Information and debates rolled across my Twitter landscape Friday night. Powerful questions and divergent answers. I was so struck by the quality of the conversation, and the fact that so many educators were up late on a Friday night worrying about how to improve on what is happening in and around their schools that, well, I could only be embarrassed for the likes of Arne Duncan, Christopher Christie, David Cameron, Wendy Kopp, even Barack Obama - those who make money or score political points demeaning teachers.
As I "listened" though, I began to think (again) about asking all the questions. Why do we do do everything we do?
Christian Long, Pam Moran and I began discussing school architecture, and the idea of classroom shape and the "teaching wall." And I asked why classrooms were rectangular, "didn't that shape," I wondered, "pulled from the architecture of the Protestant Church, create certain 'facts' in the classroom?'
Christian, a brilliant school designer, who tries to challenge everything, said, "all people/clients like "rectangles". No example in nature. Entirely a man-made concept. Suggests 'balance'/'focus'."
I've already written about a school which chose to switch to square classrooms with no "teaching wall." They even skipped the Interactive White Boards because they seemed to "focus" the classroom in one way. In human habitation around the world the square is much more common than the rectangle, or surely was. Squares are less "hierarchical." The point of focus is less obvious. And that may have had real advantages for human relationships and human learning.
What might a circular classroom suggest that a rectangular classroom does not?
What about a square?
What might those room shapes do to student perception, student participation, pedagogical form, student and teacher behavior?
But then, the Catholic Mass has always been about teaching to the many intelligences in many ways - words and image, art and scent, movement and taste, and the mysteries of what lies behind that corner or that pillar. A style of teaching specifically rejected by America's Protestants, who built simple, hierarchical, text-centered and single "teaching wall" rectangles for both worship and education.
The rectangular room embraces one notion of focus... stair straight ahead, put down everything but that book, listen to one voice, there is only one way to learn. It was conceived - in education - for that purpose. And the rectangular classroom, like the notion that, "with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction," is a control system, and part of a method of limiting human potential.
We live, in most of our schools, with a system built on a few fatal assumptions. These assumptions are largely based in Reformation view of human development and the path to heaven. Children are, in our school design, inherently evil and ignorant - and so they must be controlled, managed, focused. Humans, in our school design, are inherently sinful and slothful - so, if their vision is not tightly controlled, they will do the wrong things. There is only one true path to salvation, in our school design, and so we must carefully lay out both the steps and the procedures - or our students will slip into perdition.
And we have lived with these assumptions for so long, we have - far too often - accepted them as "natural" instead of as the 16th Century political invention that they are. Of course. These assumptions define our educational environment, from our room shapes to our age-based grades to our grade-level-expectations and tests to our schedules, our blackboards or whiteboards, to the way - perhaps - that student seats rarely face the windows.
There are those who believe that the way to change schools is to change their management system to one based on profit. There are those who believe that the way to change schools is to stop training teachers. There are those who believe that the way to change schools is to go "back to basics." But for me, the way to change schools is to alter the assumptions which underlie them.
Because there is a counter-narrative. It is not unknown, rather it runs from Rousseau to Montessori to Dewey to Postman to Kohn. It runs from the Catholic Mass to the developing world village circle to the few field left where children play and learn on their own. This narrative understands human attention in a pre-Reformation, pre-Gutenberg way - when "multitasking" was, simply, being human. This narrative understands that we are all learners, and all instructors. This narrative understands that hierarchical spaces are not necessarily the best learning structures, and understands that human learning rarely effectively occurs "on schedule." This narrative thinks less about "molding" children into useful adults, and more about embracing human potential.
About five centuries ago Protestant leaders began building churches in simple rectangles. They stopped installing storytelling stained glass. They skipped instrumental music. They dropped the use of scent as an important sensory tool. The number of people moving in the front of the church at any time shrank from many, often to one. And they began to pass out books, as the essential learning tool. Books in which you were instructed which page to turn to.
And in our classrooms we too often live with all this still. We accept all this still. America's president is sure that information which comes from something other than a book or a teacher is "a distraction." Our architects assume classrooms must be rectangular. Our school administrators worry endlessly about students being "on time" for school and our teachers worry about assignment deadlines. We continue to expect children to sit still in far too many classes. And we rank reading and writing as more important than viewing art or creating music.
So, if you want to change schools - stop playing ball in John Calvin's court. Tinkering has gotten us nowhere. Perhaps changing assumptions will bring about change.
- Ira Socol
- About Ira David Socol
- Freedom Stick and Firefox Accessibility
- The Change.Org Posts
- IdeaChat 11 February 2012
- Counting the Origins of Failure
- Technology: The Wrong Questions and the Right Questions
- Today's "School Reformers" vs Real Change for Education - I
- Today’s “School Reformers” vs Real Change for Education - II
- The Toolbelt and Universal Design - Education For Everyone
- "Evaluate that!" - Schools for Children