How 1984 turned out like 1884

Class Room - Fifth Grade, Butte, Montana 4686494376_05169eaff3_o

Modern classroom 74907741_c2d59deb64_o

While going about my day, I sometimes engage in a mental exercise I call the Laura Ingalls Test. What would Laura Ingalls, prairie girl, make of this freeway interchange? This Target? This cell phone? Some modern institutions would probably be unrecognizable at first glance to a visitor from the 19th century: a hospital, an Apple store, a yoga studio. But take Laura Ingalls to the nearest fifth-grade classroom, and she wouldn’t hesitate to say, “Oh! A school!”

Very little about the American classroom has changed since Laura Ingalls sat in one more than a century ago.
The 21st-Century Classroom, by Linda Perlstein

In her recent Slate article, excerpted above, Linda Perlstein, an education writer, muses about the effects that school classroom layout and design affect the learning that takes place. She even asks her readers to submit their “best ideas for transforming the American school” which she conflates with “asking you to describe or even design the classroom for today, a fifth-grade classroom that takes advantage of all that we have learned since Laura Ingalls’ day about teaching, learning, and technology–and what you think we have yet to learn”.

I think that Linda’s emphasis on transforming the physical learning workspace as the answer to our educational system’s woes focuses on the wrong issue.

Certainly, most modern school classroom layouts have changed very little from Laura Ingalls’ day. But this is a symptom of the lack of change in educational circles, not a cause. In fact it’s often easy to alter the physical layout of a learning space simply by changing the furniture (get rid of those chairs with individual writing areas shown above!) or rearranging it (see Paul Radde’s Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements for a comprehensive introduction to this topic).

The reason why schools don’t redesign their learning spaces is because the traditional all-chairs-face the-front approach mirrors the teaching style perpetuated by our culture for the last 1,500 years. We get classroom layouts that optimize our teaching paradigm. Changing the classroom physical design and hoping that our learning environment will somehow improve is a great example of wishing that the tail would wag the dog.

When we change how we teach and how we expect to learn, the need to change our physical educational environment will become pretty obvious. Laura, please use your considerable journalist skills to explore how we do and don’t learn effectively and publicize what you find—we’ll all be the beneficiaries! And then perhaps 2084 won’t look like 1984.

Do you think that changing our physical learning environments is the way to improve how well we learn? Or do you think that changing the ways we learn will lead to fundamentally different learning environment designs?

Image attribution: Flickr users buttepubliclibrary and dcjohn

8 thoughts on “How 1984 turned out like 1884

  1. Thanks for pointing me to the Slate article. I think shifting the physical setup (whether of a classroom, an office, a highway, or anything) changes the way people interact with it. Removing familiar physical dimensions could very well lead to new formats we couldn’t contemplate. In that way, I think changing the design will, in fact, shift how we learn, teach and share.

    1. Thanks for your perspective Alli! I agree with you that shifting the physical setup of a classroom or conference room is likely to change the way people interact with it and within it. But is making such changes what we want to concentrate on in order to improve our ability to learn at a school or an event? If teachers choose to teach the same old way when when moved into a “modern” classroom, the money spent putting them there is going to be wasted. Implementing conference designs that lead to better ways to learn requires us to change our physical learning environment, and that’s what we should be focusing on, rather than changing our learning spaces and hoping that educators will take the hint.

  2. Adrian, Thanks for this insightful post. While I agree with you that the classroom set up is a symptom, rather than the cause of our education troubles, those pictures make a powerful point. Fill those 1984 seats with today’s teenagers and you’d get an even clearer picture – cell phones, computers, iPods all beckon today’s young people to interactive experiences in which they can learn what they want when they want. A teacher employing the traditional talking head lecture to pontificate on a subject of little value to their daily lives (just how many times do we need to learn about the American revolution?) not only can’t compete, but may be just an obstacle to learning.

    1. “…the classroom set up is a symptom, rather than the cause of our education troubles…”: nicely put, Jenise. Yes, while the teens of 1884 are obediently reading their books, today’s teenagers are hooked into a world much bigger than their classroom. And today’s conference attendees have terrific resources available outside the conference rooms; they don’t need or want talking heads at their events either.

  3. I see what you’re saying about the environment isn’t the cause, but I also see it sort of as a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” problem. Does the environment define the school, or does the school define the environment?

    Personally I think that environment and situation plays a huge role in learning, because changing even one small element of the environment has the potential to alter a students’ moods, behavior, attention, engagement, or even their personalities. I think that’s already proven.

    So no, just moving some desks around (or even getting rid of desks) won’t improve education alone, but I would definitely argue that altering the classroom feel would be a step in the right direction. If students should be helping or teaching one another and if teachers should be spending more one-on-one time with some students more than others instead of lecturing to all the students (even the students that would be better off teaching themselves), then it just doesn’t make sense to arrange desks in rows facing the front. That’s just the easy way to do it. It’s the most “factory efficient” way to do it.

    1. Hey Carlee, fellow (and veteran) PechaKucha Night organizer, thanks for dropping in here! I have to disagree with you about seeing the interrelationship of the teaching modality and the teaching environment as a chicken or the egg issue. I think the modality spawned the environment. After all, people learned stuff from each other long before there were classrooms, or any human buildings for that matter.

      At Conferences That Work sessions, I might use chairs in a circle, chairs in a horseshoe, chairs in concentric circles, chairs in rounds, chairs in chevron, or no chairs at all. It depends what we’re trying to do. There’s no single fixed seating arrangement that is optimum for every learning situation!

      Give the same classroom to traditional teachers and they’ll set up the chairs like the photos above. It’s all they know! To improve the physical learning environment, we have to broaden the perspective and knowledge of the folks responsible for the learning. Otherwise, the potential of flexible layouts will simply be ignored.

  4. Hi Adrian,

    Thanks for writing about this. Great photos. I don’t think that redesigning the classroom is “the answer to our educational system’s woes.” Not even close. In fact, there is no convincing research linking school design to academic achievement, as I mention in the piece. Does that make it not worth considering? I don’t think improving school lunches is the answer to our educational woes either, but I still want it done.

    The Slate project will include a piece next week arguing that there is no reason to change the classroom. Certainly that argument has merit. Still, it’s weird that people HAVE changed the way children are taught, yet nothing about the room has evolved. (Not even slightly more comfortable chairs!) It’s worth discussing.

    Best,
    Linda

    1. Linda, I’m honored you’ve replied to my post and the comments. Thank you!

      I’m sorry I mischaracterized your article as saying that redesigning the classroom is the answer to our educational system’s woes. That was a flip, unfair summary, and I apologize.

      I, too, want our classrooms improved, if that was the only option. If, however, I had the authority to spend enough money to either materially improve our classrooms or to implement other ways to change our educational system, I’d probably choose to put the money into approaches that educated and empowered teachers about ways of teaching that don’t require all-eyes-to-the-front strategies. If successful, I think this would naturally lead to schools changing their classrooms over time to implement the resulting changes in teaching styles.

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