“They need leaders.”

21 02 2012

This piece from the Minnesota Daily is really interesting on so many levels:

It is true that space is limited on many university campuses, but that is hardly an excuse for the propagation of classroom spaces that confine learning rather than liberate it. If learning is truly to be student-centered, then there must also be classroom spaces that support student-centered learning. What if we had classroom spaces that were empty, and the instructors and students needed to decide what went in them? It certainly would be difficult because there are many courses that use one classroom space. But, what if students were simply asked what type of space they would like to learn in?

Some classroom spaces are just stifling and suffocating. They are examples of university-authorized learning in spaces that are often not conducive to learning. Indeed, instructors can hardly be expected to evoke liberating teaching methods in spaces that confine, constrict and force learning into certain molds. It is even more difficult on students. Students are the reason classroom spaces exist.

Despite both the role of students and teachers in its existence, the classroom space may be one of the ultimate exercises of university authority.

On the good side, I was expecting this piece to lead up to a justification of online learning and it didn’t. On the less good side, don’t universities need to exercise some kind of authority in order to make sure that learning occurs in classrooms? Even online universities are developing security provisions in order to prevent students from cheating at tests. Is arranging chairs and tables for proctoring an exam an unwarranted use of authority? I certainly hope not.

But the author of this Minnesota piece isn’t talking about tests. He’s talking about the placement of chairs and tables (and now screens) in a room that are amenable to some ways of learning and not others. In that sense, he’s absolutely right – the space where you learn can be oppressive. The question is what do professors want to do about it?

Sometimes I lecture. Sometimes I lead discussions. Sometimes I break students up into groups and run around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to follow each discussion and jumpstart it when needed. I have the students and I move the chairs and tables around depending upon whatever we happen to be doing that day. I wouldn’t bother if I thought for a moment that my efforts didn’t matter. Having a good teacher is more important than the space where they teach, yet responding to the material and human environment where you teach is a big part of what makes a good teacher good.

The professor/teacher is the living symbol of authority in the classroom, and that’s not a bad thing because groups of all kinds need leaders. Liberating students from oppressive classrooms might be a good idea, but liberating students from the oppression of teachers isn’t. Nobody has the same authority if they’re just a blip on a computer screen. The sad thing is that if you have to interact with your students solely through that computer screen, you’re probably too detached to realize it.

PS I promise you that I had the idea for the title and video accompanying this post last night, before the Girl Scouts became “controversial.” I’m not sure I had seen that video since the 1970s, but I could remember it like it was yesterday.


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2 responses

21 02 2012
Jonathan Dresner

FYI, the author of that piece, which you got a great deal more out of than I did, is an active tweeter, @trentmkays

24 02 2012
Mark R. Cheathem

I agree with the principle (classroom space and its organization matters), but I can’t help but pick up the implication that the author wants a decentralized method of education that values what the consumer (student) wants over anything else.

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