For many, the classroom is an alienating place. There are environmental factors that play into this (and monetary factors that play into these environmental ones). There are stigmas, expectations, and traditions that may interfere with learning. In attending and visiting various college campuses around the country I frequently see the same colorless, characterless spaces, each one artificially illuminated by fluorescent light. In fact, I dare you to type “schools look like” into Google and see how the program autocompletes the thought. Or fill it in yourself. If you have spent enough time near the institution, it is likely you and the search algorithm will pick up on the same cultural trend: schools look like prisons. And by observing the current boom in 21st century classroom design companies, I know that the market (and incidentally, Foucault) agrees with me.
More troubling, however, are the less visible cultural biases that manifest in these traditional classroom spaces. When left unmodified, the “default settings” and practices of today’s classrooms may be further marginalizing diverse student populations. One scholar, Mildred Jordan, observes a variety of “negative affects that a mainstream American educational experience can have on African American and other minority students.” In fact, Jordan goes as far as to suggest that, “the behavior of Black students is often seen as being disruptive rather than an expression of their own cultural styles.” While this assertion is troublesome enough, I want to argue further that the traditional classroom doesn’t even capture the needs of the mainstream student well. The Gallup survey states that student engagement at the high school level is as low as 4 in 10 students. With classroom disengagement rates soaring, it appears that no class, race, or culture has discovered immunity (albeit disproportionately affecting marginalized populations). According to a recently released report, even the teachers are becoming increasingly disengaged with the classroom, lacking the “energy, insights, and resilience that effective teaching” requires. And it’s the students who pay the price.
It’s time for a change. As an educator, this is the thought that has been reverberating through my mind for the past several months. I work at an after-school tutoring center, which has its own environmental shortcomings (the type where you plop ten tables on a basketball floor and call it a learning center). The need for change quite literally surrounds me. It haunts me within the cold, drafty grey-walled tutoring center and it gains credence every time I receive a disheartening email from one of my student’s teachers, suggesting that the reason for such a low grade is the student’s disengagement in the classroom. Establishing a “welcoming environment” has even become a regular topic of discussion within our organization, although little action is emerging as a result. By the time the sun finally reared its head in the Pacific Northwest, I had finally had it: the students would leave an eight-hour school day in classrooms lacking any personal or cultural relevance and then visit a tutoring center with a similar aesthetic for three more hours. It was really time for change.
With a folding table pinched under my arm, I headed out the backdoor of the tutoring center, followed quickly by a stack of chairs, a second table and — later — a beanbag. This is how outdoor tutoring began. While the ten-foot yard between our property and the neighbor’s backyard is far from ideal, it offered the students an alternative, a way of escaping classroom burnout; further, it offered me a way of escaping an overcrowded office and avoiding classroom burnout.
The cost of this learning environment transformation was nil. My time investment is just slightly higher, requiring two-to-three minutes at the beginning and end of each day to reorganize the space. I didn’t spend extensive time politicking or bureaucratizing; I simply grabbed what I needed to grab and tossed it on the lawn on a sunny day. I cannot cite the pedagogues that assert the benefits of this environment (although I imagine Dewey and Freire would be proud), nor can I graph the productivity of the students who choose to use this space (although it was recommended I try). What I do know, however, is that many of the students we serve prefer this outdoor learning environment, and this is where things get interesting.
In this seemingly small act of offering two learning environments — indoor and outdoor — a deeply problematic assumption surfaces. For perhaps the first time in these students’ lives, they were intentionally given the freedom to decide what learning looks like and where it happens. I took a risk and said, “learning happens everywhere.” I recognize that as educators we can and should shift the learning from traditional classrooms to places where we see the most engagement. In this case, I blended an environment encouraging creativity and play with a task in desperate need of engagement: sun-speckled grass and academic study. But there are other environments, too, some of which have been around for longer than the University itself. Sports, for example, offer a natural space for learning and practicing teamwork and solidarity. Still others evolve with technology, such as immersive games as a place to learn about language, identity, and cultural studies.
It is useful to imagine an environment in which the content you hope to teach emerges organically. It most cases, this will not be the traditional classroom.
In just three weeks of opening up this new space (now dubbed the “freedom annex”), I’ve seen some pretty encouraging results. Aside from holding a number of our administrative meetings outdoors, which simply has a much more positive vibe, this open space provides diversity to our learning environment. For instance, the high school Junior who spends break time at tutoring constructing a sword out of an old fence and duct tape can now store his creation in the ground beside him. And this matters. For two weeks inside the tutoring center he struggled to generate the eight poems required of an English class assignment. The assignment was late and the student was beginning to feel discouraged. Outside, however, inspired by his extracurricular creation, the project took only a couple of hours. The play sword became a recurring symbol in his creative writing assignment and even encouraged me to write along, producing this summarizing haiku:
A stick in the mud
Unearthed and held towards the sky
Is a stick no more.
Elsewhere on the lawn, two students, a Sophomore and a Freshman, share a beanbag set in the sun. They each cradle an 800-page textbook like a child cradles a picture book (or an iPad). They are reading Shakespeare, which is not easy for either of them. Looking down at the text, they see:
“How camest thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?
The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,
And the place death, considering who thou art,
If any of my kinsmen find thee here,” (Romeo and Juilet).
This is not a language, or for that matter a culture, these students recognize. Yet, as many Romantic poets suggest, nature encourages imagination. Looking up from the text, the students see a fence — itself visibly hard to climb — hidden behind some shrubs, the foraging and clucking of backyard chickens just beyond. Nature set the stage better than any rough sketch on scratch paper could. Despite four hundred years of distance, Shakespeare becomes at least a little bit less abstract. Of course, I mustn’t make too much of this comparison or I’ll soon find myself unwittingly advocating a return to those concrete classrooms in time for the tomb scene in Act V.
Whenever possible, learning environments must be hybrid. Achieving this goal is challenging. Educators are met with a variety of material, spatial, economic, temporal, and administrative barriers. To teach class in nature for a day is to give up the affordance for wifi and many other technologies. Further, as I have discovered, it favors students without allergies and in many cases relies unintentionally upon ableist assumptions. I know that an outdoor learning environment may increase learning challenges for as many students as the traditional classrooms; yet, I challenge you all to experiment with such spaces when it be possible. More importantly, there is a need for educators to critically reflect on the spaces available (or could make available) to them and reconfigure them to more overtly student-centered environments.
Reflecting back on my time in classrooms, I recall a rather large number of occasions where the instructor (sometimes this was me) knowingly sacrificed student engagement for content delivery. Individual class periods feel bound by the syllabus and the daily content must be delivered before class lets out — even if this means speaking it at the backs of students as they walk out. Looking forward, I imagine a different sort of classroom dynamic and am optimistic that I will be more cognizant of the needs of my students. This means, for me, a lot less content per day, cutting my delivery time down significantly to reserve 50% of each class to engage in more active thought processes. I recognize that the environment that I teach in is also the space that students are required to learn in. It is a collective space, and must be treated as one. It is within the power of every educator to modify that space — albeit sometimes only by a little — to make it as inviting and engaging as possible.
Question the learning environment in which you teach. If the only reason you are in that space is because the University told you so, know that you can do it better. Accepting generic classrooms is the physical equivalent to using default settings — and, as every gamer recognizes sooner or later: default settings are never optimal. A classroom must be customized to meet the needs of its population, teacher and students alike. Meaningful environmental change can be created with or without administrative support and with minimal time and monetary investment. It begins by listening to your students and channeling their cultural styles into an effective classroom dynamic.
I challenge you to discover the natural classrooms of the world. Do not limit yourself, your pedagogy, or your methodology to a single place or process. Let learning be as diverse as your student population. Encourage your students to share moments of enlightenment, discovery, and play. Ask about the classroom atmosphere. Have your students pick where to meet on occasion, or how to arrange the class. Host office hours outdoors, or schedule a conference where you walk and talk (especially if you share a tiny, contingent faculty office, as many adjuncts and TAs do). Find occasions to mix things up. If all environments are learning environments, why is it, then, that we so often limit ourselves to just the same one, over and over? I think it’s time for a change of scenery.