Deconstructing the learning/teaching space

This text was initially written for the Editorial page in the Cultura Inglesa Teachers’ Portal-August 2013. Since posting it, I felt the need to add a few elements to the text itself and so I’ve posted it on my blog in an extended format.

We as teachers have become so used to the four walls of the classroom environment that it is as if it has become an extension of our teaching persona. This recently led me to reflect on a few questions which I think we can ask ourselves and I’ve also had the chance to ask a few teachers following the opportunity to observe their lessons.

– How many of you would ever dream of teaching with the door open?
– How many of you would give up your chair at the front of the class and feel happy sitting in a circle amongst your learners?
– How many of you are ready to allow learners to group themselves as they will and move tables and chairs around the classroom?
– How many of you would feel happy swapping the IWB for a simple display board or, for that matter, tablets scattered across learners’ desks?
– How happy are you about sitting on the floor with learners?
– Are classroom walls part of our learning/teaching space? How do we use them?
– How many of you see the school environment itself as an extension of the learning/teaching space?
– How many of you see spaces outside the classroom environment, such as parks, squares, playgrounds as a learning/teaching space?

It’s not easy to ask ourselves these questions.
It’s not easy to justify our answers to these questions either, however we may answer them.
Sometimes we as teachers have specific beliefs about our “place” in the classroom. Sometimes our beliefs are at peace with the teaching environment in which we work. However, sometimes these beliefs are not matched by what is required of us in the educational institutions where we work at.

Changing or relinquishing a traditional “teaching position” has immense pedagogical, physical, metaphorical and psychological implications both for us as teachers and for the learners themselves. This is what makes it all such a fascinating and challenging experience.

In July this year I was lucky enough to take part in a course run by Luke Meddings on Teaching Unplugged. It was a three-day course which sought to challenge participants to re-think the learning/teaching paradigm and all its possibilities. One of the things we did on the second day of the course was to experience a change in the learning/teaching scenario. We left the “classroom” and went to Parque Lage, in Rio de Janeiro, for a “plein air” afternoon. This was our new learning space.

Parque Lage - Rio de Janeiro
Parque Lage – Rio de Janeiro

The moment our physical space changed, so did the way we reacted. The first thing we all did was to find a space to huddle as a group. But a park is a park, full of natural interferences: children, parents, flowers, trees, birds, animals, smells…
So how do you concentrate on what you are doing and not on the other distractors?

Course participant and friend Bruno Lages distracted and yours truly equally distracted by Bruno's distraction.
Course participant and friend Bruno Lages distracted and yours truly equally distracted by Bruno’s distraction.

Or is it okay to be allowed to be ambushed by distractors?
Can’t distractors also add to the collaborative and creative learning process? (As a learner who was always ticked off for “daydreaming” during lessons, I still defend the right of any learner to be distracted during a lesson. Maybe as a learner I just needed that breathing space between one algrebraic equation and the next to be able to cope with it? Maybe it was the daydreaming which actually kept me going with something which was so immensely difficult for me. But maybe I’m just finding an excuse for being bad at maths!)

The real and visible “threat” of the distractors meant we all had to listen to each other far more attentively. We really had to look at each other as we worked to keep our focus and keep on task. We negotiated meaning and content far more intensely during our discussions. Time was under our management and we all had a task to complete before the whole group gathered together again for debriefing and sharing. But we were free to organize our presentations using the resources and note-taking devices we wanted.

The debate and exchange which ensued, as the sun gradually set in this lush landscape, was one of the most pedagogically rewarding experiences I have ever had in my 23 years of teaching. We gathered round a fallen tree trunk.

photo (6)

We were happy to sit, stand or lean on the tree trunk. When someone looked tired, we just swapped – there was giving and taking – we suddenly became more sensitive to each other’s needs. We wrote on paper, on mobile phones, on tablets, some drew diagrams. We passed the paper around or our devices so all could see what we had written. We had no physical walls to surround us, but there was unity and a feeling of belonging…that space we had collectively created was ours, and ours only.

So, how much of the teaching/learning space we work in is limited or contained by our physical reality and our preconceived ideas about what a learning/teaching space should be like? Doesn’t it have a great deal to do with the affective dimension and how we as teachers and learners collaboratively construct our teaching/learning spaces?

Addendum: My personal element of distraction when I was at Parque Lage

One of the things which distracted me when I was working with my group happened when I was looking at the children playing on swings and the seesaw. And I just thought: what completely different perspectives we get when we swing on a swing or go up and down on a seesaw. The swing is completely hedonistic and individual, unless of course someone pushes you, but still, you have your back to them. The seesaw is all about looking at each other in the eye, understanding each other and working collaboratively. Hmm, I thought all these things in the blink of an eye and then I was looking at my group again.

photo (8)

2 thoughts on “Deconstructing the learning/teaching space

  1. What if we tried to take this further talk about Deconstructing Teaching Itself?
    I’ve been reading about teaching unplugged (and a couple of Luke’s videos on the Britsh Council page) and it strikes me incredibly similar in lots of principles to unschoolling – the parenting movement in which children never stop learning through means of not going to school.

    People learn things all the time. All we need is a need, a source (or ten) of information, and practice. We learn how to behave at school, at home, at work, at social events by observing, imitating, and trying. And failing. And succeeding. When something is relevant, we ask people, read books, look it up, and google it. And boy, do we google things!

    Why is learning a language different? Did we have mother tongue teachers? Or were we just exposed to it? Have we ever stopped learning it? We talk about students’ autonomy. But how can that happen if we still have teacher and teaching? Constantly, my students finish an activity and look at me hungry for more. They don’t know what they want, but they want more. They know they can trust that person and, especially in non English speaking countries, believe that by paying tuition and attending a couple of lessons a week, learning is guaranteed.

    Why not break away from classrooms, schools and teachers? Why not form groups of interest doing activities that are relevant for the group?

    Learning by doing, not studying.

  2. I loved your addendum, Valéria… and especially the way you left it open-ended for us to draw our own conclusions about the relative merits of ‘swings and see-saws’ in our daily lives and interactions with the world and its inhabitants. It strikes me that at different moments, we may have an intense need/desire for these two types of ‘rides’. There are times when we absolutely must connect with another individual (or individuals) and lock step with them in perfect harmony if a mutually satisfactory result is to be gained. At other times, it’s equally important (and almost irresistible) to swing free and alone, higher and higher… pushing our own boundaries (between our comfort zone and the scary unkown!). Of course, if there is somebody literally (and metaphorically) watching our back… so much the better! 🙂

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