulations so the students could understand the deeply complex issues.  I was really impressed because they created an environment where not only did the students get the facts, but they also made a personal, emotional connection with their learning.  If that isn't 21st Century Learning, I don't know what is.

I also found out, way after James and I started corresponding, that he wrote the Learning Journeys booklet that I enjoyed so much.  The document was like a crash course in the big ideas behind classroom design.  Now, when I saw that James had his own website, I was really intrigued.   So I started to dig around the website, and when I got to the Influences page, I saw the pictures of Heppell and Robinson. "That makes sense," I thought. And then I scrolled down, and saw, well, ME. I thought I might be having one of those weird dreams, so I showed it to my wife and she just started howling with laughter. Nope, that proved I was awake.  I showed it to a few of my colleagues at work, and by that time James had updated the photos to the incomplete Mount Rushmore of Classroom Design (Heppell, Robinson, me, and space for someone else), with the photos at the top. My co-workers were awed. Not really the effect I had predicted, as I thought it would give them a good laugh, but it was positive.  To be mentioned in the same breath (pixels) as Heppell and Robinson was humbling.

I am trying to talk James into writing a book to help teachers with the interiors of their classrooms.  We really need help so that our environments can accommodate our teaching practices.  If we really want to inspire students, then we need to change our present, out-dated traditional classooms into incubators of wonder and creativity.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Nothing to Do with Classroom Design (still)

Okay, so should I be insulted that my most popular blog post ever had nothing to do with classroom design?

As it turned out, it was more of a study in Social Media.  When I first posted the post about the Hidden App, I had a small spike in views of my blog.  This always happens.  My two followers read my post, or at least receive it, and then my readership flatlines. 

Then for the first time, I put a link to my blog on my Facebook page.  This caused a large spike that I had not seen before on my blog, and probably never will again (because people won't fall for that trick a second time). 

Then I put a link to my blog on my Twitter account.  This resulted in maybe two more views.  My Twitter account is close to dormant, and I have one follower (again, not my mom), so it was no surprise that my tweet had no effect on my blog readership.  But then my friend Anita tweeted about my post and I enjoyed another medium sized spike, as she has an active relationship with Twitter. 

Now my readership is kind of flatlining again.  It's like watching the stock market.

It wasn't until later that I saw the irony of the situation: I write about the sorry state of people not connecting due to electronic devices while I spread my message on my blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter. 
Somehow, that irony was not lost on my wife.  

And now, back to life.  For a bit.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Hidden App

Last night, my wife and I went to this cafe where we grabbed a quick dinner. It wasn't very busy at the cafe; there weren't many other people.  Even with the lack of people, I was surprised at how silent the place was.  The reason was, that apart from my wife and me, everyone else, mostly couples, was hooked up to their iPods, laptops, and handheld devices.  Okay, I get it when you are by yourself and you are eating, and you hook up to a device to pass the time, like reading a book.  And I almost get it when you are with other people and you get a call or text, and you quickly take it, then return to your party.  But I don't get it when people come to a social place, with other people (presumably friends or loved ones), and ignore their company.  There was this party of three who sat at a bigger table.  One lady was watching a movie, the guy was typing something on his laptop, and the other woman was texting people on her phone. 

Call me old fashioned, but this is not my idea of hanging out, of socializing.  (In fact, it reminded me a lot of when I was single.)   And, despite the fact that his technology is largely responsible for this state of affairs, I don't think it is Steve Jobs' idea of socializing either.  I know because he came to me in a dream last night after I saw this. 

Steve explained to me that there is a hidden app in every electronic device, not just the ones made by Apple.  You activate it by hitting the OFF button.  It is amazing!  You can see a non-virtual world in stunning, realistic 3D (and without having to wear weird looking glasses).  You can interact with people (in real time) by looking at them, talking, and listening, maybe even touching them.  You will pick up on the nuances of conversation, the body language, the tone, the way the hair drapes around the face.  Instead of typing or reading "lol", you can actually Laugh Out Loud or better yet, make someone laugh.  You will be astounded at how fascinating, interactive, and real it all seems.

And the name of this wonderful, hidden app?

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Last month, I had some teachers from Australia come by for a visit to my classroom.  They had encouraging things to say about the design and decor of my classroom. They asked a lot of questions, ("What do the parents think?").  They also had some suggestions, ("Wouldn't it be great if you took some data to back up your ideas here?").

But it was the first comment they made that really struck me.  It was something like, "I wish I could show this to some of our teachers back home.  They say they can't make changes to their classrooms because all they really have are four walls."  The Australian teachers liked how I had drastically changed the atmosphere of my classroom without having to tear down any walls or bring in a lot of expensive furniture or equipment.

A Love of Labour?  Wrong Guy
I took their comment as a huge compliment.  If you told me a few years ago that I was going to transform my teaching by transforming my classroom, I would have laughed.  (And if you told my mom that other people would be looking to me for design advice, she would have laughed).  In retrospect, I've poured a lot of time into this little project.  Here is an incomplete list of the things I have spent hours and hours on, with respect to classroom design:
  • getting rid of things that emphasized the factory model of school.
  • bringing in personal touches from home.
  • reading or trying to find resources that will enhance my classroom design journey (there are very few).
  • designing and constructing the risers.
  • looking for lapdesks.
  • finding deals on lamps, stools, material, etc.
  • rearranging things in my room.
  • thinking, thinking, thinking.
  • blogging.
I have spent a crazy amount of time on my classroom design, but it does not feel like work because I enjoy it so much.  Like my woodworking hobby, despite the fact that I am not terribly proficient, I still have a great time while I am doing it.  It is NOT work. 

The Design Guy
Speaking of work, I wrote in this blog that on Tuesdays, I have been seconded to look at innovation in my school district.  I have seen lots of terrific things and have been lucky to visit quite a few classrooms.  But the really funny thing is I always seem to spend a portion of time on classroom design.  Either by word of mouth or from this blog, people want me to come and see what is happening in their classrooms in terms of atmosphere, or they want me to drop by to give them advice.  People have done some really effective and unusual things in their classrooms.  (I am really happy to see that the changes they made reflect their philosophy about teaching.) 

Some teachers have some real challenges on their hands: no windows, no plugs, a science room that has sinks every couple of metres, noisy floors and heating systems, really ugly wall colours, too much storage or not enough, etc.  As I said, I don't really know what I am doing, but I try to give them a few suggestions based on what I hear the teacher saying about what they are trying to accomplish (e.g. a relaxing mood, a community feel, more visibility, etc.).   Sometimes, I give lots of suggestions because I get really excited about the possibilities, but that can be really daunting to the teacher who is just beginning their own design journey.  I tell those teachers: "Start small.  Do as much as you can handle.  Start with something that you think will have an impact on improving learning, but make sure that something is manageable."

Advice from Those Who Know
I wish I could take credit for this sage advice, but I heard it first from my students.  Remember?  After the first year, I asked them for advice and they said to introduce the risers slowly to get everyone used to the idea.  That way it was manageable for me and for my students.  Starting small or slowly makes daunting doable.   

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Floor Plan: How Does It All Fit?

I explain to people about my classroom, and I get a lot of blank stares.  No desks?  Risers?  Kids sprawled out on the floor?  They stand up to work?  You have a bunch of storage trolleys?  You do have some desks and occasionally some tables?  You can get 45 students to work in your classroom? How does it all fit? 

I have already mentioned my bias against desks (and their industrial, factory-like quality), but here I have a new complaint and an old one.  First, the old one: desks are not space efficient.  Between the desks and the chairs, they take up way too much room.  The risers take advantage of the third dimension.  By sticking my students in an elevated position in my classroom, they take up less space (hmmm, is this what they mean by "higher" education?).  Also, the chairs force a predefined space.  The risers are like a long bench, and my students voluntarily and gleefully cozy up to each other.  During discussion times, I can fit 15 students on the big set of risers which takes up the same space as about 6 desks and chairs.  

My second beef with desks is a new one: they are really noisy.  As you may remember, they ripped my stinky carpet out of my class and put in some lino tile.  I started off with a full class set of desks in September.  I could hear every time a student shifted in their chairs, every time they pushed their desks forward to look for something inside, every time a pencil or ruler dropped, every foot step, every sneeze.  All of these sounds were amplified because they reverberated off the hard floor.  I believe that some of the sound was reduced by the wimpy, wispy sheers I have hanging from my ceiling (because I noticed a
difference in the lino classes that are not equipped with the wimpy, wispy sheers).  But as my class moved to risers, the noise level dropped appreciably.  There are no chairs to shift and no desks to push.  Even the other noises are reduced because I am able to put a few rugs down in strategic places.  I couldn't put rugs down with desks because the desks would bunch and snag the area rug. 

I have a new partner this year (because of my Tuesday "innovation" job --- more about that later).  A few years ago, I had this big beast for a teaching partner.  He was terrific because he allowed me to start to pursue this whole classroom design journey, and he was handy because big beasts can hang up high things like wimpy, wispy sheers.  This year, I have a new partner.  She is not a big beast; she is shorter and cuter, more of a spunky sprite.  She is not so effective at the hanging jobs, but she is very enthusiastic about the other jobs.  It has been fun.  One thing she said to me on Friday was that when she gets her own classroom, she is definitely getting risers because of how much they cut down on the noise level in the room.  I like that, scientific evidence: an unsolicited confirmation of an observation I made.  Perhaps it is even more noticeable to the spunky sprite because she is only there once a week.  Or maybe because of her lack of height, her ears are closer to the noisy tile. 

Speaking of the tile, the other day, I realized that they used 12 inch square tiles to do my floor. This makes a perfect 1 foot or 30 cm grid running through the floor of my classroom. Pacing it out, I have a 29 x 29 ft classroom. This includes the cloakroom and the counters. Here is a picture of a floor plan I created (using Smart Notebook):
[If you click on it, it should get a little bigger]

I can easily fit my class on the risers during instruction and discussion times.  During "work" times, students break out to different areas of the classroom:
  • risers (directly on risers or on lapdesks)
  • floor and rugged areas
  • stools
  • counter spaces
  • bulletin boards (they work standing up, tacking their papers to the vertical boards)
  • easel
  • on top of the rolling storage bins
  • desks (some students still like to have their own desks, but that number is really dwindling.  In the diagram above there are 7 desks, but I think that number is down to 4).
The choice and variety affords lots of space, spontaneity, and flexibility.  Notice that I have two carpeted areas.  I look at classrooms with rows of desks and they struggle to have one carpeted area. Every afternoon, I bring the students to the back carpet for a read aloud story and some sharing, just for a change of scenery.  

The varied arrangement allows me to have 45 students working on writing plus 2-4 adults working with students in different areas.  I also have a folding card table that I can put anywhere.  I use it mainly for Guided Reading, so I can have a small group around a common table.  The little red stool allows me to pull up beside students and have a little working chat.  When I have learning centres or the Exploration Stations, I usually have them set up on the perimeter, maybe with one on the risers or another on the front carpet. 

The risers are fully movable and the 4 storage bins are on casters which makes for a space that can be converted easily and quickly to a new configuration.  By moving the risers, forward and back we can adjust for a larger or smaller group size.  By pushing them together, we can have wide work spaces for art.  By moving them off to the side, we have room for dancing or for parties. 

So this is how it all fits together.  It is still probably hard to visualize.  Maybe it would be better if you dropped by.  Call first, and bring doughnuts.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Jazz not Symphony

In a previous post, Daniel Pink and Me, I talked about how Daniel Pink in his book, A Whole New Mind, has described 6 senses that we all need in the workplace:
  • Story: the brain responds when information is conveyed in a story context instead of a list of unrelated facts.
  • Empathy: we relate to each other better when we understand how the other person feels.
  • Play: no joy, no engagement.
  • Meaning: we are now looking for meaning within our work, instead of relying on extrinsic motivation solely.
  • Design: everything has a design element, so we need to pay attention on why things are the way they are, and accept them or change them.
  • Symphony: we can be more effective if we are able to bring all elements together. 
All of these senses resonate in a classroom environment as well.  Story, Empathy, Play, Meaning, and Design provide a rich context for learning and help us relate to each other.  Symphony is bringing all of these pieces together in a meaningful way.

But for me, I'd like to add a 7th sense that runs slightly counter to Symphony, or is perhaps complementary to it.  And that sense is Jazz.  Symphony is bringing parts together in a pre-scripted arrangement.  When someone strays from that script is is noticed and discouraged.  Symphony is still beautiful, but has a different intention from Jazz.  Jazz has a basic melodic framework, but the players are encouraged to go as far as they can with the tune while still referencing the shared elements of melody, chord structure, tempo, rhythm, etc.  Listen to Disney's symphonic arrangement of "Someday My Prince Will Come" and then listen to the rendition by Miles Davis.   The Disney version is heavily orchestrated and every note is predetermined.  In Davis's version, it goes all over the place (and is 6 times longer than Disney's).  Yet in both cases, the players know where they are in the song because of the structure.  The difference is the amount of structure.

For me, teaching is more like jazz, rather than symphony. Like jazz, teaching has to be fluid.  Yes, you have to have an idea of what you want to accomplish (e.g. learning intentions, curricular objectives, etc.) but your teaching has to be open to variables outside of the plan (e.g. teaching style, relationship with the students, students' personalities and experiences, fire drills, etc.).  There is no such thing as the perfect lesson because what works for one teacher in a certain classroom on a given day with a certain group of students will not necessarily work if any of those variables are changed.  With Jazz, teachers can go off the plan and improvise on the spot. 

Similarly, in design and innovation, great designs are flexible and open to unintended uses.  I mentioned that the Stratocaster electric guitar has many qualities that make it a great country or rock guitar.  Its design make it easy to change and modify.  The iPhone is pretty good as a phone, but is also user-customizable so that it can be a calendar, a personal trainer, a media player, an organizer, a book, and whatever else you need it to be.  My chin up bar works better as a place to hang my laundry than it does as a workout device (Hey, those shirts can get heavy, and who can do any exercise with all of that laundry in the way?). 

I don't think Daniel Pink intended for Symphony to mean something so highly scripted as I describe here.  He was just emphasizing the need to bring all of the important elements together.  But it made me think that for me, Jazz is also a good metaphor for teaching and innovation. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Classroom Design Has To Match Teaching

I know, I know, the title is so obvious.  But it is so important that it cannot be overstated. The design of your classroom has to match your teaching practice.  There, I said it again.

You can decorate your classroom with feathers.  You can put up fancy lights.  You can bring in Smartboards and all kinds of high tech equipment.  And you can even get rid of your desks.  BUT if these changes do not reflect what you do, or at least where you want to go, you are wasting serious effort, time, and money.  Wonderful teachers would still be wonderful teachers with nothing in their classrooms, but it would probably be hard to be as wonderful.  Lousy teachers would still be lousy, but it might take longer to realize how lousy they are.  Maybe not.

What the Risers Represent
For my own part, I'd like to think that the design of my classroom reflects my teaching and my personality.  The risers symbolize community, flexibility, and choice.  They also afford me much more space for other things in the classroom.  Because the students are "stacked" on each other, it is a surprisingly economical arrangement in terms of space.  The risers also remove that physical barrier between me and my students.  I don't have to walk around their desks to work with them.  The other things in my class promote beauty, tranquility, and whimsy.
Some people ask me if I think everyone should have risers in their classrooms and the answer is NO.  For example, if you are a traditional teacher, then you are going to find risers a major pain, and risers probably won't force you to teach in a non-traditional way.  They will just burn you out.  Whenever people ask me what they should do with their classrooms, I ask, "What is important to you?"  If you say order, structure, and organization, then you could have risers in your classroom and they would make a nice place to display your textbooks. 

The Disconnect
With my one day per week Innovation job, I'm getting a chance to see how people are arranging their classrooms.  It is interesting.  I see traditional teachers in traditional environments.  I see non-traditional teachers in non-traditional environments.  That makes sense.  But curiously, I am starting to see more and more non-traditional teaching in traditional environments.  What I mean by this is, there are a whole bunch of teachers out there who are doing some forward thinking things, but are operating in oddly traditional classrooms. 

I saw this one teacher who is doing some amazing things in terms of project-based learning, inquiry, and focus on the individual, and yet the classroom was set up in these big long rows.  I saw a huge disconnect that I don't think the teacher was aware of.  The desks took up 90% of the floor space because of the long row arrangement.  The students kept walking into each other when they were trying to get their things or go to a particular centre or display.  The room was really loud because the students were trying to have conversations about their learning, but because they couldn't sit next to each other, they had to talk loudly, so everyone else did too.  The teacher had the teacher desk at the front of the room, and so when the teacher was trying to have a conference with a student they had to huddle behind the desk.  They were cut off from the rest of the class because the computer blocked the sight lines. 

Why is this disconnect happening?  It could be for many reasons.  It could be that it is the beginning of the year and teachers are trying to establish a sense of order first.  It could be that teachers share the space with other teachers, so rows are the easiest way to configure.  It could be that the teacher is starting with rows and then building the classroom with the students as they go along.  But when I talk to teachers, I realize that the reason they have their classrooms arranged in traditional ways is because they don't know of anything different.  "Isn't this the way it is supposed to be?"  "They are in grade 2 now (or 5 or 11), they expect the classroom to look like this."  "I have 29 students and 29 desks.  How else can I do it in this space?"

I get it.  I was the exact same way.  I 've tried rows and squares and circles and clusters and went back to rows again.  I tried tables and went back to rows again.  I tried coffee tables and pillows (huge disaster) and went back to rows again. Then I tried one set of risers, and it changed my whole way of thinking.  And remember that I came across the riser concept by accident (on a chance visit to the Museum of Anthropology).  On top of that, I would not really have felt the need to change my classroom in the first place, if I hadn't had to store my teaching materials in a different place (another random event).  It really depends on who you are, what you want, and what you are ready to do.

I was at a workshop for early learning on Friday.  The presenter showed these two slides of classrooms.  One was adorned with brightly coloured borders, pocket charts, displays, carpeting, etc.  The other slide was of a more neutral, stripped down classroom.  The presenter was definitely promoting the latter.  As she was talking, I could feel the teacher beside me shrinking.  "My class is like the first one!" she whispered to me.  I've been in her classroom, and it is a wonderful, inviting place.  The children and happy, and they love their teacher, immediately.  The classroom reflects her style of teaching and her personality.  It is who she is.  Sure, some students might find it overstimulating, but in the same way, some students might find my classroom or neutral classrooms boring.  But the thing is, in her case and in my case, there is no disconnect.

The atmosphere matches the practice, the philosophy, and the person. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Money Question

If you google "classroom design" or "classroom decor" you'll see interesting things that teachers do with their classroom spaces.  A number of teachers in my district are really trying to change their spaces.  The question that comes into my mind is, "Who paid for all of this?" 

Some teachers have sofas, shelving, lighting, professional artwork, coffee tables, easy chairs, rocking chairs, carpet, window treatments, wall paper, pillows, room dividers, book racks, etc.  These kinds of things, 95% of the time are paid for out of teachers' pockets.  Sometimes they are donated, and sometimes, they are paid for by school funds. 

I have a friend who has put over a couple of grand into her classroom over the last couple of years, and that does not included books or regular teaching supplies.  All of it was self funded.  Some teachers I know submit their receipts to the office and get some of their money back.  Do other professions pay for the materials and tools they use on their work site?  Don't get me wrong; I don't pay for everything, but I do pay for things that might surprise people: almost all of my classroom library books (some were donated),  storage bins, labels, professional books, all of my games and puzzles, spare notebooks, my pet supplies, Mothers and Fathers Day gifts my students give to their parents, spare gym clothes for kids, special resources or materials when the supplied ones don't do the job adequately (especially when you have a variety of ability levels in your class), etc.  And that does not include the money I spent on my design project. 
When it comes to paying for things in terms of classroom design, I'm not sure what to think because there are so many factors: 
  • Like teaching, classroom design is highly individualistic.  One classroom design might work for one teacher, but it may not work for another.  I know that when I have TOCs/supply teachers/substitutes in my classroom, some of them like my format and others are absolutely bewildered, ("Where do the students sit? ... On those?!  Where do they put their things? ... You're kidding me! etc.). 
  • If the school pays for all of the things that I put toward design, then those things, in all fairness, belong to the school.  It is the same if I buy materials for my classroom through school funds, then I will leave those resources behind if I ever switch schools.  But on the other hand, if some teacher decides say to decorate their classroom in a gorilla theme, do we really want them to leave behind their rainforest backdrops, vines and banana trees?  Apart from the storage issues alone, how practical is it for schools to hang on to these things?
  • Because schools do pay for classroom furniture, they tend to buy many of the same items.  This makes short term economic sense because of the discounts afforded by buying in bulk.  But it does not make great educational sense because schools tend to buy furniture that perpetuates the antiquated factory-model of education (sit down, shut up, and do your work).  It is akin to making expensive repairs or keeping up the maintenance on your horse and buggy, even though a bicycle or car would do the job better. 
  • Ideally, the school and the teacher would mutually agree on what the teacher would need for his or her classroom, and then say the district would coordinate the purchase so that if teachers in multiple schools wanted the same things, then they could take advantage of bulk purchasing. 
  • In the UK and Australia, they have had this massive project called BSF or Building Schools for the Future.  It was a national program where they invested in schools by creating sound educational environments within existing schools or even building new schools.  The chances of this happening in my area are probably slim to none, but it's nice to see what other jurisdictions are doing. 
I guess the best I can hope for is the "slush fund" model.  Schools, through parent fund-raising or other sources, give each teacher a pool of discretionary funds (I have received between $100 and $200), and it truly is discretionary: do what you think you need to do with this money.  Use it for your classroom guilt free.  Oddly though, I don't think I've ever submitted a single receipt for anything related to classroom design.  Until this moment, I think that because it was my pet project, I've used my discretionary funds for other classroom materials.  That might change.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

"Travel" Books: Books I Took on My (Classroom Design) Journey

Whenever I go on a trip, I take along some books to read while I go.  On the negative side, sometimes the books are better than parts of the trip (sleeplessness in a strange bed, travel delays, etc.).  On the positive side, sometimes the books are an excellent companion for the journey, and later when I think of the trip I had, the trip seems inextricable from the book. 

Metaphorically, my design journey has had several books come along for the ride.  I thought I would share some of them here.  What I write about these books is my take on them, which is heavily biased and incredibly inaccurate.  I put words in the authors' mouths because I write mostly from memory.  If I use a phrase the author never used in the book (or never would use), then it is mine.

In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing by Matthew May
I liked this book but I found it uneven.  It basically starts with one premise: that great ideas or designs are flexible and are open to possibilities not necessarily intended by the creators.  The reason I found it uneven is because the bulk of book is May giving examples to support his thesis.  Some of the examples I found fascinating, but others left me cold and felt a little forced.  You'll have to decide which ones speak to you.  But overall, I loved the premise of the book.  I thought my risers fit this idea of elegance: flexible, adaptable, design transcends even its intent, etc.  (just like the Stratocaster?)
Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
I have the same criticism of this book as I do for the one above.  It has basically one thesis and then a series of examples to support that thesis.  The main thesis is that good ideas have to fit within the "adjacent possible" which means that in order for new ideas to be adopted, they have to be close to something that already exists or at least something that is cognitively acceptable.  Johnson says that some ideas do not catch on because they are too far our or ahead of their time.  Ideas have to be acceptable and accessible.   In terms of my design journey, I thought it paralleled the process of my journey.  If you read through my blog, the progress of my journey was a series of connected events, not merely inspiration from left field.  If you haven't read this blog before my journey goes something like this:
  1. Was given a teaching partner unexpectedly
  2. Given an ugly, storage space to keep my belonging
  3. Created a zen lounge as a joke
  4. Teachers loved it and used it when I wasn't there
  5. Could I duplicate this for students?
  6. Saw banks of seats during a family museum trip
  7. Built emulations of these seats
  8. Kids loved them for their agility
  9. Continued to try to de-institutionalize my classroom environment
  10. Have had visitors from other schools, districts, provinces, and now other countries (Thanks Mary and Karen!) come by for a look see. 
So you can see that my journey was a connected evolution of events, just as Johnson describes in the examples in his book.
Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams
This book is like Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics, but centres on the power of collaboration. The authors make a compelling argument by showing how things like Wikipedia and YouTube have revolutionized the way people get and share information. Not only does the audience select what information is retrieved (instead of an editor or a network deciding what is shown when), but it is also the same audience who contributes to creating and posting the content. For free. Sure there were clubs and newsgroups 20 years ago, but the amount of information that people upload out of the goodness of their hearts is astounding. Tapscott and Williams explain why people contribute and why it is mutually beneficial for contributor and audience. I guess I'm not as altruistic as I thought when I started sharing this design blog because the feedback I have received from strangers and colleagues has been incredibly useful for shaping my design journey. It has been as beneficial as the books I profile here.
The key to allowing collaboration interestingly is a parallel to the Elegance book above: leave things out so that you have flexibility for your idea to evolve as more people contribute. Open architecture provides possibilities for expansion and growth, so create a framework, not a closed structure, not a finished idea.

Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Weren't these the names of 2/4s of My Three Sons?)
Hmmm. Another orange business book.  This book takes Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (I liked that book too, but everyone has read it, so I won't talk about it here), and expounds on one aspect that makes trends catch on: stickiness.  One thing I like about this book is that it actually tries to APPLY its ideas.  For example it will show an ad or some copy for a release and will go through it showing why it might not stick in people's minds.  Then it will rewrite the text as if the authors had applied stickiness enhancers (again, my term) such as using the unexpected or appealing to people's emotions.  I don't use this book in design, as much as I use it to help ideas stick in my students' heads. 

Flow by Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi
I really enjoyed this book (and I love the author's name.  It would look great on the back of a jersey.  If you had really broad shoulders).  It actually isn't a new concept, but it does explain why traditional teaching does not resonate with modern students.  In order to engage students, we need to tap into their sense of Flow.  Kids will memorize multi-syllabic names of dinosaurs, spend hours repeating a single skateboard move, and go to the end of complex and challenging role-playing video game.  Why is it they can do these things when those same kids forget how to spell "what", won't do their homework for even ten minutes, and give up on a math problem after looking at it for thirty seconds?  It is because none of these latter tasks appeal to their reality, what is important to them, their sense of self, or to their "flow."  We've all been there: in the zone, in the groove, using our mojo, or whatever term strikes your fancy.  When we are in that flow, nothing can stop us and even better, we never want to stop.  Flow is the same way.

Learning Journeys by James Clarke
My favourite book on classroom design (tied with The Third Teacher) actually isn't a book at all but more like a booklet.   I came across it last year when I was googling for different classroom design concepts and I came across the pdf online (that's when I found Isis's cool StepSeat).  Someone recently sent me a hard copy of Learning Journeys.  I don't know if it is holding onto the hard copy or having a few years of my journey under my belt, but I found that the concepts discussed in the book really resonated with me even more.  If you are thinking of investigating classroom design or starting a classroom design learning team, I think that this document would be a great place to start the wheels turning and initiating discussions.  I would love to have a bunch of copies of this book to start a teachers research group on classroom design.  You can still download the pdf at .

If you have any books you can recommend that would help me on my classroom design journey, please let me know.  As you can see they don't necessarily have to do with education or design, but maybe just be about ideas.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Classic Rock and the Future of Education (and Design)

Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, and the Edge.  When you hear those names, of course you think ... EDUCATION?!

Let me back up a little.  I've always liked looking at things and seeing how their design affected the way they worked.  As a kid, I was known for taking things apart (and getting maybe 1% of them back together).  As I got older, I also marvelled at the beauty of simple things. 

Design Is Everything

The yo-yo is incredible in its design: a piece of string, an axle, and the semi-circular weights.  You can do so many things with a yo-yo despite its simple design, and it is adjustable by releasing the tension on the string around the axle. 

Another favourite design is Snackin Cake.  Remember it?  It was around in the late 70s.  We moved into our new house, and my job was to wait in the house while my dad and his friends went back for another load.  I was unpacking some kitchen boxes and found a box of Snackin Cake.  All you had to do was put the contents in the little tray that was inside the box (no pan required!), add 3/4 cup of water, stir, and bake it at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.  I think I eyeballed the water (no measuring cup), and stirred it with my finger (extra flavour).  It was the first thing ever cooked in that house.  When my dad's friends came back in the house, they smelled the spice walnut cake baking in the oven.  I think they were blown away that I had done it in the time they had been away.  (My dad just shook his head).  We ate the cake when we unloaded the next load.  But what a great design!  You had all of the things you needed to create a tasty little snack.  Snackin Cake!  Better than Jiffy Pop popcorn which was cool to watch but hot to hold.  Better than Variety Pack cereal (you know the little packs of cereal you give kids when you go camping) which like Snackin Cake had its own built in container, but was prone to leaks.

My Favourite Design

But when it comes to perfect design, (I know, hard to beat Snackin Cake), my favourite of all time is the Fender Stratocaster electric guitar.

This guitar was designed for its time, but at the same time was way ahead of its time.  It was introduced in 1954.  This is the year Marilyn Monroe married Joe Dimaggio, Nixon was Eisenhower's veep, and Godzilla premiered in Japan.  Cars were starting to get big wings on the back.  How this beautiful guitar came to be designed by a non-guitar playing radio technician named Leo Fender could have been divine inspiration. 

Here are some of my favourite design elements of the Stratocaster (from tail to tip).

The part where the cord plugs into the guitar is angled to the back.  That way when you play standing up, the cord is out of the way of your strumming hand and can be wrapped back by your strap.  When you play sitting down, the cord does not get knocked by your chair or leg.  (I've snapped the jack on some bottom mounted guitars). 

The tremelo or whammy bar.  It was originally designed so session guitar players could also get pedal steel effects and make double their fee.  (Did I mention the Strat was designed as a country-western guitar!)  In a brilliant, all in one design, you can set each string's height and intonation, and bend the strings up and down (like Hendrix's dive-bombs on "Star Spangled Banner.") 

The pickguard with all of the electronics mounted to it was probably the most brilliant piece of design.  This design afforded the user to change, fix and remount any of the electronics easily.  All of the wires are tucked underneath, so there is room for error.  Try changing something where the pickups are mounted to the body and the wires run through a little tunnel drilled into the guitar. 

The pickup selector (the sliding lever at the top of this picture) had 3 positions originally, one position per pickup.  But then guitarists realized that by sticking the lever in between positions, they could get a cool combination sound.  If you combine the middle pickup with the one on the left, you get a Stevie Ray Vaughan sound.  If you combine the middle with the one on the right, you get an early Dire Straits or U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" sound.  The Stratocaster is so versatile: (besides the aforementioned guitarists) Buddy Holly, Deep Purple, Jeff Beck, Bonnie Raitt, John Mayer, John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd (and countless others) have all played a Stratocaster as their signature sound, yet all of those sounds are so different from each other. 

There are even more design features that I love about the Stratocaster: the contoured comfortable body, the tuners all being on the same side so you don't have to figure out which way to turn them, the angled headstock so the strings run straight up the bridge so the guitar stays in tune, and the weird horns that extend on the body which make the upper notes playable on the neck while at the same time allowing the guitar to balance properly on a strap.

Leo Fender intentionally designed a guitar that played well, was easy to build, and easy to change. A vintage Strat will run you 5 digits. You can buy a new American Stratocaster for about a grand.  I bought my Mexican Stratocaster on Craigslist for $275.  I changed the tuners, swapped out the neck, put in a new pickup, drilled a hole in the pickguard so I could put in a switch to give me even more sounds, and changed the strap pins.  I think of my Strat as a hot rod I can customize and make my own. 

The Stratocaster is mythic and magical in looks, design,, and sound.  George Harrison didn't use one with the early Beatles because they were too expensive and hard to get in England at the time.  George said that if they had had Stratocasters then, the Beatles could have been really good.  I guess George will just have to settle for the success they ended up having.

Okay, That's All Nice and Everything, But Can You Get to the Education Part?

First, it might not take a lot of money to make huge gains in education.  In fact, I recommend not spending too much on any one change so that if we make some mistakes along the way, we don't feel obligated to stay the course.  If we spent ten grand for each teacher on a new SuperChalk, don't you think we'd feel pressured to use the thing in exactly the way it is supposed to be used.  And there would be no way we'd let the students even touch it.  Think of me and my cheap Strat.  Do you think I would make any of the changes I made if the thing cost me a month's pay?  (Don't forget, I make teacher's wages).  Because it is my number one guitar, I make changes I think I NEED to make, but I don't get too upset if I bodge things up.

Second, Fender's design is brilliantly customisable.  Education should be the same way.  No one thing works for every student and no one method works the same way for every teacher.  With the Stratocaster, you can get a myriad of sounds depending on who is playing it and how they choose to use it.  Education should be the same way.  With the Stratocaster, the essential parts are all the same: some strings, a neck, a body, and some hardware.  Education should be the same way.  We should have a basic framework that allows customization and individual differences.  Teaching is an art in the same way that playing the guitar is an art.  If we all taught or played the same way, the best we could ever hope to achieve is uniform mediocrity.  By having customizable freedom allowed within a flexible framework, at the very least we'd have the possibility of brilliance. 

Third, Fender was not the first guitar designer to use many of these design features, but he was definitely the first one to put them all together in such a brilliant, beautiful and elegant package.  Sometimes it is the combination of old ideas that turns into a wonderful new idea, and sometimes it is a new way of looking at a pre-existing idea that makes it useful.  Though the model of education has not really changed in centuries, maybe we need to implement some new ideas or old ideas in new ways, or even look at it from a different perspective (like from a radio technician's). 

So the lessons I learned from Leo Fender are:
  • Make changes that make sense (i.e. based on need, not on financial compulsion).  Form meets function. 
  • Flexibility opens up the possibilities. 
  • Fresh implementation is as important as invention. 

Afterword: Bad Design Example

I was really looking forward to getting a copy of Led Zeppelin III.  I think I bought four or five copies of the record from two or three different stores and I took all of them back for a refund. 

Not only did LZIII have some great songs on it (including "Since I've Been Loving You" and some interesting acoustic songs that were the precursor to "Stairway to Heaven"), but it also had this really cool cover.  Using a tab on the side, you could spin the insert around and the little circular windows would change (kind of like a children's popup book.  Think of it as a psychedelic version of "Pat the Bunny".)  Presumably, different themes shown in the windows matched the different personalities in the band.  This gave you something to do while listening to the music (before music videos and Youtube). 

It was great in theory, but terrible in practice.  Records are made of plastic which can change shape with heat or pressure.  Every record I bought of LZIII was warped beyond playability because of the metal fastener that enabled the rotating insert.  When the records were stacked for shipping, the fastener protruded enough to bend all the LZIII records in my vicinity out of shape.  (Deform meets function?)  I eventually gave up trying to find a copy, and come to think of it, never did bother to buy it when it came out on CD.  Once bitten...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Daniel Pink and me

Where I Got to Know Daniel Pink
For the first two weeks of the summer, my daughter had swimming lessons.  Because the lessons were 45 minutes, it wasn't really long enough to go home or run a lot of errands.  Because it rained the almost the whole two weeks, it wasn't really conducive to talking to the other parents who huddled in their cars or walked around with umbrellas, nor was it good for reading.  So I downloaded random educational podcasts and listened to them while I walked around in the rain.  I came across Daniel Pink's ideas through these podcasts.

My friend Anita had always mentioned Pink before, but I guess I wasn't really ready to listen to those ideas as my head was already filled with a bunch of other ideas.  I must have emptied my brain since then because I was a little more receptive to Pink's ideas now and picked up his latest book.  Here's my take.

Everybody Look to the Right
In Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind, he calls for a shift in thinking from the left-brained world (which is analytical and convergent) to a more holistic and creative right-brained world.  Pink says that we have painted ourselves into a corner economically with the 3 As: Automation, Asia, and Abundance.  Through technology and automation, we have basically eliminated low level labour jobs in factories and industry.  Anything that can be reduced to a linear routine can be done by a cheaper, faster, more efficient machine.  This includes assembly lines and tax preparation software.  The second A stands for Asia because jobs such as customer service call centres are outsourced to Asia.  There, the workers are happy to be paid a tenth of what a North American would make for the same job.  Because of Automation and Asia, huge amounts of jobs in North America are going to evaporate.  This problem is going to be exacerbated by the third A: Abundance.  Westerners are used to having lots.  We have more cars, phones, and TVs than we have people in most households.  We have things that we buy and never use or forgot that we even had (see: Costco and dollar stores).  Why?  Because we CAN.  Westerners have become a little flabby and spoiled because of the abundance we have, and unfortunately, we have come to expect to have lots without doing a whole lot of work.  (My take, not necessarily DP's). 

The Six Senses
Pink recommend that the way to steer the ship to avoid the iceberg is to train ourselves to think in terms of the new 6 senses:  Design (the decisions about why things are made the way they are), Story (thinking about things based on their story: their context and origin), Symphony (bringing all elements together to work as a unit), Empathy (being able to think how others might), Play (bringing joy and games into one's life), and Meaning (instead of only chasing the all-mighty buck, what is the purpose of what I am doing?). 

Pink talked about these senses mainly in terms of life and business, but I read the book with an educational lens.  I fully agree with all of the 6 senses he outlines, but I also have some criticisms.  First, the kudos.  Story, Meaning, Empathy and Symphony are resources that should be used more in classrooms.  In fact, all four of these elements work together to provide a rich learning environment.  For example, when I teach history to any grade, I use Stories to teach the events and the important concepts because it provides a context for my students.  They are able to follow the characters through the series of events and see the cause and effect nature of history.  Because the students become emotionally attached to these characters, they Empathize with them and see the events through the players in history.  Through this empathy, students can see how they might react in a similar situation.  Hopefully, through historical events, students can learn how to make their own decisions which gives Meaning to their learning.  And in using Story, Meaning, and Empathy in this way, students use Symphony by bringing all of these parts together to form a unified whole.  I think that most great lessons bring these elements of feeling, meaning, and context together, and are manifested in engagement

Right now, as you probably guessed, the sense I am most interested in is Design, why things are the way they are.  If you read my blog, you can see how this summer, I struggled with a good design for my lapdesks that met all of my needs.  (My friend Z, one of my 3 readers, recommended that I give the laptop design challenge to my students.  But I didn't want them to take away my fun).  I also struggle with my classroom.  I I look at my classroom and it makes me ask myself so many questions based on its design:
  • What do we do here?
  • What is important to us?
  • How do we interrelate with each other?
  • How do we learn?
  • How do we feel about learning?
All of these questions and their answers have an effect on how things look and how we organize things. 

Ironically, Design is one of the criticisms I have of the book.  First of all, the cover of the book is orange.  This makes 3 of the business books I read this year with an orange cover.  I guess the original design intention was for it to stand out, but that is negated if the popular colour is orange.  It's like looking for a Creamsicle in a row of pylons.  (Orange is the new Pink).  And second of all, on the cover, there is a cutout of a boy's head, and when you open the cover, the boy's head turns into a man's head.  Both heads are filled with binary code and musical notes.  I get the message.  The part that bugs me is that cutout gets damaged when you slide the book out from between other books on the shelf.  I checked all 3 copies Chapters had of A Whole New Mind, and all of them had the poor boy's throat almost ripped out.  Cool design gimmick in concept, but not great in reality.  A Whole New Mind might need a whole new chin to go with it. 

The other (minor) criticism I had with the book was about education and Play.  In terms of life, Pink recommends adding more Play to one's life to foster joy and humour.  Pink sees Play as joy, leisure and humour.  As an educator, I see Play as work, as learning.  This idea is not foreign to Daniel Pink.  In his other writings, I heard him talk about managers giving workers the opportunity to play around with ideas.  When kids play, they are trying new ideas, new roles, and new possibilities.  One of the greatest scientists I ever witnessed was my daughter as a baby when she took baths.  She would see what floated and what didn't.  She would seen how many times she could fill containers with a shampoo bottle filled with water (that she knew was full when it stopped bubbling when she held it under water).  We are born with a natural capacity to try to figure out how things work, and that curiosity is shown in our play.  In my previous posts, I talked about how the Exploration Stations I set up explored this idea of learning through play.  I wished DP would have gone a little further with the idea of play, not as release, but as discovery.

My last criticism is more of a comment.  DP recommends that these 6 senses and right-brained thinking are the ways to counteract Abundance, Automation, and Asians.  Okay in terms of Abundance and Automation, maybe a whole bunch (abundance) of computers (automation) don't care and won't read his book, but I'm pretty sure that Asians are probably clued in to the game and will also adopt right-brained thinking and the 6 senses, (and will produce more things and computers to help).  So are westerners ever going to be able to level the playing field?  Maybe only if we return to a resource-based economy.  We'll always need materials to produce things.  Trades will also be important.  If we reduce our abundance, that means our toilets and sinks will have a greater chance of getting clogged because more people will be using less of them.

I really enjoyed A Whole New Mind.  So many of the ideas made sense and I want to apply more of them to my classroom.  I don't know if Daniel Pink would agree with (or care about) any of my thoughts on A Whole New Mind.  I started Drive, his earlier book on motivation.  Maybe I should take a stab at that one day too, in terms of education.