The 2019 Subtraction Pledge

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McDonald’s as I first knew it…
Wright’s in Staunton, Virginia

At one moment during this Christmas holiday my wife and I found ourselves having lunch at Wright’s Dairy Rite Drive-In in Staunton, Virginia. Wright’s is a classic — a 1952 burger and ice-cream place — still with car hops.

Now I didn’t grow up with drive-ins. Too close to the center of New York, and the best we could do — in that style of eating — were our White Tower restaurants, or those of our diners, that had parking lots. But when I was eight a McDonald’s opened on US-1. Yup, I’m that old. It had 15 cent hamburgers and you stood outside and ordered. McDonald’s was an immediate big hit, as it was almost everywhere.

Much later I would learn that — in McDonald’s corporate lore — their success was based more on what they took away from the basic drive-in than what they added.

1963 menu

McDonald’s’ restaurants all lacked a number of amenities that were traditionally part of roadside burger eating: they not only lacked the car hops — then female wait staff often chosen based on ‘attractiveness’ — but also the jukebox, the cigarette machine, the pay phones, and, of course, the wait time between ordering and eating, and tipping.

What they added was an absolute level of consistency in burgers, fries, and shakes. They weren’t “better,” but you always knew exactly what you’d get.

On that was built a multi-billion dollar business.

Subtraction.

We sat in Wright’s and listened to the Christmas music and I thought again about what McDonald’s did. Their subtractions changed the drive-in from a teen hangout — see Happy Days or movies of that era — into a family-friendly lunch and dinner spot.

They made ‘families' — as that was defined 60 years ago — comfortable by subtracting all the things that made teenagers — teen culture at the time — comfortable. You couldn’t flirt with/harass the wait staff, couldn’t call friends, couldn’t buy smokes or listen to loud music. So teens went elsewhere and parents brought their kids.

Subtraction.

Lots of people say to me that they’d like to change things at their school but they can’t afford better furniture or they can’t add this or that. But the best way to start change is to subtract.

Years ago Michael Thornton asked if he really needed all the desks and chairs he had in his third grade classroom. I suggested that he pile most of the furniture up in a corner and see what happened. He discovered that he didn’t need new furniture, he needed less furniture.

Around the same time Pam Moran and I walked the halls of Woodbrook Elementary School with Lisa Molinaro, then the new principal. As we walked and talked we tore down poster after poster, the rules for walking down a corridor — ”follow the silver line, no talking, don’t touch anything” — the rules for not making noise in the library, the rules for the cafeteria. We didn’t need new rules, we needed many fewer rules. Eventually we rebuilt and refurnished the entire school in an open space, multiage marvel, but a decade before that process began with subtraction.

And, again about the same time, chatting with Robbie Munsey, then young middle school science teacher, about giving out zeros as grades. “I’ll never give another zero,” he said, subtracting a practice — at least from that classroom — that causes millions of kids to give up every year.

Subtract your paranoia about kids and tools

I’ve watched teachers subtract their desks, increasing their student classroom space by as much as 10%. Principals subtract homework over holidays and vacations. Departments subtract specified reading lists. Librarians subtract circulation desks and security systems. Coaches subtract cuts. Schools subtract most playground rules, hall passes, honor rolls, attendance awards, 95% of suspensions.

What McDonald’s teaches us…

It’s complicated, as they say. McDonald’s subtraction was about disadvantaging one group in order to win over others. It worked then, but eventually those red and yellow interiors and ‘play places’ proved to be the wrong formula. So in came high top tables and fireplaces. The appeal of the interior is far more universal — kids love sitting on high stools and benches — even if the food choices are not.

Is your classroom as comfortable for kids as fast food restaurants are?

In schools we need to not pick one group of winners at the expense of others, and we need to understand that times change. That means subtracting that classic bit of adult decision-making, the “I wouldn’t have liked that" — something I hear far too often — and learning to observe children in places other than schools, and it means subtracting the absurd idea that school furniture must last 30, 40, 50 years. I mean, really, who wants the same living room they furnished in 1978?

Who wants 40-year-old furniture? Not you (above, 1978), not even your bank (below, 2018)

Pay less for furniture now — what’s at Ikea? What’s on Wayfair? — and build the resources you need to react to changing student tastes in space — whether you are building caves, campfires, or especially those watering holes.

Of course McDonald’s taught us something else. They subtracted a lot but they added consistency, which our schools also need to add. Our kids need our consistent love, support, and patience. They need us to stop changing the rules every time they move from one room — one adult — to another. And they need us to always be listening to them, and always judging the environment from their point of view, not ours.

So, if you cannot afford to add ‘things,’ or even if you can, take the 2019 subtraction pledge right now — walk in to your school tomorrow and see what you can get rid of that interferes with the child/learner-centered environment that your kids need.

  • Ira Socol