August 3rd, 2016

Classroom Spaces Where Great and Magical Things Can Happen


Students in lecture hall.

Classroom spaces (virtual or physical) are special. We tend to take them for granted, partly because spaces in general have become less differentiated. We don’t do certain things in specified places like we used to. We work at home, on planes, and in various public spaces. We eat in our cars and in front of the TV. We use our devices everywhere—bathrooms, bedrooms, churches, cars, elevators, street corners, and, yes, classrooms.

Teaching Professor Blog I want to use this post to remind us, as a new academic year approaches, that classrooms are unique spaces—sacred in the sense that what happens in a classroom can changes lives. They’re spaces dedicated to learning, where students find the motivation to learn, and where learning happens in conjunction with others and from others. Classroom learning is expedited by an expert, one who has a sincere commitment to fostering the learning of others. That expert is responsible for directing the learning and judging whether it has occurred and to what degree.

Rarely does the physical classroom space convey its significance. At the postsecondary level, classrooms are shared spaces, with teachers and students coming and going from rooms that don’t belong to any of them. I envy K–12 educators who have their own classrooms; I envy how they can give those spaces identities and make them recognizable so that students come to their “home” rooms. Most of us do have office spaces we can make our own, but students don’t share those spaces the way they share the classroom spaces where we convene.

Classroom space needs to be safe—free of physical threats and intimidation. Sadly, some terrible transgressions have been committed in classrooms. But they also need to be psychologically safe—places of respect where everyone has the right to speak and be heard. Classrooms should be places where disagreement results not in irreconcilable discord but in lively discussion.

Classrooms should be spaces where student perspectives and beliefs are confronted—not necessarily changed, but examined, explored, analyzed, and critiqued. “Why do you believe that?” “Why don’t you believe this?” “Is there evidence for what you believe?” “How would you respond to this argument against what you believe?” Classrooms don’t always need to be comfortable—there’s no worry on that front, given the type of furniture that usually fills them! However, as students wrestle with new ideas, different ways of thinking, and better ways of doing tasks, and as they make mistakes, misunderstand, and sometimes fail in the midst of trying hard, they should be doing so in spaces that keep their personhoods intact.

When the learning space is psychologically safe, learners (and I’m including teachers in that category) are more likely to take risks—to try out what feel like radical ideas, to dare to think differently, and to practice skills that have yet to be mastered.

Jane Tompkins (1991) proposes that classrooms are microcosms of the world—it’s an interesting notion. The teacher is the one in the space with the most power. It’s the teacher who sets the rules, decides what students can and can’t do, and then enforces those regulations. Students don’t tell teachers how the class will be run, but the teacher can adopt policies and practices that give students a say and help move those in the classroom in the direction of becoming a community. Or the teacher can create a classroom that’s governed by a very different set of rules, one that reinforces the power differential. In classroom spaces students experience different kinds of leadership; they can learn what it feels like to be powerless, powerful, or something in between.

Great and magical things don’t happen every day in a course, but as we return to our classrooms, we want to enter those spaces fully aware that great and magical things can happen there. We can’t always predict the day or time, but when big things begin to unfold, we need to be there—surprised, probably; feeling unprepared; and, most likely, a bit frightened—but still ready to move in the moment and make the most of it.

Reference: Tompkins, J., 1991. Teaching like it matters. Lingua Franca, August, pp. 24-27.

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