classrooms · inconvenience · teaching · Uncategorized

Classroom design and architectural determinism

You can learn a lot about an institution from its classrooms. The politics, values, and pinch-points inadvertently reveal themselves in infrastructure, I find.

In general, the classrooms I teach in attempt to squeeze too many students into a space designed for fewer of them. That’s problem number 1. One of our alumni, who took his degree in the 1970s when our building was new, remembers all of his classes having between 8 and 15 students (some of them smoking!) in classrooms that now have tables and chairs for 18-25. If someone at the back needs to get up, pretty much everyone else has to stand up and move out of the way.

Problem number 2 is that when these rooms are “redesigned” or “refurbished” the after condition is often worse than the before. The brown brick classrooms in my building, with chalkboards and pull-down screens and projectors bolted into the ceiling have now all been repainted retinal-burn white, have whiteboards that are actually wall paint and can only bear one brand of marker and be wiped only with a special rag (most classrooms have neither rag nor markers available) and instead of a screen there’s a giant wall mounted TV the people keep hitting their heads on. The instructor console is bolted to the wall now, so you have to turn your back on the class and stand up and lean in to use it. I hit people with my butt a lot this way.

The upward pressure on class sizes is visible here, as is the trend to one-size-fits all, vendor-led classroom design. There was a time when we taught classes of 12 students, and this time haunts us in the rooms we’re left with: too small for what we’re trying to do now, the awkwardness and discomfort of the new arrangements physically felt by everyone.

The bureacratization, managerialism, and business-ing of higher education is manifest in classroom redesigns that very, very clearly took no input at all from either students or teachers: I imagine it was all vendors, IT people, plant operations, and budget staff who did this. The rooms are literally unusable. So in one room I have to hit students with my butt to show some powerpoints and half of them have to move seats in order to see it. In the other room I’m teaching in right now, where there’s never any markers and no cloth, the classroom clock is hung in the middle of the painted-white-board wall that is most often obscured by the pull down screen. The students are seated stadium style (there are only 25 of them) and the rows are too close together, or too close to the wall, for me to walk past them without touching some part of my torso against the backs of their heads. No.

IMG_2037
Yeah. I “erased” this as hard as I could.

It’s depressing.

In my ideal classroom the seating is flexible, so we can move it if we have to. I need the seating spaced enough that I can easily walk around the room. At the very least I should be able to walk to some vantage point where I can see their laptop screens. Crowded classrooms with inflexible media arrangements enforce a separation of the front of the room from the rest of it, a separation I feel keenly when I can’t even manoeuvre my way to my students to answer a group-work question, or hand back a marked paper. I can’t walk around during writing time to see what people’s screens are showing. This classroom turns it into me and them, not us. I hate that.

In my ideal classroom the technology serves teaching and learning, rather than serving as the kind of sun around which we must all orbit. Most of the projectors, for example, cover the whiteboard area, and can’t be ‘muted’–which means if the projector is on, it stays on and you can’t use the board. If you turn it off, it goes through its whole routine, and then again if you want to turn it back on. Flexible, it ain’t.

There are always tradeoffs in any situation, I understand. But as I watch all the rooms around me get retrofitted to be somehow uglier, more crowded, and even less usable than before, I fear we show a different set of values as an institution, a kind of carelessness or committee-think that has forgotten that classrooms are for students, and they are for teachers, to work together, to build something magic. All the phone calls because the TV is not working, or not being able to use the paintboard because someone else used the wrong marker, or shouting across the room at people because you just can’t get to where they are? That’s not it.

What does your ideal classroom look like?

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