Focusing Space.

My training as a liturgist has come in helpful from time to time as a teacher (Liturgy, literally “the work of the people,” is the name that theologians give to the rituals and ceremonies of people’s lives in the church).

I’m thinking, currently, of the arrangement of people in space and time. There’s a fairly limited list of ways of organizing people in a room:

  1. Seated in rows and/or columns, facing a stage (theater, classroom)
  2. Arranged in a circle, facing inward (Witches’ covens, some classes)
  3. Gathered in small groups around a center (some classrooms)
  4. Arranged in a semi-circle, facing inward and forward, one officer at the focus (group therapy, classrooms, storyteller circles)
  5. Arranged in a circle, facing outward (unusual)
  6. Arranged in a semi-circle around a thrust stage (Shakespeare’s Globe)
  7. Facing each other in parallel (across an empty space, like Buddhist temples or a Parliament).
  8. Audience facing officers (Church, Synagogue, Theater)
  9. Members squared with officers at key locations (Some lodge groups)
  10. Fishbowl – small group in center, audience in a ring (some theaters, some classrooms).
  11. Master and Apprentices — main worktable surrounded by multiple study/work zones

And it’s at about this point that I start running out of ideas about how to arrange space.  There are probably others… but they’re unusual in our society, and we don’t encounter them often.  Some spaces, like medieval cathedrals, combined such patterns in parallel — the monastics facing each other in parallel rows across the choir, while the congregation faced them in orderly rows and columns.

Schools have used the same basic two or three patterns for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  Patterns 1, 2, 3, and 4 are most common in American schools.  Pattern 8 might be common during an all-school meeting, but the officers in question are rarely students.  WE don’t think of our schools as centers of mystery — so we tend not to use pattern 9.  Patterns 5, and 7 aren’t great for communicating information.  Pattern 6 is great for entertainment — the actors/performers/communicators are exposed — but it doesn’t make for a good learning environment for many.  Pattern 10 can sometimes work, but it’s risky for both students and teacher if the group at the middle aren’t ready.

Pattern 11 doesn’t really fit how we expect teachers to teach and students to learn — too often, our teachers aren’t master learners themselves.  They’ve mastered a set of content, and now they expect to teach it to a group of students… they aren’t trying to teach others to be learners in the same way they are.

So we tend to focus our efforts, as teachers, around using only the first four patterns in the classroom.  For the most part, they work.  This isn’t a bad thing.  But it does mean that if we want to break free of the normal patterns, we have to physically haul desks around into a different configuration; or we need to design rooms that can operate in multiple frameworks by shifting to a different part of the same (larger room).

I recently read about the Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s Energy Lab — a carefully designed building intended to teach their students about energy, in all its forms, and how it shifts from form to form, and how it can be used in its various forms.  The building itself is designed as a single classroom, but with three different areas — one for circular/pod arrangement — Patterns 2 and 3, above.  The research area is actually arranged in Pattern 5… rather like my school’s computer labs, now that I think about it, so that one teacher can monitor many screens.  And the design/build/test lab is pattern 11 — many workbenches around which the lead teacher/mentor/master can move, helping the apprentices in turn.

What style of classroom do you have? When was the last time you reconfigured?

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