Dumb Classrooms

Immovable desks. Full frontal teaching. And other doltish design traits of our slow-to-learn schools.

By Crawford Kilian 12 Feb 2014 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee and a retired college instructor.

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How classroom design encourages in-the-box thinking. Desk photo via Shutterstock.

Consider the working conditions of a particular job: your workspace is a simple chair-desk or half a table; not even a cubicle. Your supervisor, meanwhile, has a much larger workspace, complete with desk, computer and audiovisual equipment.

You're not allowed to talk to your fellow workers, crowded around you, except by permission of your supervisor. When you do speak, the Charter of Rights does not apply to what you can say; you could be severely penalized for speaking your mind.

You can't leave your workspace without permission, and even a trip to the bathroom may require a written pass. When given a task, you may not consult your co-workers. The time given for assignments is arbitrary, forcing some fast workers to waste time waiting for others to finish.

At arbitrary times you're uprooted from your workspace and obliged to move to another room, where your working conditions are much the same. At unpredictable intervals, your supervisor's supervisor uses a loud public-address system to deliver irrelevant information, disrupting your current task.

Now imagine you've had 16 years or more of experience in this workplace and its culture. What kind of professional, technical or artistic career might you be suited for?

The workplace is, of course, the series of classrooms in which we incarcerate our children for as long as their schooling is supposed to take. Because education is a pathologically conservative institution, it changes reluctantly -- and usually only for administrative convenience, not instructional improvement.

So generations of us have taken classroom culture as a given, with only a few variables: the quality of the furniture, the skill of the teacher and so on.

A quiet classroom is the devil's playground

I stopped taking it for granted in my first year of college teaching, back in 1967 in the old King Edward High School building transformed into Vancouver Community College. The interior was little changed from the 1940s, and some of my students had immovable desks on rails.

The effect was astounding: they rarely said a word until the class ended, when they shot out of their desks like prisoners unshackled, chattering all the way out the door. The desks on rails conveyed a message: you're still in high school, so keep your mouth shut. That was when I learned that a quiet classroom is the devil's playground.

In my second year, at Capilano College, I had slightly better classroom furniture. But we were using a high school building after hours, and the high school atmosphere again discouraged serious discussion.

I was also in grad school at Simon Fraser. Switching between the roles of teacher and student, I saw how crowded lecture halls, with all seats oriented toward the lecturer, discouraged questions and arguments. Only in the seminar rooms could we sit face-to-face around a few tables and talk.

I was now part of a young faculty, all of us trying to learn our new trade. I began to consider our workspaces -- not just the classrooms, but the cramped little office spaces we were allocated. They told us something about our importance in the scheme of things (those consigned to the bullpen, an open area of desks anyone could use, were still less important). Only the administrators had lockable doors.

Just a few years before, American anthropologist Edward T. Hall had published The Silent Language, the first careful study of nonverbal communication. It had a big impact on my teaching, and so did his next book, The Hidden Dimension, about proxemics -- the way we use space to communicate.

The shepherd and the sheep

Suddenly, classroom dynamics made sense. I got all that space in the classroom not because I needed it, but to show the students that I was more important than they were. Their own lack of space reflected their insignificance. I could invade their space, but they hated to enter mine, where they felt like impostors. The classroom was proxemically identical to a church: a congregation with the sheep all watching the shepherd, who was the guide to salvation.

Unable to break up the ranks of high school desk chairs, I tried to show the kids what their space was doing to them -- and how to understand what future employers would say to them through the space they got for interviews and work.

When Capilano finally got its own campus, I saw little real change in the classrooms. Whenever possible, I moved the tables around into circles or U-shapes, so students could see and hear one another.

In small classes, this was feasible (though colleagues complained if I didn't put the tables back in tidy congregational rows for the next class). But small classes were soon unaffordable in B.C. post-secondaries, and I faced class after class where desk chairs or tables jammed the room. We couldn't put 35 or 40 strapping young adults in an intimate circle where everyone pays attention to everyone. Instead, we'd leave them in rows and process them.

So the circles and U-shapes were relegated to weekend workshops, where they worked with predictable effect: students spoke up, listened to one another, and learned a lot in a hurry.

In my regular classes, I was left with full-frontal teaching, in which the instructor must rely on the skills of the standup comic to distract congregations of healthy young men and women out of their fantasies. I ended up calling a break every 45 minutes to give everyone a chance to pee, get a coffee and socialize, whether face-to-face or online with their BFFs and sweeties.

When I designed Capilano's first online writing course in the 1990s, I realized something I'd missed for 30 years: students learn not through brilliant lecturing or reading great textbooks, but by social interaction, preferably face-to-face. My online courses failed -- not because the content was bad, but because students couldn't see and hear how pleased I was with their success, or how disappointed I was with their failures.

This recipe will be on the final

When your mother taught you how to knit or cook, did she sit you down with your sisters and brothers and give you each a handout? And tell you to read it because it would be on the quiz?

No. She sat you down beside her, or stood you on a chair in the kitchen, so you could see how she did things. She made you do stuff right away, not just listen to her and take notes. She gave you quick feedback, not always in a loving tone of voice, so you picked up what you were doing wrong and why doing it right was important. (The paring knife taught you even more.)

And she made her space your space: this is where we do things. It belongs to you too, and you will carry it some day to your own home and children.

Somehow, educators have forgotten how and where they themselves learned things: in pubs and library stacks, in the bloodthirsty search for evidence that let them display the severed heads of their adversaries in the next seminar.

We learn nothing when we're trapped in desks on rails, or tables in rows, except that this is not the time or place for the serious learning we're genetically programmed to do. When the old fart finally shuts up and lets us go, our education will resume out in the hall or on the bus home.

If we can ever design our learning spaces for our students, and not for the classroom janitors and the school business managers, we might actually find we can teach students, not just process them.  [Tyee]

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