10 May 2010

everything we do...

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'."

Yes, there is no example in nature. Yes, to Protestant Europeans and certain East Asians, the rectangular room does indeed suggest balance and focus. But is it a universally preferred shape for learning and gathering?

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.

But we can go back further. Humans really tended to start with circular spaces, from Bronze Age round thatched cottages, from North American tipis and kivas, to African village houses and Irish "beehive" monasteries.

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?

There are, of course, other "learning environment" shapes. The Catholic Cathedral is a complex idea, filled with the kinds of "distractions" so despised by a certain (and self-admittedly completely uniformed) Protestant-trained power elite. "You're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't always rank that high on the truth meter," he told the students. "And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy." - Barack Obama

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


Bill Genereux said...

Your rant against the rectangle reminds me of PrairyErth (also came to me via you), and the distaste for the grid that carves up the prairie. That example, and yours, challenges the assumptions of what is good, what represents progress.

Who says we even needs walls, rectangular or otherwise? I talked recently with a young professor who wished to take her students on a "Socratic dialog walk." Why don't you? I ask. I didn't think I could, she replied. The very notion that learning has to take place inside of walls is so ingrained.

One semester, I had a group of students that I worked my tail off trying to get them to warm up to me, to participate in class discussions, but they were simply too introverted or I was just too weird. Finally, in desperation, I took them outside for a class. The ice thawed, and our relationship changed, all from a simple change of scenery.

Until teachers can be rewarded for taking risks, I doubt we will ever see much improvement in education.

Neal Wollenberg said...

@Bill - Bill, I have to say, this isn't even a rant against the rectangle. It's simply a semi-veiled attempt to rant against the protestant movement.

@Ira Socol - Pull your head out for a minute and do some real research. The rectangle as an aesthetically pleasing form and architectural phenomenon has been around since well before the 16th century and the reformation. Seriously, you have Euclid rolling over in his grave. Quit worrying about John Calvin or Martin Luther or the Protestant reformation and do your part to actually make change in education rather than whine about it. Great teaching and great teachers have NOTHING to do with the size or shape of the classroom. Both have EVERYTHING to do with creativity and a willingness to be unafraid.

irasocol said...


You miss a bit here. It is not a rant against Protestantism but an attempt to explain the origins of our school design, which, quite specifically, those who did the designing believed would have a very large impact on students (you may pull your head out long enough to read Henry Barnard and William Alcott, who designed the American classroom and school).

The technology of education (which includes walls, roofs, desks, chairs, blackboards, schedules, books, et al) has a huge impact on who succeeds and who doesn't in the classroom. And those who seek to deny that are usually so fixed in their particular cultural worldview that they assume that all children will learn, function, and be comfortable, in the same exact environment the denier learned in.

As for the rectangle, well, its always been a fascinating maths cultural fact for me that Americans barely touch on the aesthetics of the rectangle, Fibonacci, or the Golden Mean, which are huge parts of the curriculum elsewhere around the world. Maybe if we paid more attention to that rectangle, we'd know more about what it means.

- Ira Socol

concretekax said...

Ira, I also feel like you have a bias toward Catholicism and against Protestantism (although I would like to debate it in a civil, respectful manner). I do not understand how you tie many education problems to Protestantism and claim that things were better under the Catholic church.

First of all both denominations have pious followers and flaws especially if one looks at individuals in the movements, but the source of the Protestant movement was corruption in the Catholic church. The success of the Protestant movement was largely based upon the printing press spreading their viewpoint to the common people.

You have written before about more close knit communities under Catholicism. And in this post you attribute hierarchy to Protestantism. But under the Catholic Church there was a very strong hierarchy that kept the majority of people as peasants. The Church had more power than even kings and decided what one could beliive and killed those that dissented. Knowledge was limited to the few wealthy scholars who went university and the priests.

The Protestant movement brought education away from the elite by having their services in the native tongue of the congregation instead of Latin. Also the authority moved to the individual believer reading the Bible themselves instead of dependence on the priest which is more democratic.

I see middle age Catholicism as having a strong, controlling hierarchy that preserved its power by keeping education for the wealthy and powerful.

Protestantism brought Christianity to the common people and the holy word being translated into their native languages led to an gradual increase in literacy.

Protestantism does believe in the depravity of man, but do not Catholics also? The Catholic Church places a strong emphasis on works, the Ten Commandments, and penance. These suggest to me that Catholics agree with Protestants that man is not "naturally" good but needs help from God.

Finally I do not see a strong relationship between Protestantism and rectangles. Protestant churches are more simple than Catholic churches as a reaction against the icons of the saints. Rectangles are used in many places in many periods of history.

One practical reason to use rectangles once schools became more than one room buildings is they stack together nicely so as not to waste space. Round rooms do not do so as easily. I am not arguing for the use of rectangles, but just pointing out advantages to why most buildings are made that way.

Karl Gustafson said...

I don't think shape matters. It's how the space is utilized. Space should be set up for a good learning flow and ongoing multiple activities. Good learning happens when the "teacher" gets out of the way and becomes a partner in learning. When that happens shape becomes irrelevant and how the space is used and expanded becomes a much more critical question.

irasocol said...


You do think shape matters, you just see yourself as able to re-create that space by altering the architecture yourself. I think we all try to do that, and, obviously, that is easier to do if you fully control your own classroom and can alter the furniture, but even at universities we often push and pull desks and tables to create circles and squares which work better for us.


Excellent challenge. Long answer. First, Americans often ascribe their strengths to Protestantism - from that "Protestant Work Ethic" to the lonely determination of those 17th Century Pilgrims and Puritans, to that belief in being "born again" which underlies so many of America's cultural myths. But if we ascribe problems to the same source, we're "bashing." I think all cultural belief systems give and take.

So, yes, I'm a "Weberian." I agree that when nascent capitalism needed to break community bonds and family ties in order to allow labor to move, Protestantism supported that by crafting (a) an individual relationship with God, and (b) the notion of "work" as an ethical good. In pre-Reformation Europe people worked less, celebrated more, and viewed "work" as only a necessity. They were also likely to be completely bound to their families, communities, and parishes.

And I know that all Christianity believes in original sin, but Catholicism never imagined that anyone would need to be "born again" (infant baptism taking care of that). That's a huge difference (thus the Catholic bumper stickers: "born right the first time").

The systems of worship are also significantly different. The Mass was designed to appeal to every possible form of learning, and so was the Cathedral. The Protestant churches were not, originally, simple for lack of cash, but by design. The "purity" of the rectangle. The lack of musical instruments. The lack of statues and stained glass windows. And the reliance on books rather than speech, music, scent, imagery - these were all deliberate decisions.

As for hierarchy: I'd say it this way. The Catholic Church is a hierarchy with (then more than now) little reach into "regionalization" (ever compared a Mexican and an Austrian church and mass?). High hierarchy, low direct power from the top. The Protestant churches were the opposite, less apparently hierarchical, but through "the book" really completely in control.

Its funny, I'm hardly much of person to defend "Catholicism the religion" - especially with the series of corrupting Popes we've had in my lifetime. But I do think it is important to understand the cultural reasons why our schools look and act as they do, and the more I look - especially at the statements of those who created our educational forms - the more I see Protestantism underlying it all.

That's fine if that is what we want, but remember, our grade system which is designed to leave kids behind is based in the Calvinist theory of predestination. And that's a tough theory for me to swallow in public education.

- Ira Socol

cosmico said...

I'd like to share Ira's invititation to leave ideological paths and conventions apart. It's quite true that classrooms are generally squared-based, that pupils' desks are rectangular, placed innaturally. The physical organization of classrooms in Italy, for example, is quite emblematic: if lucky schools are in relatively modern buildings (looking like factories or warehouses), less modern schools are hosted in old convents, XIXth-century buildings, etc. It is clear that no teaching and learning are happy here, no easy access for disabled people is available, and so on.
Is hierarchy good to some extent? Difficult to say, really.

Bill Genereux said...

Ira's comments about Calvinism reminds me of Peggy McIntosh's views on White Privilege. It's difficult to recognize the default benefits people enjoy unless you are viewing it from the outside.

I'm not sure I'm completely buying the connection, but it is an interesting hypothesis. After all, look at what is valued in school versus where we need to be going. People such as Daniel Goleman, Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, and Sir Ken Robinson have all commented about how education tends to value only a narrowly defined set of skills and intelligences, mostly revolving around conformity and following directions. This is great if you are grooming factory workers. Not so helpful if you need creative problem solvers.

I'm no expert, but I seem to recall from my History of American Education class that Puritans in New England did indeed found the first schools in North America, and I also seem to remember something about mass immigrations from Catholic countries driving the movement towards compulsory public education.

Christianity was a standard component in public education in America until after the second world war; and it was decidedly Protestant in flavor. The fierce fight to keep public funds out of Catholic operated schools demonstrates this bias well.

As I said earlier, I'm not sure I'm completely buying the connection, but it does raise questions I've not considered before.

Sean in 60 said...


I think your point about looking at everything is insightful. Most educators have seen the rooms with the dim lighting, the rooms with no artwork, etc. But, to actually look at the shape of the room is interesting. I know as someone who writes music, the environment does tend to make a big difference. But, unfortunately we also must look at the likely future that most students will be working a in a rectangular room as adults. It does seem however an idea worth challenging and researching at the very least.

In regards to President Obama's comments, they disturb me immensely. Not only is he attacking specific businesses, but if you look at the whole content of his quote, he's attacking specific types of news sources (talk radio, blogs) that don't agree with him. If he said, "With great responsibility, needs to come great discipline" in a Spider man-esque sort of way that would have been great. The way it stands, it scares me to believe that the President of the United States could say information is a distraction in any context. I agree with you, that by limiting tools, you limit potential.

Sean in 60

concretekax said...


First of all, just to clarify that although I am Protestant in my upbringing and bias, my intent was not to criticize or compare Catholicism with it. My point is that the things (rectangles, hierarchy, and grades) you attribute to Protestantism have been around for much longer.

I agree with you that Protestants rejected the sensory aspects of Catholicism and designed simple churches intentionally. This was a reaction against what they saw as overemphasis on saints, icons, and pageantry. As is often the case when someone reacts against a position they go in extremes in the opposite direction. But I do not see this as the reason that classrooms are rectangular. This was the most common shape of building for centuries before in the Western world.

What shape were Catholic schools and universities in Europe before the Reformation? What was the mode of learning? Was it not lectures from professors and priests and studying books? Protestants copied this model but brought it to the common people by translating books into common languages and making them more accessible.

I would argue that Catholic Mass was more sensory because the actual service was in Latin and meaningless to the listeners. The great change of Protestantism is that they brought the Bible into the people's languages so they could interpret it themselves.

As far as hierarchy the local bishop was pretty powerful in enforcing whatever was important to him or the Church. For example the Inquisition was strongest in Spain which was a long ways from Rome.

When you speak of the community under Catholicism it sounds to me like people talking of the Golden Years of the 1950's. It was a close community for peasant Catholics, but not so great for those who disagreed with the Church such as Jews or the ana-baptists. The Puritans had the same close-knit communities and also would not tolerate other viewpoints.

Calvinism and predestination also are not the only example of dividing society into haves and have nots. I think this has happened since early civilization that certain groups of people take power and others are treated as lesser: Plebes and Patricians in Rome, feudalism with knights, lords and serfs, caste system in India, ruling class and common people in China. It is natural for the wealthy, ruling class to try to keep its power by keeping the common people uneducated and obedient. Why do you think the emperors liked Confucius?

Therefore I do not see grading and divisions in schools as a result of Protestantism but of natural human tendency to preserve power in their own group by controlling resources including knowledge and education.

I would agree that early American schools were religious in their basis of morals and teaching children the Protestant beliefs. Like the many schools before them they were not tolerant of different views and tried to teach conformity, but I hardly find this unique to Protestantism.

I am very curious though in when schools began the practicing of grading student work and why you think it comes from Calvinism? My limited knowledge about grading is that it was adopted from Prussian military practice.

irasocol said...


A few quick thoughts.

You are absolutely right, few communities historically have been particularly tolerant of outsiders, though there are great examples. Medieval Sarajevo, Moorish Spain, early New York - but those are exceptions.

And you are also right that the Catholic Mass needed to use more intelligences because it was conducted in a foreign language - but - to suspect that early Protestantism, with its printed books, did not suffer from same of the same issues might be a mistake. Gutenberg and the Reformation did wipe out half the languages of Europe. There was no Bible in Cornish, for example.

And, of course there were rectangular buildings and rooms before John Calvin began to preach - although the least likely place to find these were the places of formal education: the churches and universities adopted much more complex spaces.

So, the university before the Reformation (at least in Continental Europe) was not at all about rooms and lectures, but were about conversations and debate combined with monastic tutorial.
"Medieval universities did not have a campus. Classes were taught wherever space was available such as churches and homes, a university was not a physical space but a collection of individuals banded together as a universitas (the corporation). Universities were generally structured along two types, depending on who paid the teachers. The first type was in Bologna, where students hired and paid for the teachers. The second type was in Paris, where teachers were paid by the church." - Britannica

OK, as for origins - grading (as in A, B, C...) is German in origin as well, but is based in the faux science of Social Darwinism. "Grading" - age-based divisions which filter students into "successes" or "failures" was indeed a Prussian invention (emerging about 1700 and generally called "The Prussian Model"). It was heavily tied to the idea of Prussian universal military training, but it was also developed in a Protestant Seminary by theologians. Wikipedia is quite good (and simple) on this: "Pietism, a reformist group within Lutheranism, forged a political alliance with the King of Prussia based on a mutual interest in breaking the dominance of the Lutheran state church. The Prussian Kings, Calvinists among Lutherans, feared the influence of the Lutheran state church and its close connections with the provincial nobility, while Pietists suffered from persecution by the Lutheran orthodoxy. Bolstered by royal patronage, Pietism replaced the Lutheran church as the effective state religion by the 1760's. Pietist theology stressed the need for "inner spirituality", which can only come about through the reading of Scripture. Consequently, Pietists helped form the principles of the modern public school system, including the stress on literacy."

Yes, the system is tightly tied to the needs of the powerful for social reproduction. That is, in our society, in turn tightly tied to capitalism which has been linked - arm-in-arm - with Protestantism since both were created. Yet, if not that system, surely another would exist to accomplish the same thing. There are few angels among the wealthy ad powerful of the world.

But I just want to add, that criticism of "our" system inevitably becomes a criticism of Protestantism, because that is our dominant culture. If we were discussing shortcomings in France or Italy, we'd be doubting different origins to a significant extent. Yet even a Marxist like Gramsci preferred the 19th Century Catholic education system in Italy to the Germanic modernization Mussolini introduced. So, it gets complicated.

- Ira Socol

concretekax said...

I know this is changing the topic somewhat but which came first grading or letter grades? What was the original purpose of letter grades? With all of the talk on-line of eliminating grades I am wondering what the original intention of them was?