habitats for learning? we must first abandon the lecture-room

When I Heard the Learn’d  Astronomer

“When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

….. Walt Whitman 1865

I have always loved the voice of Walt Whitman and the loft of his words. He defines for me the poetic storyteller, the reflective teacher, the fierce truth-sayer.

Whitman speaks in yesterday’s language about today’s learning challenges. So many young people in our world feel sentenced to school; a place of doing time until they too can wander out of our classrooms and into a world where sitting in lectures no longer sucks the life out of learning.

We’ve worked for years to change up pedagogy with little success. Mostly, we continue to teach as we have taught for years – in front of the teaching wall arranged along assembly line classrooms of our factory schools. Could it be that changing the lecture room must be our focus before we try to change the lecture? I’m pretty certain after a week of intensive observation and design discussion facilitated by @irasocol with teachers, librarians, and principals that learning communities can not form unless spaces are designed to become communities.

It  became apparent to me – one of those “ahas” of life- that creation of vibrant learning communities today is more than just teachers’ application of the right combination of  technology, content, and pedagogical knowledge. A teacher’s expertise in creating a contemporary community of learners for learning also depends upon an effective intersection of color, light, furniture use, available furniture, floor covering, space flow, space gradient, and multidimensional space. What makes this so complex, indeed, difficult to accomplish?

Each learning space represents a unique challenge and there is no one right design answer that can be applied universally. That’s the puzzle of the social architecture essential to crafting a built environment for each classroom community. It’s about figuring out just the right ingredients for each habitat for learners. It’s about selecting the tools we need to construct those spaces. And, it’s about the time to look in classrooms and find the design that sustains the uniqueness of the teacher while providing a zone of comfortable learning for each learner, all day long. This takes a sense of design aesthetic, a resonance with the community, an understanding of the full range of technologies needed in the space, and a feel for flow. These are not a set of skills used in isolation, but rather a set of skills used in collaboration.

Someone said once that if we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will continue to get what we’ve always gotten. Why would we ever expect either teaching or learning to change as long as children continue to enter classrooms where desks line up in rows, chairs stand at attention and a projector takes aim at the target of a stark white board?  Perhaps, we need to take out the desks, the chairs, the teaching wall, the single projector, and all the books lined neatly on shelves around the perimeter. I also wonder if we need to wander outside and look up at a starry night, then come back indoors and begin anew to create a habitat that sustains communities of learners.

4 thoughts on “habitats for learning? we must first abandon the lecture-room

  1. I am trying to imagine how this would look in an elementary school. And then it dawns on me, it is already happening in a lot of kindergarten rooms around the country. Perhaps a few first grade classrooms are like this – not many that I have seen. What about if we took all the kindergarten teachers and sent them to high school? No, I’m not a kindergarten teacher but in my experience, the good ones make learning magical – I think that is some of what we are looking for – the magic, the wonder, the joy and curiosity in a child’s eyes that leads to authentic engagement. I cannot recall in all my years of education – ever seeing a bored kindergarten child. If I ever get the chance, I‘d like to try restoring the wonder and magic to schools.

  2. Classrooms should be seen as stages that can morph depending on the lesson plan or performance. A large rectangle works fine as long as the class has access to storage space and moveable furniture. Classroom access to natural light, easy control of lighting, good acoustics with access to amplification, a sink, stove-top and flexible technology all create a vibrant learning environment. An educator who is a great story teller or poet can sit in front of the room and create magic. A big problem with middle school and high school schedules is that they do not give educators a space of their own.
    Teachers and students need a sense of ownership.

    • I really appreciate your perspective on the need for flex space – keeping purposeful learning at center of decisions abt what’s needed in the moment. I heard from a principal that teachers who are more traditionally structured tend to create environments that support that – and it’s hard for them to shift to less
      structure. The question- are teachers who are less traditionally structured able to become structured when needed more easily than going the other direction?

  3. Now there’s a good question, Pam. I heard a teacher this weekend complaining about kids touching stuff in her room–because it’s HER room and they should ask first. It is about ownership, sometimes, and everyone needs to own the space. That’s one reason schools get vandalized–there’s no ownership by the kids, families, communities. Kids aren’t given opportunities to bring in the water pail, or wood for the fire, or share their lunch with the kid who has less. . . That sense of community has been lost over time in many classrooms.

    And, yeah, I think K classrooms, of good K teachers, do concern themselves with community . And they do think about areas and flex spaces and the campfires, watering holes and caves. And, I do think good K teachers can move between that flexible thinking and structure more easily.

    That movement, though, can be hard either way–depends on how set you are in your preferred method. Just as we need to teach kids to be flexible in their thinking, we also need to help teachers (and principals) who believe teaching and learning will always be as they experienced it.

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