01 December 2010

Learning Space

Above is the best educational space in the College of Education at Michigan State University. Just off the building's entrance, in a heavily trafficked zone, there is this space overlooking the Red Cedar River. Behind "the photographer" is a coffee shop, and in this area there are booths and big tables and small tables, high tables and desk height tables. Regular chairs and bar height chairs. Bar stools. Benches, couches, and soft chairs. And a broad window sill to sit on. At the far end of the picture are quieter rooms with similar furniture mixes, including a couple of tables separated from other spaces by a level change. To the left, out of the picture above, is a small maze like zone of screens creating places for one to four people to gather quietly, and next to that, is an open zone filled with creation equipment - powerful computers and tools for video production, interactive white boards, giant monitors, etc.

This arrangement allows people to find their comfort zone, whether individually or as groups. It affords them "what they need" - whether that be fast wireless or "decent" coffee or a pita wrap or a doughnut or, yeah, a flip camera or a powerful scanner. You can have quiet and (a certain level of) privacy, or you can be loud and very public.

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
This notion of "the commons" really matters, on so many levels. If your school is broken into little dis-connected rooms for discrete age-groups and subjects, if your classrooms are filled with one kind of desk and one kind of chair, you have created extreme limits on your pedagogical opportunities.

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...

"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."
In other words, we don't even afford our students today the best ideas of 1832, but a pale reflection of that design science.

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


Miss Shuganah said...

Our older daughter's classroom doesn't even have a window. Are handicapped children not allowed to enjoy sunlight or daydream? Her school was designed in the early 70s, I think it was when they thought that no doors and moveable partititions/walls meant openness. It's a hideous building, inside and out. They have been slowly remodeling the school, but I feel it should be torn down and done over from scratch.

The elementary school I attended, built only 10-15 years earlier, while overcrowded, had space to move around the desks and windows. This school is so dreary. No light. Reg Ed classes are cramped. No windows in interior spaces, of course. Very badly designed.

Ironically meant only for handicapped kids, but, my understanding is that community complained. Why can't their kids go to crummy school, too?

Very oppressive feel to that school, even with change of principal, etc. Gloomy.

David Britten said...

This was our thinking when we planned and constructed a campus for our 6th graders. It has lots of windows that open into two large interior common spaces allowing for flexible learning spaces, collaborative project-based learning, and even quiet individual spaces and furniture that can be adapted to personal preferences.

Mark said...

Excellent blog.

Fancy the content I have seen so far and I am your regular reader of your blog.

I am very much interested in adding http://speedchange.blogspot.com/ in my blog http://the-american-history.blogspot.com/.

I am pleased to see my blog in your blog list.

I would like to know whether you are interested in adding my blog in your blog list.

Hope to see a positive reply.

Thanks for visiting my blog as well !

Waiting for your reply friend !!!!!

Miss Shuganah said...


Do you recall plastic molded egg chairs from the 70s?
I am writing a blog post about my ideal learning space, and yours sounds pretty ideal to me.

Different kinds of furniture especially critical for handicapped kids like my daughter or else they risk getting very tight in hips, etc. And yet I have seen little in the way of innovation. Some mats to roll around on. Problem may be space, but sometimes I wonder if it's just laziness.

Anyway I am heartened to see someone doing something different.

Unknown said...

I enjoy studying outside of Sparty's in Erickson! When I can't concentrate in my apartment I head over to Erickson. I like how the setup is different from the typical classroom setting. I think it encourages learning from different students and different learning styles.