Sunday, November 15, 2015

Teaching is Prototyping

The other day, I was reading about 3D printers, and how they are getting so good and so fast that they are not just being used for prototypes but actually for production. 

I remember first getting the concept of prototyping from reading Tom Kelley's excellent book The Art of Innovation.  He talks about the starting with a basic model for a concept (like the Macintosh mouse or a shopping cart), knowing that the model will be changed, adjusted and adapted with each successive attempt to get at the final product.   The basic model might go through countless iterations as testing informs each modification. 

I also talked with Lisa Mulzet about the idea of protoyping when she gave me my first look at a 3D printer, and how she used it with her design students.  Her students would design, make a 3D model adjust, redesign, and make another model, repeating the process until they achieved the desired end.

Reading this article last week about prototyping, I started to think about how I use prototypes, but I don't always do so intentionally.  The risers I created in my class for an alternative to traditional desks and workspaces were meant to be a prototype, but I didn't change them that much, though I did alter the original design after using the risers with kids in a class. 
The original plain, bare plywood and 2x4 prototype.
The tall riser, if you tip it on its side, is the same height as the short riser.  The original design I envisioned was closed at the back, capped with plywood so that when you tipped it on its side, you would have a massive flat surface like a stage, especially slid it up against the short riser.  We would have used it as a platform for drama, playing, or display.
Why didn't I stick with the closed-back design?  I wanted to get the risers in class as soon as possible so I slapped them together with the materials I had (remember the Ikea cabinet door for the top?), and a minimum of bought materials (mainly 2x4s).  Then when the kids started using them, the open back worked way better than the envisioned closed-back design. The students put chairs behind the tall risers so they could go face to face with students sitting on the short risers, picnic bench-style.  Students were able to crawl under the risers from both sides, creating some "cave" space that kids like.  The lack of a back kept some of the weight down too. 
Okay, okay.  Here is the real reason, maybe not the real reason, but the initial reason I didn't start closed-back: I couldn't get a piece of plywood that width to fit in the back of my car!  But all of the other good reasons for keeping it open-back came out of this initial accident and then testing the prototype in the classroom.  This is why prototyping and an open-minded approach to design is important because you get to work out the bugs and explore the possibilities without being constrained to a set design.
The current prototype (the design hasn't changed in 5 years) is stained, stabilized with cross beams,
and is covered with laminate flooring because it is durable, cleans nicely, and I had some left over!
The evolution of the lapdesks, from plastic doc holders to the current wooden "J" design has definitely been a (slow, multiyear) journey of prototyping.  Each model had advantages and disadvantages, and even with the current model, there are things I will change. 


The idea of prototyping really appeals to me, especially in terms of teaching.  I don't believe there is any one way to do anything, and I cringe when presenters or teachers say, "The WAY to do  ________ is ...."  Different things work for different teachers.  Different things work for different kids.  Yes, you need to have a goal and a plan, but that plan should be open and flexible to meet the needs and nuances of different students and teachers. 
Teaching is a series of prototypes.  We start with a basic model, and then adjust and modify to shape our learning.  We are going to make mistakes, but those mistakes are like chipping away unneeded stone to create the sculpture of learning.  As much as possible, I try to stick with this open model of teaching and create a workshop-like atmosphere: a little bit of instruction, a whole lot of trial and error, then we share and reflect, then we try again.  Repeat.  Just like prototyping. 
Prototyping goes beyond teaching for me.  I am a lifelong tinkerer.  I used to take stuff apart when I was a kid (and on the rare occasion I could get them back together).  I liked seeing how things worked and how I could change or improve them. Even now, I tend to buy cheaper things, thinking that I will change or improve them at some later date.  Maybe it is why I like old, anachronisms like safety razors, winding watches and fountain pens.  I wrote a post on another blog about how I like to mod guitars on the post: "Why Buy Cheap Guitars?"
The only things I don't prototype are people.  My family and my friends are perfect; they don't need change, modding, or improvement.    But our relationships?  Those are definitely works in progress.