Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Way We Sit: Physical and Social Structures of Classrooms

                I hate our classrooms.  More specifically, I hate the furniture in our classrooms.
                Rarely do I use the word “hate,” and I don’t use it lightly.  Why, at an “enlightened” institution of higher education, do we insist on herding our students into each room like cattle to the slaughter, lining them up in rows (where all but those in the front row get a fantastic vista of the back of someone else’s head), then shoot them down with our intellectual bullets (otherwise known as lecture)?
                And to compound the situation, for those who would like to rearrange the aforementioned  classroom accoutrements, a month’s worth of weight training is required to be able to move the bulky, awkward tables, and in many rooms a sign is posted, “If you move the furniture, please return it to its original position.”  (I really have no problem returning those awkward slabs to their previous locations; however, the presence of that sign is a concrete indication of how engrained this practice is!)   Now the instructor doesn’t have to go to the gym, because a complete workout has been accomplished before and after class—sweat not withstanding.
                So why, after decades and decades of educational research telling us that, in most cases, straight lecture is NOT the most effective teaching method (just ask any student), and that such militaristic seating arrangements do not encourage student interaction (which studies show is directly related to success and retention), do we continue to allocate our precious dollars to equipment that works against learning?  More to the point, why do we, as instructors, continue to acquiesce to (and thereby support) these strategies?
                Several reasons come to mind.  The first is found in the axiom, “We teach the way we’ve been taught.”  While this is not totally true for everyone, most all of us were schooled in this manner—from First Grade on up.  (In my opinion, preschools and Kindergartens have it right—circle time, sitting on pillows or working at interest stations. Adults actually enjoy learning that way, too!)  Sitting—passively—in rows, taking notes has been our modus operandi for our entire academic experience.  Probably each of us has experienced an “exception” to that rule, and we thought it was really cool!  But we fail to reproduce that experience for our own students, settling for more conventional (and honestly, less physically strenuous) approaches.  In short, walking into a classroom and standing up front—the sage on the stage, with our charges perched in neat lines –is HABIT.  And expected (yes, even by our students).  But don’t we almost always, at least in real life, learn MORE from the unexpected?
                Another reason is, well… to be honest, it’s just too much dang work (not to mention it may consume precious class time) to do all that manual labor.  I fall prey to this excuse—you won’t often (at least not as often as I feel optimal) find me reconfiguring the classroom gear.  It means getting to the room early and staying late, with little help (since many students need to get to their next class and students are coming in for the one right after mine).  In my case, the furniture itself acts as a deterrent to doing what I know is really BEST for my students.  I am somewhat ashamed to admit this, but it’s true.
                So WHAT IF our classrooms were equipped so that our students could look at each other eye to eye, so that they could move around gracefully to form groups and pods to tackle important questions together, so they could more easily engage in the kind of Socratic dialogue and cooperative learning that begets a truly valuable educational experience?  WHAT IF my students came to expect the unexpected when they walked into the classroom; stimulating their anticipation of experiencing something new from the very first second of the class period?
                WHAT IF I could move the tables without herniating a disc in my lumbar, and instructors would applaud—rather than criticize—efforts to at least try something new?
                WHAT IF we didn't wait ten years for a campus master plan to…


  1. We buy the tables because they are the same ones we bought last year from the same company we have had a contract with for years. To buy something different would require actually doing something new and unfamiliar. It would rock the boat and we love what is familiar, even when it hurts.

    “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” Thích Nhat Hanh

    "WHAT IF we didn't wait ten years for a campus master plan to…" I think I am on Todd's Master Plan. I am not waiting. There is nothing to wait for. Better to do today what can be done than wait for committees and agendas to discover what we have known all along.

  2. OHY!
    But don’t we almost always, at least in real life, learn MORE from the unexpected? - yes, yes we do, at least quicker. the lessons of habituation take longer to learn and are harder to take.

    You know some people here 'initiated' an new 'experimental' learning space idea about a year ago and I haven't heard about it since - budgetary concerns probably quashed it. Could we just get ONE room with like, just chairs maybe? Wow, that sounds like an idea that might cost....nothing? Oh, except the price of taking a risk....

    1. I want pillows, too! But the price tag for that--including risk--may also be too high. :/

    2. Who initiated a new experimental learning space idea a year ago???

    3. It was from ITS. I will send when I find.

  3. Maybe we could claim ONE classroom to set up in a more congenial way? Surely there is one room on campus that could be spared for those of us who want a room geared for conversation and group work rather than chalk and talk.

  4. Yep... and we're on way to that... I hope!