14 January 2012

Changing Gears 2012: changing rooms

(1) ending required sameness     (2) rejecting the flipped classroom     (3) re-thinking rigor     (4) its not about 1:1      (5) start to dream again     (6) learning to be a society (again)     (7) reconsidering what literature means     (8) maths are creative, maths are not arithmetic     (10) undoing academic time     (11) social networks beyond Zuckerbergism     (12) knowing less about students, seeing more     (13) why we fight

Spaces matter. And I have come to understand that spaces matter much more than places.

"Place" is a physical construct, "space" a conceptual one, and somehow we need to begin to carve out a series of effective "learning spaces" in the "places" we call "school."

Yes, there is power in both, memory in both, opportunity in both. But "place" is both more tribal in nature, and even when sublimely lovely, much more constrictive by nature than "space," which is an ever-changing idea.

In one of those many "previous lives" I have had, I once was part of a production of David Storey's The Changing Room. Storey's play was about space, and the power of space. There is no actual plot, and the place hardly matters (no matter how apparent in expected accent and character descriptions), but Storey writes about how this conceptual space between a cruel society and a cruel game offers those within it something unparalleled elsewhere in their lives. The physical "changing room/locker room" is one thing, and it might look like anything and be anywhere, but here we are diving into something entirely different from the architectural.

Yet, the architectural always matters. Buildings matter. Landscapes matter. Views matter. Acoustics matter.
"The purpose of Why Architecture Mattersis to “come to grips with how things feel to us when we stand before them, with how architecture affects us emotionally as well as intellectually”—to show us how architecture affects our lives and to teach us how to understand the architecture that surrounds us every day. “Architecture begins to matter,” Paul Goldberger writes, “when it brings delight and sadness and perplexity and awe along with a roof over our heads.” He shows us how that works in examples ranging from a small Cape Cod cottage to the “vast, flowing” Prairie style houses of Frank Lloyd Wright, from the Lincoln Memorial to the highly sculptural Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Church of Sant’Ivo in Rome, where “simple geometries…create a work of architecture that embraces the deepest complexities of human imagination.”'
Of course architecture also matters when it does something opposite "bring[ing] delight and sadness and perplexity and awe along with a roof over our heads," whether that be the classic leaking roof in a rain storm or rectangular boxes which separate students into production cells.

Entering Trinity in Dublin, welcoming but safe,
many ways to gather, or not.
"Your architecture should ennoble all who pass through your design," a Pratt Institute professor once told a studio I was part of. I think it must ennoble and empower, engage and comfort, and the best designs I know, do that. Great learning spaces make things possible, this is true of Prospect Park, or the Temple of Dendur wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or Trafalger Square, or Orestad College in Denmark, or the Bois de Boulogne, or the lawn at the University of Virginia, or Millennium Park in Chicago, or the Seattle Central Library, or many a great cathedral or city square ... theses spaces allow gathering and solitude, inspiration and reflection, communication and study, performance and observance, communion and acceptance.

This is true online as well. The QR Code Advent Calendar created by #ccGlobal kids last month allowed, inspired, and introduced so much. Twitter, and on a smaller level, TodaysMeet, are blank canvases which offer those opportunities, perfect spelling, grammar, complexity in language not required - but it's open to anyone and anyone can link to anything. Hybrid online spaces, say, Skype + TodaysMeet + Google Docs offer another "big opening" kind of space, as, I suspect, do Google + Hangouts with the ability to combine many tools.

Honestly, I looked for great classrooms, but... well, these are rarer, of course. Yet, not impossible to find. Not impossible at all...

 Without removing walls, without big money, we can go from teaching places
to learning spaces

Ewan Mcintosh has one great framework, his "Seven Spaces" which exist both in "reality" and "virtually" ...
In Mcintosh's beginning thoughts for those designing, planning, or furnishing "schools," he puts it simply, "There's a difference between: "What kind of building would help you teach and learn better?" and "What kind of teaching and learning would you like to do, and what things could we help with in making that happen?"
Which is the opposite of what we see in the TEDtalk below, where the goals are established from the top, and thus, no matter how "cute" the walls get, the computers and their student users still sit alone facing walls, and though drill and kill has moved outside, it has not changed.

Failed Space... the TED space, sage-on-stage + passive audience, rehearsed lecture + PowerPoint,
is - by design - a "limited to the elite" structure in which alternate expression is blocked.
(Admission: as with every TEDtalk I've tried to watch, it took me four sittings to get through this)

Step nine of Changing Gears 2012 is creating Learning Spaces which have choices, create opportunities, allow comforts, provide safety. We build these differently wherever we do them, but we craft these environments in a way which allows the maximum possibility for flexibility and continuous adaptability. Learning Spaces cannot be places which create continuous irrelevant discomfort: "'Who wants to be locked into a room with 30 people dressed just like them, to be startled by a bell every 35 minutes, to queue for lunch for 40 minutes and be made to stand outside in the cold twice a day?' says Jenn Ashworth in a Guardian piece on truancy titled "Why I refused to go to school." I have been in classrooms so visually chaotic - in every direction - that I could not last 5 minutes in them. I have been in classrooms so coldly sterile that I imagined someone was about to perform surgery on someone, which creates more tension than anyone should have to handle.

Learning Spaces must offer options which support every child. This is true whether learning is happening dominantly in-room or online. You can't just send kids off to their computers from their homes and call yourself an educator (you can, however, do this and call yourself a Republican governor).

Choice is one of the things which create learning spaces.

There is plenty of science here, although education invests less in research regarding space than almost any other industry (think restaurants, or retailing). "A common complaint in the classroom is eye fatigue and in order to relieve it, Engelbrecht suggests that the end wall of the classroom behind the teacher should be a different colour from the other walls," says one design study which also notes, "there are some suggestions that the colour of surroundings might have a distinct impact on mood and behaviour, perhaps sometimes, Sundstrom (1987) suggests, through changing perceptions of room temperature or size. Read et al (1999) consider that both colour and ceiling height affects children’s cooperative behaviour. Engelbrecht argues that the colour of walls in the classroom affects productivity and accuracy while Brubaker (1998) argues that cool colours permit concentration," but, indicates something a look at schools might make obvious, "that children thought colour was important and that they thought the colour of the walls in their school was uninviting and boring. However, in this study Maxwell also found that teachers and parents were not concerned by the colour of the walls."

Color is just one little part, to quote a student from one class where a teacher embraced a radical reshaping - of both room and assignments - based in choice and comfort, "we have freedom of choice in here-we are more creative-not having choice takes fun out of writing." In the same space another simply said, "I think better and work harder when I am comfortable."

Comfort, choice, pleasure, the ability to see outside and find momentary escapes, varieties of light,  transparency which allows learners to see the work of other learners (contagious creativity, contagious inquiry), multiple "entry points" for beginning an effort, and, of course, tool choice... Yu know I've written a lot about all of this:
old furniture, new uses.
learn to "alert" on discomfort
instead of movement
And I have because it matters. We need to get past that old Calvinist notion (more American Calvinist than Calvin, for those religious historians playing along at home) that misery and discomfort are important to learning. In fact, as Maslow suggests, the uncomfortable student cannot possibly focus on the higher-level learning skills, the brain simply doesn't allow that. Discomfort, a feeling of being unsafe, will always trump the more complex. Let me say it this way again: "In order to learn you must be cognitively uncomfortable, but you can't be cognitively uncomfortable if you are physically or psychologically uncomfortable."

Which brings us back to one of my other key arguments about educational spaces. While safety and comfort are vital, so is change, and these elements must co-exist. I am always stunned that so many educators seem to believe that the "school day" or a "learning experience" should begin with automaticity of operation - that is, without consciousness, without thought. Why would learning begin in an unconscious state? So, you need not shock your students - there's that safety thing - but you do need surprise and difference which gets the human brain operating, and, if your students get off a bus, go through the door, go down the corridor, and arrive at an assigned seat each morning, or follow completely predictable paths to an online experience, you have begun your interaction with your students by turning off their brains... Why do you think the world's simplest, and most successful, website loves to surprise its visitors?

Willing to completely distract our students on the way to their tasks?
Google's legendary Pac-Man doodle
Take the idea of "Learning Spaces" seriously this year, because they matter.

- Ira Socol
next: undoing academic time


monika hardy said...

love this Ira:

need cognitive discomfort but can't have that with physical/psychological discomfort..

David said...

Enjoyed so much.

Yes, we so value the role "space" plays in education. So much that is not just dysfunctional but ugly. It is the message it sends that is so harmful, as much as how the space confines/imprisons our behavior.

Sugata Mitra at the end of his lecture at TUDelft responds in the same way as yourself - the need to redesign the shape of things. (Q and A starts at about 1 hour.) http://bit.ly/hf9aFk

I wonder if what really drives us to create such places of "discomfort" for learning is our belief in saving $$$ (another Calvinist notion). Meaning, we think of efficiencies and cost cutting and believe just copying previous plans = cheaper (when as you point out, this isn't the case).