I’ve been thinking about shape a lot lately. Specifically, how the way we shape things shapes how we shape thoughts. I know I’m not the only one to have considered this, but I’m the only one in my head to be considering it, so I’m going with it.
Friday, I visited an elementary school to observe and report.
I saw first, second, fourth and fifth grade classrooms.
In working toward a goal for a learning task in one of my classes, I noted the arrangement of each of the classrooms. My sketches weren’t perfect, but they reflected the general arrangement of each room.
In first grade, there were groupings of five or six tables, there was a carpet by a dry erase board. A teacher desk suffocated beneath papers. A kidney-shaped and a circular table both hinted at where the students might work to complete a collaborative task or work together with the teacher’s help. When I walked in, students were everywhere. Some were at their desks completing math work. Some were reading. Others were working together on the ground to paint what looked like it was the makings of a tree trunk. At one point, students transitioned from their myriad tasks to a whole-class reminder of the previous day’s learning and then community time at the carpet with the teacher.
The second grade class had even more of the frenetic energy you’d hope to see in a place where people are learning. The class’s co-teachers were across the room from one another working with small groups of students in rotation while the other students worked their way through stations where they read, counted using number lines, colored, completed their poetry journals and fitted blocks together to form vocabulary words. Just when I thought I’d gotten a handle where everyone was, they slid seamlessly to another station.
The portion of fourth grade I observed had fewer stations, but the co-teachers worked together to move student learning. One sat at a kidney-shaped table with a small group while the larger class worked on an assignment in organizations ranging from 1 to 6. The task involved manipulatives and the students each used them to find answers to the problems they were addressing and explain their answers to group members who weren’t seeing their logic. Though focused on one task, the room was still abuzz with difference.
Fifth grade took a turn. Groupings of desks changed from a standard of 4-5 to 3-4. The room had a clear front and back. The teacher was at the front. Her desk was at the back. The students were facing her. Focused on a singular task, student shared their answers and the teacher asked if the class thought those answers were correct.
I’ve only got a sampling of four classrooms, but I think I can see where this is going. All I need do is examine the learning spaces I head to throughout the week to see the natural end of this progression.
Each class is a variation on a theme. Scaled up and down according to the room and how many people we need fit inside it. The these horseshoes are where we learn about reforming how students learn. They are where we read about and discuss the importance of collaboration and choice. In these spaces, we examine student- versus teacher-centered practices and question why it is so difficult to move teachers’ practices to the former.
Some professors have attempted to break the space against itself and encouraged group work and movement. But the spaces weren’t meant for this. They don’t invite creative uses.
I looked at the collection of how teachers were using the spaces in the schools I’ve visited this year and noticed a trend.
The learning was different. The lessons were different. The voices and sizes were different. But the spaces moved toward one singular design.
I know where this leads my thinking, and I wonder what kind of thinkers, creators and citizens these spaces encourage and invite. No matter our professed values, are we building spaces that ask students to question, build and move forward?