The Place of Learning

An ordinary room can become a place of learning, imagination, creativity, and new ideas. But it can also become a place of chaos, frustration, depression, stress, anxiety, fear, and resentment. When I was young, I didn’t really appreciate the work it takes to transform a room into an environment that encourages learning. In about a month, that will be my new responsibility.

As a teacher, I’m basically charged with the responsibility of a room and a group of high school students. My students and I will both enter that room with expectations and apprehensions. Will I succeed? Will I look dumb? Will others respect me? Doesn’t matter how old you are … these questions go through your head when you prepare to do something you’ve never done before. And I, the person charged with sharing new information in this room, do have these and other questions to ask myself. Rather than continue to focus on my responsibility, tantamount to my success will be the ability to convey the idea that we (the “teacher” and the “students”) are all charged with turning that anonymous, empty room into a place of learning.

To me, a “place” is essentially an ongoing communal project within a given space. People talk about “creating place” and I think we may be talking too much about buildings and trees. The way I see it is that places are created and sustained by a group of people. The murals and cafes are the positive effects of an engaged group, but not the goal itself. Some people involved in creating a place of learning have more responsibility than others, but one person cannot create a place on their own. I’ve drawn a few power map doodles to discuss my ideas of education and teaching. Above, I’ve included a doodle of a “traditional lecture” model of teaching. This model is employed in many traditional hierarchical organizations such as the military, fraternities, churches, corporations, many low-income schools and some universities. In this model, the teacher (the circle at the top) is the dispenser of information to the students. Whether they understand the information is not readily apparent because they are not encouraged to react or “translate” the information into their own perspective. They are not given the chance to apply the information to what they already know.

In my second doodle, “Classroom Discussion,” the teacher (again, the top circle) introduces an idea to the classroom (1) which then elicits a response from a student whose response then resonates with another student and so on. Then the teacher introduces a second idea (2) which engages a previously unengaged student whose response resonates with the last student in the classroom. This discussion encourages students to enter into the process of turning the classroom into a place of learning. It engages them and provides the opportunity for the students to inform the classroom with their own lived experience and perspective. As Surowiecki argues in The Wisdom of Crowds, a diversity of opinions in a room is far more worthwhile than the perspective of one person. Even if that person is a “teacher.”

The third doodle, “Mediated Discussion,” is a more realistic version of the classroom discussion. Sometimes, students are not fully committed to transforming the room into a place of learning. Sometimes students aren’t willing to give up the goal that they had when they entered the room: Perhaps to make a name for themselves or create a little chaos. In the mediated discussion (right), the teacher introduces an idea (1), this idea resonates with a student whose response then continues the chain and encourages other students to share their thoughts. At the same time, the teacher extends vested power (2) and prevents two students from asserting their ideas on the rest of the class. I am fiercely democratic, but I also understand that strong leadership has a place in the classroom and elsewhere. Not everyone is always on board with the goal.

I recently watched the movie Buck and it was an inspiration. I never thought a horse movie could ever teach me so much about people and teaching. What Buck Brannaman discusses in relation to horses finds a direct parallel in the human experience. “Your horse is a mirror to your soul,” says Buck, “Sometimes you might not like what you see … sometimes you will.” I think the same could be said for your children and your students. In fact, everyone you affect with your wake tells you about yourself (Idea cite). I hope that in creating this place of learning I will be patient and understanding like Buck. He understands where horses are coming from — their fears, apprehensions, and previous experiences — and invites them to trust his correction and accept his leadership. I look forward to learning how to teach effectively, to drawing more doodles and to hearing more theories on how to improve. Here’s to trial and error.

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