computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How important is the furniture, really?


I’ve received the following comment on my last post, itself a follow-up post to my musings about how we place pupils in the classroom:

“Back to the Eighties”, I find that simply weird. "How structure influences human interaction". This structuralist explanation has been left behind by many of us. Interaction itself is an independent phenomenon, which in its form and content interacts with many more factors than that which physical structures bring to bear. Cognitive anthropology: has to do with thinking, and the thinking of all those thought to be part of this interaction. This structure-interaction thinking is, I believe, based on what some would call an authoritarian mindset. The material structures - what about the social structures, or what about emotional, cultural?

Bottom-up thinking could give us a lot of information about what is really going on, if we let those who have something to say come forward. Do you find this soft-hearted?

You refer to the importance of your role as leader. How much you need to work towards the students to get them to obey you and your structuring. Can all of this be understood as an attempt to gag the students in what you perceive as the more or less hedonistic development of their lives?

Are you perhaps seduced by the computer and desks and horseshoes? Take the computer away for a day and see what the students get up to. Talk to them and let them talk for a whole day. Maybe you can seduce them with more than your ability to organize desks; seduce with what you can mean to them as a person. Maybe they will turn their backs to the wall and listen to you and others in the classroom? Listen, reflect, think, go out of the classroom with new insights and a wonder that can mature and then become well-being. Disorder is not so stupid sometimes. The whole discussion about how the students sit, is for me a complete "fake". Should they also march in a row when we meet them in the hallway outside the classroom? Have we no different role for them than the leadership position we think we need to mark out in some room?

As I wrote in a comment to that post, I may have expressed myself badly. There aren’t too many these days who would argue that the furniture somehow determines interaction. The fact that physical structures influence interaction is, however, beyond doubt. But there’s more: the way we furnish a room conveys expectations, values, etc. Some of my sociology students recently suggested some messages contained in the configuration I call “the bus”:

P9160008 a) what is important happens at the front of the room. b) it isn’t important to be able to see your classmates (and by extension, hear and interact with them, either).

A configuration where the pupils sit facing the centre of the room, without stuff in front of them suggests that something important might happen between pupils. When they turn and individually face their own work, there is a clear expectation that they do something. I suspect some 0f the resistance I encounter to getting rid of the bus is that some of my pupils have been well trained to a passive role and the horseshoe configurations clearly expect activity.

It’s interesting that the commenter above seems to accuse me of being authoritarian for trying to lead my classroom, but then suggests putting away the computers for a day. Wouldn’t that involve giving orders to my class? I myself find it strange that some of my colleagues get their students to stand by their desks at the beginning of class. Could it be that giving the orders we are used to just seems a natural part of our role, while different kinds of direction seem authoritarian? I can’t understand this comment in any other way, really, since this person is simultaneously encouraging me to do specific types of things with my class (which would require using my authority) and accusing me of being a little…power-mad?

Personally, I’m no natural leader, but the whole project of learning in large groups is doomed unless the adult in the room is willing to take responsibility for what happens. This isn’t quite the same as being a dictator or planning everything in advance, it’s simply being a good leader. My own experience painfully confirms the research here.

Am I seduced by computers? No, but I see their huge potential for learning. I also note that they have radically changed the world outside the classroom. Bringing them into the classroom does not automatically increase learning, however. Unless we as teachers have clear ideas about what we want to use them for, I see a serious potential for decreasing the amount of learning going on.

Is furniture that important? No – there are more important things to talk about. Still, you can’t avoid the furniture. I can’t abandon the classroom entirely (although I’d like to), so the furniture has to be arranged. The question is how. There is no ‘neutral’ arrangement. For me, the classroom is supposed to be an arena for learning, so I want to arrange it to facilitate activities for learning.


So, I want to get off the bus. I teach primarily French as a foreign language and it’s pretty clear to me that my pupils won’t get far by just listening to me talk. I love to talk (probably too much) but my background is as a climbing instructor and I see learning as something that happens when the pupils do something that they haven’t done before.

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