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« “We know a great deal about how people learn and about designing schools that enhance learning.” — Randy Fielding

Dear Randy and Prakash,

Early on in The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for the 21st Century, you wrote the following:

“No book about school design would be complete without a discussion of the ‘classroom’ and what this space might look like in tomorrow’s school. In fact, it is legitimate to ask if the classroom should continue to reign as the primary building block of a school as it undoubtedly does today.

“Before we can talk about design, it is valuable to take another look at what the classroom represents. The classroom is the most visible symbol of an educational philosophy. It is a philosoph that starts with the assumption that a predetermined number of students will all learn the same thing at the same time from the same person in the same way in the same place for several hours each day.”

It is not surprising that Design Pattern #1 (”Classrooms, Learning Studios, Advisories and Small Learning Communities”) takes a crack at the very heart of the traditional school house. Afterall, if you’re going to offer up a new language of school design, as well as offer new patterns of thinking and relating, it seems necessary to start at the first block of the building.

And like you, many of us are probably already on board (well-combed hair members of the choir, so to speak) with the idea that if the ‘purpose’ of the learning arrangement changes, then the built environment of the ‘classroom’ can change as well.

But, for a second, I want to share with you the voice of a single teacher in a single classroom who has momentarily made due with the 4 walls (probably cinder block) of the classroom (probably in the shape of a rectangle) she has (probably off of a double-loaded corridor) and focused on the task of teaching and the goal of engaged learning.

Imagine also that she can’t wait for us to come to her aide, yet she has a wonderful assignment for her kids, an assignment of imagination and rigor, ready to hand out. An assignment where she accepts the room itself but begins to re-imagine the language of the classroom wall itself. She writes:

“History is a process of ideas, choices, creations and events that are simultaneous and related rather than sequential and isolated. History is full of successes and failures, ye we tend to put only perfect papers on the classroom walls. Why?

The ‘History Wall’ activities test and expand visual, spatial and temporal memories. Used to review information, the classroom walls become the ‘History WAll.’ It gives time a scale, shows relationships, improves report writing, the reading comprehension skills of finding main ideas and offers opportunties to develop reasonsing. The materials displayed measure individual and group successes and serve as an aid to self-examination. By studying the processes as well as the products of work, a sense is developed that history flows.

“Classroom life presents an opportunity for making a timeline of events to record the ‘history’ of the classroom. Traditionally classrooms walls have been the property of the teacher. A ‘good’ teacher changes the bulletin boards often. By having students collaborate with them to organize the classroom walls and ceiling, classroom history and progress become tools for learning.”

— section on “Graphic Organizers” at the following link, based on Chapter 7 of Transformations: Process and Theory, by Doreen Nelson

So, Prakash and Randy, I leave you with 2 final questions to respond to as designers who pushed the conversation so very far in such a short period of time:

1. If you were sitting across from the table from a team of teachers who acted from this spirit, would there need to be a new classroom design?

2. Or even given this voice and the ability to re-create language that elevates the critical learning task at hand, do we still need to drive towards a new architectural solution?

Your thoughts?

3 Responses to “Re-Thinking the Classroom…and the Classroom Wall”

  1. rvaliant Says:

    The idea of a “history wall” reminds me of a concept I tried for a major international conference of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) more than 10 years ago. As conference chair, I brought in a graphic designer and asked presenters at the conference to come to a centrally located room following their presentation to share their primary concepts. The designer posted these ideas as a “Mind Map” of the entire conference on the walls of the room.

    It seems to me that this same process could be done for a school subject (or grade at the elementary level). The developing map would help students understand how the various components of the class fit together and how the class fits into the overall scheme of the curriculum.

  2. Lackney Says:

    Some side thoughts on writing on walls….if you don’t mind….

    Hey…Leonardo Da Vinci wrote on walls - and he was a genius…

    Our kids write on walls up until age 3, then someone slaps their hands and they don’t do that no more…..

    A student union in one of our universities here created a “Democracy” Wall” to allow anyone to write on and express their right of free speech. It was interesting how quickly those who disagreed with what was being said took it down.

    In a vo-tech high school in Milwaukee, there was a “graffitti” wall that lasted almost 1 full year. It helped diffuse tensions in the school between rival gangs until the administration got nervous.

    I had a great conversation with a math teacher in Alberta CA that had groups of students constantly “at the board” working out problems in groups. She said it was the only way to teach math well.

    We encourage the installation of “Inquiry Walls” into our classrooms to assist and channel students’ creative expression whether that expression is art, science or drama. If an idea comes to them, they have a place to put it and share it with their peers.

    What if students, not teachers, got to write on walls?

    How long can we tolerate pure freedom of thought?
    Just a thought…

  3. RogerLeeson Says:

    It strikes me that there’s a lot of very creative thinking going on about how to do away with the “Henry Ford” model of classrooms, in rows, mass producing educated citizens. While there is much to be critical of, I think it may be useful to look at the other end of the education spectrum.
    Yes, we learn in myriad ways and we’re born with a natural inclination to learning in many different settings. But where do most of us end up putting education into practice as adults?
    As I write, I’m sitting in a rectangular cube (for some folks an office) with carefully controlled daylight, acoustics, and air conditioning. It’s arranged in rows with other similar spaces. Is this not typical for those with college educations? When is it appropriate to start getting used to this environment?

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