Friday, August 31, 2012

Window Dressing: a different experience

When I was in San Francisco, I was wandering just off Market Street and I came across this cool shop window.

It was a funky hardware store. Instead of the usual merchandise posed like mannequins with price tags, this store had their merchandise displayed like Art. A tape measure was formed into a crown.  Some sink parts were arranged like the ripples of a Monet pond.  The frames were made of yardsticks.  The window was visually appealing. It was intriguing. It told a story. It made me want to walk in the store and see what happened inside.  So I went in. 

Inside, visually it looked like almost any other urban hardware store with goods from floor to ceiling in cramped little aisles.  But there were subtle differences. Instead of the metallic smell of nails and screws, there was this buttery aroma.  Near the entrance, there was a cinema-style red popcorn dispenser with a hand drawn sign that said, "Help yourself!"  So I did.  I shoveled some popcorn into one of those little red and blue striped bags.  I merrily chewed on the popcorn as I browsed the aisles.  Around the next corner, I was asked whether I wanted red or white wine.  (I chose red.  I don't trust free white wine, even in northern California, unless it is to clean my windows).  Even without the wine, the staff seemed genuinely glad to see me.  They were just  happy to talk to me, and once in a while, we even mentioned hardware. 

Of course I HAD to buy something.  How could I not support such a business that created such a pleasant experience in a HARDWARE store?  I ended up buying some picture frame wire for $15.  But what I walked out of that store with was joy.  Yeah, it's hard to believe that I spent a week in San Francisco (with its glorious shops, hotels, restaurants, museums, architecture, natural beauty, etc.) and my most gratifying experience was in a hardware store.  But that's just it.  I expected to find rich experiences in those other places (and I got them), but not in a hardware store.  The hardware store delivered a fun, intriguing, personal experience in a place which at its best traditionally is utilitarian, and at its worst, BO-ring. 

This is what we should be doing in schools.  No, I don't mean giving kids popcorn and wine.  No, I don't mean having them sell hardware.  No, I don't mean configuring objects in interesting, artistic ways to attract customers (though that is cool).  No, what I mean is redesigning the whole experience of education.  Instead of merely focusing on the product and hustling our clients in and out as fast as possible, why not slow the process down a little and make it more pleasant, personal and beneficial for everyone involved?  Those hardware people were able to design a hometown experience in the financial centre of a major city.  If I lived in San Francisco, I would visit that store every time I was in the area.  They focused on the clients and gave them the best experience possible while they looked for a new toilet seat or found the right light bulb.

I would love to educate kids in a way that would have them love the experience as they learned.  Have students see the joy, beauty, and wonder in every day things, like hardware, language, numbers, rocks.  Spend long times with individual students so they can share what is wonderful to them with me and vice versa.  Sir Ken Robinson said that we need to go from an industrial model of education to an agricultural one, that we just need the right conditions to develop children properly.  I think that the hardware store was on the right track.  They took the expected (the hardware products) and added the unexpected (the personal, joyful experience). 

We could do the same in education:  take the expected (learning), and add the unexpected (a personal, joyful experience).  It doesn't take a lot of money nor does it need to change radically (after all, they still sold hardware), but it does take time and a great deal of imagination.  How else will we start to see things in a new way unless we use our imaginations?  Like the hardware store, imagination will be the nuts and bolts  for designing a new experience in education.

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