Monday, November 29, 2010
Where the sidewalk goes
A school I used to drive by every day built a beautiful new auditorium. In front, they installed sweeping sidewalks tracing a graceful arc from the parking lot to the wide front doors.
The problem was students did not like walking in a sweeping arc when rushing from class to class. They preferred taking the direct route, meaning they bisected the arc.
The school made efforts to corral students on the sidewalks - announcements, “keep off the grass” signs, ads in the school newspaper, orange cones (my favorite was a simple sign that read “Let It Be” - hey, it was the 1970s). Still, students walked straight, and literally beat a path in the grass.
Years later I drove by and noticed the school was trying a new attack. Workmen were installing blocks of limestone around the edges of the sidewalks. They were massive - 2 foot by 2 foot by 4-foot blocks. It seemed they were turning the house of learning into a mighty fortress.
My prediction? Students will still find a way to cut corners.
Guiding pedestrians is like herding cats. No matter which way you want them to go, they will seek the shortest path that offers the least resistance.
I knew one superintendent who understood this tendency and exploited it in building a school. He followed the advice of an architect who suggested putting up the buildings, then waiting one year to install the sidewalks. Then you simply paved where all the paths were.
Predicting paths is the most challenging part of planning anything, including a Club Ed session.
As a young director, I fell into the trap of expecting equal results from unequal input. In a typical session, 20% of classes are extremely popular, and 20% struggle to attract students. For years, I would put all my promotional efforts into getting people to sign up for the less attended classes. It seemed logical - the popular courses were filling on their own. So I should try to get more students into the less popular courses.
I finally realized that made no sense. If students are signing up for Underwater Basketweaving, I should be adding more sessions of Underwater Basketweaving and dropping Left Handed Piano. I still catch myself trying to force students down a path they just don’t want to take.
George Burns, the ageless radio comedian, once wrote, “Your audience will tell you what’s funny.” That’s why he smoked a cigar. That’s why Jack Benny pretended to be stingy. The comedians did not start out using those gimmicks. But they noticed when the audiences laughed, then stuck with it.
In Community Education, we know that our customers tell us what is popular. So now I’ve learned to watch where people are walking - and that’s where you build the sidewalk.