Spaces and Schools

Educational work is now remote. As we social distance, protecting our students and each other, interaction is mediated by screens and phones. This is our new normal. The loss of face-to-face, of being at my college, has made me think – and rethink – the value and importance of being in a shared physical space when it comes to teaching and learning. I would wager that all of us who work in education are sharing similar thoughts and asking like questions. That is, we are when we have the time to take a break from our screens.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to explore the relationship of education, space and design in an interesting academic setting. Mulling it over now – a few months later, without the daily pulse of students and colleagues – I have come to realize that space and place carries with it much more than I had realized or appreciated.

Little Red Schoolhouse, Florham Park, NJ – close to where I grew up

Back at the start of 2020 two friends, architects who have an active practice and also teach at the college level, invited me to join one of their classes. They teach an architecture for non-architects course to talented upper-level students. Over the span of the course the students learn about architecture and also the practice of being an architect through design projects. It is experiential learning – and reading the syllabus, it made me want to take their class. I also have to mention that my friends are curious, nice, and exceedingly talented and smart – exactly what you would want in architects and professors.

My assignment for the session was more than sitting in and listening. That section of the course was centered on the students’ design of a school. Much of the particulars of the program had been established. My role was to offer professional guidance and observations as an educator, to facilitate some discussion and reflection on how and why schools function the way that they do – and their relationship with physical space.

I started with two assertions about the functions of any formal educational structure, broad claims that could give us a common platform for speculation. I proposed that at their most basic level, all educational institutions are about the dissemination of knowledge and the certification of that knowledge. I took pains to emphasize that we are not necessarily talking about learning. Learning can take place anywhere. I also noted that for a limited number of  higher education institutions, a key function is also the creation of knowledge (scholarship and research). However, in broad strokes, what schools and college do is disseminate and certify.  

Clearly, learning is important – and many other functions are vital to schools and colleges. Schools and colleges are important public spaces, they train people, they are sites for health, sports and athletics, they build communities, they facilitate economic development, they socialize students, and do much more. Successful educational leadership in building, running, and managing a school has to be aware of all these secondary and tertiary functions and execute them effectively. Depending upon stakeholders and the local conditions, other functions can loom as important and sometimes even more important than education’s primary functions.

Framing all of these academic and educational functions are two conflicting philosophies or tendencies. I suggested that we think of them as situated on opposite ends of one continuum. On one pole is variation and creativity; the other pole is order and control. Within the endpoints one can locate most educational functions and the designs and organizations of academic spaces. Again, the tensions are between seeking order (desks in a row) or promoting creativity (open informal learning spaces).

It is difficult to find a more influential or charismatic advocate for the power of education in promoting individual creativity than Paulo Freire. The Brazilian educator in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and other works vigorously argued against the banking model of education (students are empty vessels in which educators pour knowledge). Drawing on thinkers like Rousseau and Dewey, he advocated for education that that was about growth, curiosity, agency and joy. A snippet from a letter written by Freire to his wife captures his faith in the power of a healthy education to empower the child as an individual. “There was no rupture between my parents’ teaching at home and the pedagogy of my teacher Eunice at school. At home, as in school, I was always invited to learn and never reduced to an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. No barrier existed between the way I was raised at home and the work I was given at school. Thus, schoolwork never was a threat to my curiosity but rather was a stimulus. The time I spent playing and searching in my backyard was not the same as my experiences in school, but school was not my opposite point of reference, something that made me feel uncomfortable. Time spent in my backyard overflowed into time in school, making me feel happy in both spaces. In the final analysis, even though school had its own conditions, it did not limit my joy in life.”

When it comes to order and control, perhaps no one better explained how it came to be and has structured our societies than Michel Foucault. The French philosopher in multiple works, especially Discipline and Punish, expounds on theory and practice express through the internalization of power. A book nominally about prisons, Discipline and Punish it is also about schools, hospitals, and other public spaces. Foucault explores Jeremy Bentham’s model prison, the Panopticon, is a way to understand the internalization of control. In the Panopticon a single guard can watch all prisoners. While it is not physically possible to watch everyone all the time, the very design means that for those imprisoned, any any time they might be observed. This physical “metaphor” has applicability across spaces and functions.

People behave differently in different environments, and especially when being watched, observed, and tracked. What holds for prisons can take place in schools. A short quote from Foucault captures the idea: “A real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious relation. So it is not necessary to use force to constrain the convict to good behaviour, the madman to calm, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, the patient to the observation of the regulations.”

This leads us back to the class discussion and the larger question of what takes place in a school or college. Is freedom or control being advanced? Or both? Bear in mind, too, that it is difficult to tell when someone is learning.

Some spaces in schools are remarkably similar across institutions of all shapes and sizes. For example, classrooms – our formal learning spaces – are very much alike. Some have tablet arm chairs and some have table, but all are immediately recognizable as classrooms. They are meeting spaces, or assembly spaces, designed to facilitate the dissemination of knowledge. Some of these more visible reflect the tendency towards order; others seem to promote creativity and variation.

On the other hand, many other aspects of educational spaces can vary quite a bit. Questions I discussed with the architecture class included: 

  • Who gets in? How? How welcoming? How inclusive? These are issues about a school’s relationship with its external community.
  • How do stakeholders – students, administrators, community, teachers, faculty, move around in the space? Is it open to all or just some stakeholders. These are issues about a school’s relationship with its internal community.

At the time, all of this was great fun to consider. I really enjoyed the class and the opportunity, and have been thinking about it quite a bit of late.

Yes, the formal functions of schools are the dissemination and certification of knowledge. These functions can be facilitated, though, by a screen and software. A school, a college, a community is also very much about community, identity, and making meaning. Now, in the absence of my physical college, I have come to appreciate that a school’s identity and ability to pull people together, to provide an identity and community, to become greater than the sum of its parts and spaces – is something that bears our collective attention and matters tremendously. We humans are social animals who seek meaning from our actions and each other. Schools are absolutely essential in making these things happen.

And I am looking forward to the time when we can get together and work on this together.

David Potash

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