So, aside from the fact that they’re all men, and the general impracticality of sometimes scarcely sufficient draping as clothes, many of the images of Socrates and his pupils look like a pretty great environment for learning. The students are gathered around, able to engage with each other and their teacher. They’re physically comfortable and so is he. They can move as needed and although Socrates is the point of focus, he’s not standing over them or stuck behind a lectern.
For many of us this comes close to what would be our ideal teaching environment too, and yet more often than not we are shuttered into windowless, airless rectangles with chairs that, if they are not actually fixed to the ground, are awkward to move, and there’s not much space to move them anywhere anyway. Sometimes, a student is literally sitting behind some weird concrete pillar, which quickly becomes the favorite spot for disconnected or shy students – precisely those who most need to form a relationship with their teacher. Sometimes we find ourselves in computer labs; great if you need your students to be working on an individual computer, completely hopeless if you want to be able to make eye contact with your students or have them interact with each other in any meaningful way. We make do. We endure the screeching of chairs as we drag them into tight circles for small group discussion. We try and speak over the hum of the air conditioning and know to bring an extra layer to cope with a thermostat set at the freezing temperature that allows middle-aged men in suits to feel comfortable (see “The New Cold War: Why Women are Chilly at Work,” The Guardian August 4th 2015 for just one example of some of the discussion around this whole other can of worms).
Yes, there are creative ways around these limitations. Move the chairs if you have to. Create activities that require students to move around. A great strategy that I have enthusiastically appropriated from one of my own professors at the Graduate Center (the wonderful and dedicated Amy Hughes) is asking students to draw “graffiti” of their responses to the reading on the board, or a favorite quote. Teaching a speech class revealed the benefit to me of taking a few minutes to lead the students in breathing and stretching exercises before almost any class to dispel some of the stupor that the confines of the institutional space seems to create. Avoid the podium. Walk around yourself as much as you can.
Do all this, but at the same time, a public discussion about the design of educational spaces needs to happen and an essential part of it needs to be a push for architects, designers, and the powers-that-be to consult with the people who actually use these spaces – namely, teachers and students.
And yes, I know there are financial constraints to the perfect classroom. As appealing as the images from certain films are, they are a form of idealized nostalgia that won’t be transported to a community college any time soon (but do imagine for a moment, attempting the Dead Poets Society desk standing trick in your typical classroom). But a thoughtfully designed educational space is not impossible. LaGuardia Community College recently opened their newly renovated library and it is remarkable. It is a calm, comfortable, welcoming space. It has natural light. It has normal chairs – the kind you might be lucky enough to have in your own home – not the clunky monstrosities typical of most institutions that you can’t even edge closer to your desk with ease. It has areas where there are tables and lamps, but no screens. The shelves are accessible and easy to navigate. It’s a beautiful space. One of the most remarkable things about it, however, is how the design process began: they asked students what they wanted.
It’s easy I think, for us to dismiss our students’ own awareness of what they need. LAGCC could have assumed that consulting students would merely result in requests to make it just another hang out spot, or to provide as many ways as possible for them to waste time on social media. But our students are more dedicated to their own progress at college and have better instincts about what will help them achieve them than that. This is especially important since a vast majority of them do not have ideal working spaces at home. If there is a computer at all, it might be in a shared or multifunctional space. There quite possibly is no room for a desk, or quiet corner in which to read and take notes. As a whole, the new library demonstrates not just an informed perspective, but also respect for our students; a respect that I am confident is deeply appreciated and will be reciprocated in the students’ use of the space.
So, we’ll keep finding creative ways to deal with the space we’re given, and yet I hope we can also bring this discussion into the public eye to help not only raise awareness of the need for proper funding towards classroom spaces, but also the need for design that involves teachers and students in the process.