On Clasps and Goggles

fischer

People often associate creativity with big ideas, but it is often found in centimeter-sized details. In an earlier post I discussed how creativity involves tinkering with subject matter; here I will look at how it thrives on the small scale, in the realm of hinges, clasps, and other parts.

The above picture (which I took at home) shows three objects–two book stands and a pair of AN-6530 goggles–manufactured by the Chas. Fischer Spring Co., founded by my great-granduncle Charles Fischer. He was about fourteen when he came with his parents and seven younger siblings to New York City from Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia). In 1906, after working as a toolmaker and spring-maker, he founded his company in Brooklyn and employed a few of his brothers. My great-grandfather worked for him as a bookkeeper, I believe.

The two book stands clasp onto the knee, so that your hands are free when you read; the AN-6530 goggles were produced during World War II for Army and Navy flight crews. After one year of use (in 1943), they were superseded by rubber-framed, plastic-framed goggles (since mass production of plastic had become possible in the interim, and plastic lenses were much safer).

Many of Charles Fischer’s inventions pertained to goggles; he had several patents for goggles themselves, and others for goggles’ hinges, clasps, bridges, and seals. His goggle clasp (Patent No. 2,126,379), filed in 1937 and patented in 1938, improves upon existing clasps in ways that he carefully lays out.

claspHere’s a photo of the AN-6530 clasp (at least on my own pair). I have looked at pictures of others; the clasps are similar in form. You can see that they require twisting a piece of wire. As we know from experience with hangers (for instance), if you twist the wire too much, it breaks.

That is exactly the problem that Charles Fischer sought to address. (Note that the AN-6530 goggles came well after his invention but stuck with the earlier clasp.) In his patent specifications, he explains:

Heretofore, the head band has carried a thin light open ring which was passed through the ears of the frame and then twisted by pliers. The twisting of the ring strains it and crystallizes it. Thereafter, the stresses to which the ring was sub­jected imposed further strain and led to break­age at the point of twisting.

Here’s how he resolves the problem:

The possibility of the head band clasp breaking or working loose from the goggle and the result­ing inconvenience and perhaps danger to the user, is avoided by the clasp shown in Figs. 2, 3 and 4, in which a strap 23 is provided, slotted at 24 to receive one end of a head band 25. The strap has a forwardly extending pocket 26, the strap and pocket being stamped from one piece of metal. Passing through the sides of the pocket is a pivot pin 27, and a strong hook 28 is pivoted on this pin. As illustrated, pivot pin 27 is arranged off-center, i.e. below the central horizontal plane of the pocket and below the line of force acting on hook 28. This arrangement results in the hook being securely locked to the frame when in closed position. In addition, the upper sides of pocket 26 are pinched at 29 to provide a pair of spring jaws. When the hook is open, as shown in full lines in Fig. 2, the jaws act to hold the hook up and in a position which facilitates the passing of the free end of the hook through the perforated noses of the frame. When the hook is closed, the jaws give way to allow the hook to pass and then spring back behind the hook. Also, as shown, the extended lip 30 of pocket 25 is adapted to be engaged by and serve as a stop for the free end of hook 28.

That may seem a little confusing until you match it, number by number, with the diagram:
goggle-clasp-imageNow it’s evident that this new clasp resolves the problems of the previous one. There’s no twisting of wire, no loose ends, no strain on the materials. What’s more, it involves a kind of spring: “In addition, the upper sides of pocket 26 are pinched at 29 to provide a pair of spring jaws.”

I don’t know why this clasp wasn’t incorporated in the AN-6530 model. His patent was issued a year before the outbreak of World War II. Maybe his inventions didn’t get enough attention; maybe they were considered too expensive.

My point is that our discussions of creativity tend to miss the mark. There’s creativity in the spring jaw and pivot pin of a goggle clasp–yet when people speak of creativity, they disregard those beautiful little parts.

Charles Fischer died almost two decades before I was born, so I had no way of meeting him. Only one of his siblings, Emanuel, survived into my lifetime; he died when I was about four, and I knew nothing of his existence. My great-grandfather Max died four years before my birth. I wish time could be compressed so that I could ask them questions. I sense enjoyment in Charles Fischer’s descriptions; I imagine that he loved explaining them to people who showed interest.

There may be far more creativity in the world than people imagine. It may be found in the particulars, in the subtle reworking of words, sounds, and springs. The current focus on big ideas detracts from creativity itself. Or to put it bluntly: creativity means nothing in the abstract. It has meaning only in relation to specific form and matter.

Image credits: I took the two photos. The patent image can be found on the United States Patent and Trademark Office website.

Note: I made some edits to this piece–and added two sentences to the end–after posting it. Also, I changed the title twice.

Why Must Everything Be an Innovation?

Today, on his Education Week blog, Rick Hess argues that “not all innovations are created equal.” To merit attention, an innovation must be “game-changing, sustainable, and replicable.” I question all of this, including the underlying premise that innovations are what we need in the first place.

Must an idea be an innovation in order to have value? Of course not. Many of the best ideas in education are old ones–or else subtle modifications of old ideas. In many cases the innovation, if it exists at all, is slight. That does not detract from its importance.

An example: last year I observed a physics class where students were given pictures and asked to identify the force or forces acting on the objects. As they worked on this, I saw them making some key mistakes. I pointed this out to the teacher, and he said, “Yes, that’s what they usually do.” He wasn’t worried. When they came back together as a class, he took took time to discuss their reasoning with them. It was clear, as the discussion progressed, that the students were “getting it”–precisely because they had made the error and now saw why it was an error. It was one of the most illuminating lessons I have watched. The teacher didn’t do anything revolutionary; rather, he followed some complementary principles (letting the students struggle on their own and then walking them carefully through the problems) and exercised good judgment when doing so.

One could turn this into a Big Innovation (along the lines of “discovery” learning): Teachers, stop teaching students the right answer. Let them make mistakes, and then reason through the problems with them. But that’s exactly the sort of idea that goes wrong when taken large. One has to  know when to let kids make these mistakes and when to set them on the right track. One have to give them some direction, or they will be all over the place, and it will be difficult to bring them together for a fruitful discussion. This lesson worked beautifully because there was a basis for it and because the teacher knew how to do it right. He didn’t teach every lesson in this manner.

Why must a good idea, innovative or not, be replicated on a large scale? That takes away the very spirit of innovation, which involves, at the very least, the use of one’s best judgment. Tell others to copy a model, and you’re telling them to shut off part of their thinking. It makes more sense to translate a model–that is, to carry some aspects of it into new situations–than to replicate it.

I remember a professional development training–or series of trainings–where we were put in groups and taught how to perform “jigsaw” activities (where each group’s work would form part of a whole). We were then told to go implement it in the classroom the very next week, and come back and talk about what we had done. I found this peculiar. Why must I implement a “jigsaw” activity, unless it makes sense to do so? Instead, I reported on a project that my students had just completed. It involved elements of the jigsaw but was not a jigsaw activity per se. The final result was a collection of mystery stories the students had written (a feat for these English language learners, and a delightful collection). I brought the booklet to the next training; the trainer asked, “But how did you use our strategies?” I tried to explain that I had used elements of them, but that was not enough. It wasn’t that she held a higher standard; the “jigsaw activity” we had learned in training resulted in a bunch of charts that we then put on the wall. The content wasn’t what mattered here. What mattered (to the trainers) was that we replicate the “strategies.”

Later, I found myself adapting the “jigsaw” idea for certain lessons–for instance, when conducting a mock session of Congress. It seemed much more fruitful to me to wait for the right opportunity–and to make adjustments to the model as needed–than to just go and implement it because someone told me to do so, without regard for lesson topic. I see this error often in professional development; the trainers expect teachers to go and do exactly what they say, when a less literal implementation would actually be more interesting.

A good idea need not be new or grand, nor need it be replicated exactly, in order to have value. Why, then, does our education rhetoric scream “new, new, new” and “big, big, big”? The reasons are many–and the results disappointing. Many reforms tout themselves as innovations that will revolutionize the classroom and change the face of teaching and learning. This is a setup; first of all, revolutions carry losses, often severe and unforeseen; second, when you tell others to copy your idea exactly, you’re robbing them of the freedom you yourself enjoyed when developing the idea.

Why not take a more modest tack? Why not value tradition along with innovation and see how the two combine? Why not recognize the thoughtful, small-scale reform that may inspire many others but cannot and need not be copied?

Philanthropist Funds Misfit Database for Kindergarten

At a recent conference titled “Producing College-and-Career-Ready Tots,” the opening speaker warned that the new assessments for kindergarteners did not yet carry sufficiently high stakes. “We’re putting great effort and money into determining which children are following directions, which ones are working well in groups, which ones are matching letters with sounds, but if they can’t do these things, then what? ‘Oh well?’” he sneered rhetorically. “We’ve had too much of ‘oh well.’ We can’t afford ‘oh well’ any more.”

The room darkened for the next presentation. Billionaire philanthropist Roger Row stepped up to the podium, into the spotlight, and clicked his clicker. As the throbbing music began, the screen showed little children in rapid succession—one sliding down a slide, another forming the number 2, another filling in a bubble on a test, and another holding a classmate’s hand. Then the scene switched to a spreadsheet of names, scores, and designations. Row zoomed in on one of the cells, which read “MISFIT.” The music stopped.

“Imagine,” began Row, “just imagine a really big idea. Think of the biggest idea you’ve ever thought in your life. Now, what you’re going to hear today is a ten-times-bigger idea. It’s an idea that will shake away the tragic failures in our society.”

He proceeded to show a graph. “Statistics show that children who cannot read job descriptions or write resumes by grade four are forty percent less likely to complete college or earn more than twice the minimum wage than those who can. In third grade, they’re only thirty percent less likely. So if you extrapolate backwards, you find out that kindergarten is the time of judgment, the time when children get sent either to heaven, as it were, or to hell. So we must identify those children who are being sent to hell—and the teachers who are sending them there! Yes, we must identify those teachers!” (Applause.) “To this end I have donated thirty million dollars for the construction of a National Misfit Database.”

Children identified as “misfits” would be entered in the database, along with all available personal and demographic information. Their teachers would be linked to them; a teacher with two or more misfits in the class would have a red light flashing next to her name. “That way,” explained Row, “we can identify those teachers who are setting up child after child for distress, romantic rejection, achievement gapping, cognitive dissonance, weird clothes, and future unemployment. Look at this girl with untied shoes. She’s a misfit, and her teacher already has a red light. The principal is now looking into ways to replace the teacher so that the child and her classmates have a chance of making it in the world.”

An audience member asked whether some of these “misfit” children might not simply be dreamy,  nervous, forgetful, or in some way different from the others. “Absolutely,” said Row. “Thank you for bringing it up. Chances are, if I had been tested in kindergarten, I would have been labeled a misfit too.” (Laughter.) “That’s why we have to get ourselves into the mindset of testing them relentlessly. Because the data add up. We can make better judgments when we’ve got reams of data.”

Row then enjoined the audience to visualize the future. “Think of the workplace of the 22nd century, the 23rd century,” he said, as the lighting changed to blue. “Think of the employment agencies and all the information they will have. They can look you up and see if you were a misfit at any time in your life! That will have an electrifying effect on our schools. It will be as though the entire school system went whitewater rafting”—he displayed a photograph of that very activity—“and found themselves heading headlong down a vertical waterfall. AAAH! the school system screams. Try that yourselves! Scream AAAH!” The audience screamed “AAAH” and broke into laughter. “You see? More of that, and you won’t see teachers tolerating the status quo while Mindy draws a tree instead of a data tree. You’ll hear her saying this instead.”

He displayed a video of a teacher telling a little girl, “Mindy, you’re supposed to draw a data tree. Now why don’t you turn and talk to Joshua, who knows what that is. Joshua, make sure Mindy does it right, OK? I’ll come back in a few minutes. Frederick, what’s that you’re drawing? You’re not supposed to draw a dark forest. What ever gave you the idea that we were here to draw a forest? Look at the objective on the screen. Class, give Frederick your support. What’s today’s objective? All together now!” The class responded in chorus: “To draw a data tree!” The teacher nodded. “That’s right. So, Frederick, I’m putting you down as a misfit for now, but if you start over and draw a data tree, I’ll take the label away, and you’ll be in the clear. Ready? Set? Go!”

As the lights dimmed, Row looked out at the audience with tears in his eyes. A rainbow spotlight lit up over him, causing “oohs” in the audience. “I would not be funding this database today,” he said, “were it not for the wonderful education I received, starting in kindergarten. My teachers challenged me in all ways but also encouraged me to pursue my own passions. They never worried about my differences. So I leave you with this thought. Be a kindergartener once again, in your heart. Now be a poor kindergartener, without opportunities, falling through the cracks, sure of being forgotten, unless someone records you and says that tough ‘M’ word that no one else will say. Let’s spend a moment of silence on that thought.”(Three seconds of silence ensued.) “Thank you, and enjoy the rest of your time here.”

Upon leaving the room, participants were interviewed on camera about their impressions. Those who said something other than “awesome,” “amazing,” or “inspiring” were entered into the National Misfit Database.