McLuhan said “we shape our tools, and thereafter our toolsshape us.” I generally blog about technology tools but in my current MEd class we had a discussion about how one defines technology. On our wiki we defined it as: Tools that extend our capabilities ease the process of what we do.
Well then things like furniture, chairs, desks, light fixtures, bookshelves are pieces of technology too. It’s just that they’ve been around so long, we don’t consider them to be technology anymore. They’ve become “transparent.” We often question how technology can impact student learning, so why not extend this back a little and question how furniture can impact student learning.
I’ve been thinking of this because I’m not a big fan of the furniture in my classrooms. I don’t have a lot of control over the layout of the classroom because I share these rooms with other teachers. I used to think that where I taught was not remotely as important as how I taught until I started to consider that how I taught might be strongly influenced by the environment of my classroom.
Classroom layout #1
My media class is in a computer lab (a techie teacher’s dream right?). I only teach in here one period a day. This is really the “business” room. I have no space to display media related work on the bulletin boards and I have no resources in this room. The desks are arranged around the perimeter of the room with all the monitors facing the middle of the room. I imagine that this is for two main reasons: 1) because all the outlets are along the walls; 2) because it’s easier for classroom management. I’ve got a teacher’s desk at one end of the room with a projector, and there are big tables filling the center of the room.
How this affects my teaching:
My students spend most of the class with their backs to me. It takes me weeks to learn their names and much to my embarrassment, weeks into a course I would still get students mixed up. I have a much harder time forming relationships with my students in this room than I do in my other room. I have to yell more because it’s hard for me to be heard at the back of the room. Students are more isolated and because the layout of the classroom makes group work challenging, it doesn’t happen very often.
I suspect students do not feel like this classroom is a community. I’m sure there are things I could do to help resolve this issue, but I can’t deny the fact that the physical space affects my approach to teaching. It’s easier to work with the space than against it.
Traditional English class.
Like the media class, I only teach in here one period a day so I don’t feel much ownership over this room. I don’t have any student work up on the wall (unlike my classroom last semester where I taught two classes) because the room doesn’t really feel like mine to decorate. The room is … well … usually an absolute disaster. There’s a blue hoodie that’s been on the desk at the back of the room since January. There are papers and books everywhere. I’ve staked out a tiny corner of the filing cabinet for my file folder. I’m sure if I complained or even gently suggested, that the messiness would improve but it’s not “my classroom” so I kind of feel like I’m going into a friend’s house and complaining about her kids’ toys cluttering the living room (and to be fair it seemed much tidier this morning).
The desks are in rows but paired together. I feel barracaded behind the circa 1930 teacher’s desk, flanked by gigantic filing cabinets on my right, and an imposing wooden tv cart on my left (oh and a data-projector cart in front of me.)
How it affects my teaching: I still feel like I’m the “sage on the stage.” The students all face me instead of each other and my desk clearly signals my “status” in the room. I also feel incredibly inaccessible. On the other hand, the paired desks make me much more likely to use strategies like think pair share and it’s very easy to move the desks for things like literature circles. Still I wish there was more open space in the room to allow students to move around.
I wonder what would happen if we took all the big monolithic teachers’ desks out of all the classrooms one day. I bet we’d have chaos. I bet the teachers would lose it. And then I bet we’d have change. We’d have to eventually change the way we think about those transparent forms of power and control that exist in the classroom. I’m not arguing that those power structures are created by the furniture but they’re certainly supported by the furniture.
And don’t even get me started on the fluorescent lights…