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...

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