But most importantly, this space is an intersection. It is where people from every different part of the college bump into each other, meet, discover, talk, share. It is where silos break down and communities mingle and overheard conversations become opportunities for intellectual cross-pollination.
It is our "commons."
How different that is from our classrooms, our formal conference rooms. How different this is from the K-12 classrooms our students work in.
In 1832, when William A. Alcott wrote his "Essay on the Construction of Schoolhouses" and introduced the classroom-as-we-know-it, with desks and chairs all the same in rectangular rooms, he was advancing a certain idea of education, and a certain conception of society. He was trying to both make students more comfortable, protect female dignity, and support teachers. Alcott is no villain here, but we might think that (a) times have changed, (b) student needs have changed, and (c) our knowledge of the young brain and the learning process has grown in the 178 years since. Alcott, a keen observer, would - I think - be shocked to find his designs still central.
|Alcott's classroom, 1832|
You have prevented much "peer" tutoring, you have prevented kids from joining ideas together, you have forced yourself into disciplining uncomfortable children, and you have blocked "natural" learning paths.
Remember, when Alcott created his rows of desks, at least his classroom already included all ages, dealt in all subjects, had no set time-schedule, and offered big windows looking outside on two-sides, specifically arranged to the natural sequence of the day would be obvious. Your classroom probably lacks many of those benefits.
Those are not the only ways in which we actually offer our students a "worse" experience than what Alcott was recommending:
"Again—no provision has been made for the pupils standing at higher desks a part of the time, because it is believed they may sit without injury for about half an hour at a time, and then, instead of standing, they ought to walk into the garden, or exercise in the play-ground a few moments, either with or without attendants or monitors. Sitting too long, at all events, is extremely pernicious...In other words, we don't even afford our students today the best ideas of 1832, but a pale reflection of that design science.
"The relative position of each pupil should occasionally be changed from right to left, otherwise the body may acquire a change of shape by constantly turning or twisting so as to accommodate itself to the light, always coming from a particular window, or in the same general direction.
"If a portion of the play-ground is furnished with a roof, the pupils may sometimes be detached by classes, or otherwise, either with or without monitors, to study a short time in the open air, especially in the pleasant season. This is usually as agreeable to them, as it is favorable to health. A few plain seats should be placed there. A flower garden, trees, and shrubs, would furnish many important lessons of instruction. Indeed, I cannot help regarding all these things as indispensable, and as consistent with the strictest economy of space, material, and furniture, as a judicious arrangement of the school-room itself.
"Sensible objects, and every species of visible apparatus, including, of course, maps, charts, and a globe, are also regarded as indispensably necessary in illustrating the sciences. They not only save books, time, and money, as has been abundantly proved by infant schools, but ideas are in this way more firmly fixed, and longer retained. In the use of books, each child must have his own ; but in the use of sensible objects and apparatus, one thing, in the hands of the instructer, will answer the purposes of a large school, and frequently outlast half a dozen books."
So today we must do better. Today our students are much more isolated from society than they were in 1832. Today our students are not parts of big, multi-generational households with numerous siblings around them. Today our students do not play in village squares or farm-yards where all the news and sciences of the world are on display.
So we need not simply dispose of Alcott's rows, we must create Jeffersonian "Academical Villages" with the kinds of urban intersections and parks and coffee shops where people gather, get comfortable, and share human knowledge. We must allow - encourage - our kids to interact, to learn with each other, to collaborate and grow together.
Please, lets stop teaching in a bad replica of an 1832 learning space. We can do better.
- Ira Socol