In terms of human evolution, formal education arrived quite late to the party. For millennia, young Homo sapiens essentially educated themselves: They observed, they imitated, they played, they tried, and they erred. The world around them was their classroom.
As civilization advanced, our young progeny increasingly became useful in the broader scheme of things as servants and workers, and they needed to be prepared for these new roles. Compulsory education began developing in Europe during the late Renaissance and was encouraged by Martin Luther and other religious leaders who wanted the faithful to be able to read the Bible. The purpose wasn’t so much to advance knowledge or broaden horizons as it was about teaching students how to work hard, to follow directions, to be saved. Children were suspect and needed to be closely monitored.
The model changed remarkably little over the centuries. Curiosity and play were out, discipline was in. Desks were in straight rows, bolted to the floor, in boxy classrooms with a teacher calling the shots. The instructor instructed, and the students listened. The day was long and likely tedious, just as the days to come in the fields or factories or at domestic duties would be. The well-to-do—take, for example, Theodore Roosevelt—often were home-schooled by tutors before entering institutions of higher education like Harvard or Yale. The future president was exceedingly curious—a self-taught naturalist and taxidermist who as a child amassed a collection of natural history specimens, from seal skulls to insects. Needless to say, he didn’t learn such things anchored to a desk.
The classroom of yore is a dinosaur. It is being stretched, reconfigured, and opened up to accommodate new modes of interaction and multiple learning approaches."
Modern compulsory education is greatly influenced by its antecedents. Most of us experienced the highly structured, assigned seating, lecture-format pedagogy described above, and many schools continue to adhere to it. Recently, there has even been some backsliding: Recess, of all things, has fallen into disrepute. Many schools are so pressed for time to teach to the standardized tests and to cover basic course material that they have eliminated it. Another factor is that administrators are concerned that their charges may be up to no good out on the playground. No room for spontaneity or exuberance here.
Not all schools are old school, however. There is innovation afoot. Some trial and error is involved—that staple of human progress. One recent example is Khan Academy, a vast repository of free online resources consisting of straightforward but engaging educational videos and questions on various subjects. Some teachers are using it to enable their students to master topics at their own pace both after and during class; the technology is the electronic equivalent of an individual tutor and also provides the teacher with valuable data on how each student is performing, including what areas they are struggling with. Only a few years old, Khan is being touted as a valuable supplement by many educators. This is just one of the many new ways that students are learning today.
Because we are finding the old ways of doing things to be wanting, education scholars are researching how best to impart skills and information and to engage leaners. We know that one size does not fit all. Girls, for example, tend to learn differently from boys, and studies have shown that most people retain as little as 10 percent of the information imparted through the old lecture approach.
It follows that as education is evolving, so, too, are the spaces that support it. The classroom of yore is a dinosaur. It is being stretched, reconfigured, and opened up to accommodate new modes of interaction and multiple learning approaches. Rather than talking at students about theoretical matters for 50 minutes as the “sage on the stage,” the teacher is evolving into a “guide on the side,” facilitating collaborative and hands-on approaches to problem-solving.
Science classrooms, for example, have morphed into “clabs” where students can tackle a problem with their intellect and their hands—individually, as a class, or in small groups. The boundaries between disciplines like math and science are blurring, thanks to project-based learning, which often combines many fields of knowledge. Instructional spaces can spill outdoors. Modern infrastructure that relies on renewable energy sources, such as biomass heating plants or solar panels, can be integrated into the curriculum, helping students connect what they are studying to real-world applications.
Corridors in classroom buildings that once were dead spaces now meander and vary in size and shape, joining with, or affording views into, instructional areas, connecting rather than separating students from one another. These once-formal passageways are now part of the academic village or learning commons—an educational and sociable Main Street that harbors places for activities and displays, as well as alcoves and random indentations where students can pause during their scholastic odyssey to sit and compare notes, to gossip, to see and to be seen. Whiteboards along the way, where students can scribble notes or questions, invite inquiry to continue after class. “Living rooms” are augmenting or replacing assembly or lecture halls, providing more egalitarian settings where students and faculty can congregate to explore issues and ideas, be they parochial or global.
While designing sociable spaces, the architect is also creating places for solitary reflection and study where introverts can feel comfortable. One space no longer fits all.
Education is coming full circle. Curiosity, movement, variety, connectedness, and playfulness are making a comeback. Teachers and students can be partners in pursuing knowledge rather than adversaries. Teddy Roosevelt would approve. He’d probably do a backflip, during recess.