Saturday, March 26, 2011

I'm Feeling Lucky

If you Google "Google's offices," you get all sorts of images that will more than likely make you sigh about your own workspace.  You see Legos, ping pong tables, comfy chairs, scooters, bright colors, video games, and lots and lots of food -- the antithesis of the life-sapping fluorescent sterility you find in so many environments.  On Friday I got to see Google's New York City headquarters in person, and my expectations were actually surpassed.  The building itself is breathtakingly expansive, and the space inside is invigorating.  The people, not surprisingly, are in good spirits, and with the levity that pervades, you might forget for a moment what seriously powerful work is taking place.  For the few hours I was there, I very deliberately soaked in the energy, took note of the details, and couldn't help but wonder, "How might these elements apply to other places of learning?"

My time to explore was relatively brief, but a few key themes emerged as potential ingredients for a place of inspiration, challenge, and love of one's work.

Play matters


Google's office embodies the mantra of MIT's Media Lab: "Lifelong Kindergarten."  Around every corner there are places to play, tinker, design, build, and experiment.  There are bins of Legos, expansive table tops, boxes of Mr. Potato Head, chess boards, a ball pit, pool tables, slides, and a multi-user gaming system complete with a big screen TV.  And when walking is too pedestrian or inefficient, one can grab a scooter to move from room to room.  A skeptic might wonder how in such an environment any work gets done.  However, research shows us how important play is beyond mere "fun." Play is practical, essential to problem solving, and an application of curiosity and imagination.  And in addition to many other benefits, it fuels a healthy morale.  What leader of learners wouldn't want more of this for his or her community?   Unfortunately, as students advance grade levels, play often seems to disappear.  The rigor of more advanced curricula becomes synonymous with stress, and the value placed on play disintegrates as the prospect of college looms.   What if we could take a lesson from Google and science and find ways to help our young adults play more as they learn?

Reflection breeds creation


Lining Google's hallways are computers of the past: an original Macintosh, an Apple II, even an old Atari complete with joystick.  Passing them you literally witness an evolution in thinking, design, and performance and you're at once awed, entertained, and inspired by how far technology has come.  This display then leads into collaborative spaces where Googlers are challenged to create their next best thing. The spectrum from reflection to creation is seamless, and employees gain perspective on how they stand poised to make their contribution to this great timeline.  How valuable it would be if our students could experience something similar.  How meaningful it is when they can envision and reflect on what came before them and then harness the motivation and tools to create and share what their intellect and interactions compel them to.

Comfort counts


Core to Google's success is its steadfast focus on the user experience.  An unusable interface, an unsightly design, or an ineffective tool will quickly be abandoned, perhaps even resented.  Google's office designers seem to grasp this truth on many levels.  To do good work that meets people's needs requires people whose own needs are met.  A space suited to herd cattle into restrictive spaces that tax the body and mind is poised to result in sub-optimal work and team members eager to jump ship.  On the contrary, spaces that comfort and support, with parts that can move and adapt, and make inhabitants feel welcome, valued, and wanted may just produce wonders.  You see these latter elements everywhere you look at Google.  I imagine that those who dwell in that space cannot help but feel valued and are therefore inclined to pass that experience on through their work.  I have to wonder, how comfortable are our learners?  How valued does their learning space (and the people in them) make them feel?  How many learners may feel eager to jump ship, and what can we do about that?

Google's offices are exceptional, and large revenue streams play a big part in that.  But I believe that the vision and values of Google's spaces are ones from which every school can learn.

a Google employee's tweet
I left the New York headquarters feeling lucky to have been there, and I hope I can do my part so that students leave school with the very same feeling.