06 November 2010

The Third Technology

The "first technology" of school is time. That division of "educational time" from other time, and the subsequent divisions therein. School Days and weeks, and semesters, and years. Periods of time which are separated out for this and that. "It's time for reading but not science, science but not physical education, history but not literature."

The "second technology" is the division of "content" - the breaking of the world of global information into discrete parcels for easy delivery.

And the "third technology" is the environment which provides - depending on the school, either a "home base" or a "learning cell."

I spent the past week in schools which surround the lands of Thomas Jefferson - "the father of American public education." Walking hallways and libraries, sitting in classrooms, talking to principals and teachers and students. And the technology we focused on was that "third one," the space, the environment, that visual, aural, spatial reality which either makes humans comfortable and sets them free, or which traps them and limits their possibilities.

When I first enter a "learning space" I look at people's feet. Even second graders are usually 'trained enough' to know that they have to control their upper body in ways which please "the teacher." The teacher, too often, is watching them from torso up, as they sit at desks or tables, and the kids - most - work to avoid excess attention there.

But down below their feet tell a different story. They tap and bounce and roll and kick, they try to curl up or lash out, they scratch and move or slide onto their sides in sleepy boredom.

"What are you looking for," a University of Virginia doctoral student asked me on Thursday, "how do you know it's learning?"

I don't know if it's learning, but I can see engagement. I never have trouble telling if a kid in a school - or out of a school - is working on the learning process. You can see it in their eyes, and you can see it in their focus, and you can see it in their feet. Which isn't a quantifiable measure for Arne Duncan, but as Justice Potter Stewart might have said it, "I know learning when I see it."

So I looked at a lot of learning spaces last week. And I watched a lot of feet, and bodies, and eyes. I saw a remarkable pile of third graders in the coat closet area of Michael Thornton's classroom, six kids who heaped themselves on the floor like young puppies, four with laptops, two doing drawings, all touching, wriggling, talking, and working - investigating different subjects, different topics, but collaborating academically, spiritually, physically. A six-by-eight foot environment of learning safety discovered and built by eight-year-olds. In that room - not a great room, not a big room - other kids clustered as 'table groups' or lay alone on the rug or sat in twos and threes on the floor leaning against the wall. One girl built a kind of high nest near the window. Kids used paper and MacBooks, iPods and whiteboards. Even books. They asked each other first, rarely coming to 'the teacher.'

It was a wonderful space to be in, but it needed some color to soften the hard white edges. And it needed the Interactive White Board at a height where third graders could use it as a touch-screen computer. And it needed more soft flooring and place where kids might draw on the floor. And it needed lamps with differing light levels to mark out areas.

And that's the kind of environmental dreaming we were doing.

Come learn together... Jefferson's Academical Village at the University of Virginia
In School Libraries we moved to toss out furniture - so often bought for once-a-month faculty meetings - and create open carpeted spaces with pillows and lapdesks and kid-sit-on-the-floor height tables. Where we imagined "creation centers" where kids would find creativity to be contagious. And where we sought to break the walls - at least conceptually - which separate those libraries from the school and the outside world.

In school corridors we found those extra "urban spaces" where kids might gather, or might seek out privacy, and wondered how to enhance those spots through furniture, aesthetics, and contemporary communications technology. In school entries we wondered how light and color might welcome, and shift young brains.

In classrooms less evolved than Mike Thornton's we wondered how to shift furniture, color, lights, technology to create differing spaces which might make that room a safe place for all kids to recharge, to inspire, to explore from, rather than act as a room for information distribution.

"For Thomas Jefferson, learning was an integral part of life. The "academical village" is based on the assumption that the life of the mind is a pursuit for all participants in the University, that learning is a lifelong and shared process, and that interaction between scholars and students enlivens the pursuit of knowledge." And I hope we see every school that way. And Jefferson also said, "Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down one of my favorite amusements," which suggests that we must re-design and re-construct constantly, based in the needs of the moment.

I began my week in Virginia talking about "Colonialism in Education." The idea that we must not insist that the only way for children to succeed is to become clones of the educational policy makers. And I ended the week talking mostly about architecture and ecological systems and environments. Because this "third technology" - that environment - enframes both what we - adults in school - do, and what students see and imagine. If a class has desks in rows, only a few things can happen. If a class has a variety of spaces, many more things can. If classrooms have open views of the school and the outside, learning is seen in a continuum, if a classroom has paper covering the door window and drawn blinds - we are telling children that learning starts and stops in a defined space. And if kids are comfortable they will imagine, dream, and investigate. And if they are not, they will resist and shut down.

Walk your school on Monday. Walk your halls. Is your environment an academical village which inspires? or is it something else?

- Ira Socol


Rodd Lucier said...

Funny coincidence Ira. A few years ago, I wrote and podcasted about watching students feet. Your post reminded me: http://thecleversheep.libsyn.com/index.php?post_id=341944

Miss Shuganah said...

Why are kids in rows? Why is everything angular? Rectangular? Square?

A couple of years ago, they were trying to mainstream our younger daughter. She has sensory issues, among other things. As do I. Difference is that, as an adult, I have coping skills she does not. I felt claustrophobic. All the kids packed like sardines. And to me very chaotic. I was returning younger daughter to school after dentist appointment, just as they were changing work stations. Kids must have thought I was lost. "Her desk is over there," they said repeatedly. I knew where my daughter's desk was. I just had no idea how I was going to get past the kids to get there.

Even reading about desks wedged together in a more collaborative design produces a sense of anxiety.

Why are angles the norm, either desks in rows or desks arranged in squares the norm? Circles are a more welcoming space.

How about we take a room, divide it up in a circle and then arrange desks in small arcs? Is that possible? I guess it may still look like a square or rectangle, except that perhaps the big picture seen by someone entering the classroom would still seem like a circle.

Circles are not always so warm and inviting. A circle can be closed as well. Circling the wagons comes to mind. Perhaps desks can face in but sort of also at an angle to invite people in?

Or maybe I should just be in my own circular corner. I am what some call a highly sensitive person. Environment is everything to me.

One of my favorite times in school was second grade when we had desk inspections. My desk was always so messy that the teacher would make me move out of my desk and sit at a table in the back. I secretly liked being in the back of the room at my long, rectangular table. I was alone. I didn't have to socialize. I was left alone. For a few hours of the day i wasn't bullied or teased. Freedom.

Brian Kuhn said...

Some of what you describe is exactly what we are discussing in our design group reviews with architects. We are designing three new middle schools and a new secondary school. The middle schools will have open spaces, lots of glazing in classrooms and to the outside world. We are also considering the use of current and future technologies in the design - how adaptable will the building be for unforeseen technologies that will support learning. My last post Technology is a Game Changer for Learning
talks about some possibilities.

abendelow said...

So I didn't get a clear notion from your article, Ira: what sort of feet movement signals engagement? *"But down below their feet tell a different story. They tap and bounce and roll and kick, they try to curl up or lash out, they scratch and move or slide onto their sides in sleepy boredom"

tweisz said...

Ira - While reading your post I found myself nodding in agreement all the way through. I have been doing a lot of experimenting with physical spaces in my middle school classroom over the past few years. I love to see and hear ideas about new ways people are doing this. If I've learned anything it's that there are so many creative options, but I believe it's important to have one space where everyone can comfortably meet/share as a group. I have tables with wheels arranged in a semicircle in one area of the room for times when we all need to get together. The wheels on the tables allow us to use that space for other things as well. But beyond that I think it's important to have lots of smaller spaces - for small groups, for individuals, maybe spaces dedicated to a specific kind of task etc. There are endless possibilities. The point is, the larger room, and all of those spaces belong to the kids, and they can choose where and with whom they will learn. I have found this attention to space to be one of the most profound effects on student learning in my classrooms.