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.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why Have Any Desks at All?

I've talked about how I don't like all my students having desks because of the restrictive, factory-like nature of them.  In my last posts, I talked about using lapdesks and my endeavour to find or build one that fits my needs.  But I got to thinking: do I need even a lapdesk at all?

For me the answer is yes.  These are One to One schools out there that have probably negated the need for desks because all the students have laptops or tablets.  Mine isn't one of them.  Even if I had class sets of laptops, I would probably still use paper for a number of things because I like the tactile nature of the activity.  But if I had laptops, I might not need the lapdesk, just a hard surface on which to write or draw.  In some ways, the lapdesks simulate carrying around a laptop.

So if I just need a hard surface, why not use a counter, riser, table, easel or clipboard?  Why do I still need a lapdesk?  I like that students can carry a small amount of their supplies and their planners with them.  Because my students tend to work in several different places throughout the day, they need to carry the essentials with them wherever they are.  If I had just tables, I could have cups with pencils and crayon in them on each table.  But because students work on tables, counters, risers, the floor, bulletin boards, etc., keeping pencils in one spot does not work for us.   Lapdesks work for us because of the fluid, dynamic nature of our classroom.  The portability is essential given our non-sedentary, nomadic way.

I also like that the students keep their planners/schedulers/agendas with them all the time.  We probably only use them for ten minutes out of the day, but I like the message that the organizer stays with you to keep you, well, organized.  As someone who is not terribly organized and needs to be reminded of what happens when (which is why my life improved with the PalmPilot and iPod Touch), having a book or device on you is important.  Now here is a strong case of a teacher's idiosyncrasy dictating how the class runs, but that is probably unavoidable given the personal nature of teaching.  The lapdesks afford keeping the planners with my students. 

But isn't keeping a lapdesk against the idea that learning happens everywhere, (i.e. that we learn without having to rely on schooly trappings)?  Yes, it probably does.  I see the concept of organic, personalized learning as a continuum.  Though I am moving away from standardization, from desks and uniforms, from whole class novels, from lecture and test only instruction, I still do a number of things that can be seen as traditional.  I still have students raise their hands in full class lessons.  I still give whole class lessons where I am telling my students what to do and how to do things.  I still have students line up to go from room to room.  I guess I still do these things because I was raised and trained from the traditional paradigm, and so it is difficult for me to see beyond what I've always done. 

The lapdesk is perhaps one of these remnants of my traditional leanings.  But I like to think that it is at least a step in the right direction.  For me.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

How to Build Your Own Lapdesk (with grade 8 woodworking skills)

In my last post, I talked about how while I was away, I became a little obsessed with a lapdesk design, but I couldn't find one that met all my needs (especially cost).  Well, I'm home now and my obsession continues.  Based on the wine box, I had a rough idea of a design that met my needs, but the question was: Could I build it with my meager woodworking skills?

Evolution of my Woodworking Skills
Sure, I built my risers, but that was a matter of building 3 rectangles and attaching some plywood to the top of it, (though I did attach some laminate flooring to it which turned out to be the most difficult part).  The only woodworking training I've had was back in grade 8 where for two months, I built a wobbly bookrack.  I didn't enjoy the class at all.  Not because of the instruction or because I dislike woodwork, but because I didn't see myself as a woodworker and my grades reflected it.  I think I got a C.  Flash forward a few decades, and I have a house.  I buy my first ever power tool: a cordless drill.  I bought it to screw in some shelves and to drill holes for pictures.  It was so much fun, and I begin to think to myself, "Man, I should have been a dentist!" 

Slowly, I begin building things around the house, and each project seems to warrant a new tool.  I buy a weird saw to cut myself some shoe shelves for the garage.  I buy a router to give a nicer edge to a storage box I keep beside my bed for my wallet and keys (though the profile gives the box a mini-casket look).  One year, someone gave me a gift card to a hardware store and I bought a table saw, so I could build a desk for my computer.  With each project, I learned a little bit, but to be honest, I am still a C student in terms of woodworking.  My stuff wobbles, I don't like to put any finish on my projects, things are not straight,and they look a bit haphazard.  But here's the thing: I don't care!  I do woodworking for a definite purpose and for my own enjoyment.  (It makes me really rethink the whole letter grade concept because it can suck the joy right out of things).

So given my woodworking history, can I build a small, sturdy box with (gasp) a sliding lid?
I go to the lumber stores and look at possible materials.  I look at size, weight, and of course, cost.  I have some scrap pieces of 1/8 inch plywood from a previous project, so I buy one piece of 1x3 and one piece of 2x2.  I really only need one piece of either for the frame, but I can't decide which, so I buy both.

I go home and I make a plan.  I know, most people start with a plan and then they go buy their materials, but they are probably not C woodworkers.  I want my lapdesk to be able to have a letter size piece of paper on it, and have enough storage underneath for a notebook and a pencil.  I want the lid to extend beyond the box so it is easier to pull out and a bulldog clip can be attached without interfering with the closing of the box.  I make a diagram with some measurements, and head out to the garage. 

I start with the 1x3 pieces and I cut the four sides of the frame to length.  Then I do the dangerous part.  Using the tablesaw, without the guard in place, I cut 1/8 inch grooves on the pieces so that the top and bottom can slide into the frame.  I cut the plywood for the long top and the shorter bottom.  I dry-fit the pieces into place and assemble with screws (so I can take the frame apart to use these pieces as my template for future lapdesk offspring).

I admit to myself, it looks pretty good.  Sure, though it looks very straightforward listed here, this process takes me at least three hours (not including looking like a zombie at the lumber store).  Each time I do something, I check my plan, scribble a revision, recut my piece, count my fingers to make sure they are all there, etc.  Based on this prototype, I decide to go back to the lumber store and buy enough material to make a few more.

Before I do, I dust off my prototype and proudly march into the house to show it to my wife.  She looks at it unmoved.  My smile does not waver.  With a crooked eyebrow, with a flourish I show her how the top slides in and out.  She's still looking at it.  She hesitates saying anything because she knows about my grade 8 woodworking scars (emotional, not physical).  "What?" I finally ask to break the silence.  She says, carefully, "I don't know.  It's a little ... big."  I show her how a piece of paper fits on the top.  She says, more carefully, "Yes, but ... are seven year-olds going to be able to carry this around, you know, wherever they go?"  (Man, she throws my own slogan right into my face.)  I am about to argue, and part of the frustration is the hours of toil and thought that went into this, but I can't argue, because as I am standing there, my arm is getting sore, just from holding up my lapdesk while we are talking.  I admit to her she is right, and defeated, slump back to the garage.

The 1x3 sides, though providing lots of storage, are just too weighty.  I look at the 2x2 I bought, but realize that it is even heavier.  More thinking.  I finally think that I can get away with the exact same design, but using 1x2 instead.  I go back to the lumber yard, and buy 4 1x2s and one big piece of hardboard (cut into two so it will fit in my little Mazda).  I knock out 5 more lapdesks (using the big prototype as guides for length) in a couple of hours, and at a cost of about $11 for the wood for all five.
    Here's the original 1x3 big guy.  There is a deck of cards for reference.
    A couple of different prototypes. 
    The one on the left I backed with a leftover piece of formica
    (leftover from the hutch resurfacing project the lapdesks are standing on).
    Sliding storage.  Even the shallower 1x2 on the right can carry a notebook, planner, and a pencil.
    The one on the right has a plywood cover.  I'll probably cut down the overhang. 
    The bulldog clip doesn't need that much space.
    Width comparison.  1x3 on the left and 1x2 on the right.
    Bottom backed in less pretty, but more cost effective hardboard.
My lapdesks might fit all of my needs:
  • Light (in weight, not luminosity)?  Even the smaller lapdesk is the weight of a math textbook.  The wood is heavier than the plastic Daiso lapdesks, but hopefully more durable and ecofriendly. 
  • Flat surface on which to write, at least as big as a notebook?  Check.
  • Clip or a clamp?  Check.  I 'll get some bulldogs from school.
  • Storage?  Enough for the planner and a pencil or two.
  • Cheap?  Same cost as Daiso.  Plus the (priceless) labour.
  • Durable?  We'll see when I let students use them in September.  I can always glue on replacement parts which I couldn't with the previous lapdesks.
  • Can stand on its end for storing?  Check.
  • Preferably wood?  Definitely.  Even if these fall apart during the year, I won't have extruded plastic on my conscience. 
  • Comfortable?  Not really, but the wood feels good.
  • Looks good?  Hmm.  That's in the eye of the beholder.  Plywood looks much better than the hardboard, but I can't afford it.  The formica is nice too but too flimsy for a bottom.
Hopefully, this will work.  I don't know.  If you got rid of your desks, what would you use?