Learning communities – does the physical environment matter??{5}

In just about every relevant context, I’ve always maintained that it’s the people who matter, not the place. A vibrant religious community depends upon the faith and character of its members, not upon the grandness of its temple. And I’ve always felt that learning communities should be able to thrive in any place where two or more curious individuals with sufficient freedom or courage find one another. There are so many examples where this is true.

I don’t what these Sudanese girls are studying, but sign me up!

Regardless of the subject and whether we are fully aware of this or not, we as learners shape not only the context in which we learn but also the very content. If I were ever to re-take a class in Western literature, I’d like to take it with Azar Nafisi.

I’ve probably read The Great Gatsby a dozen times, but I’m certain that I would find new meaning in just about every page if I were to gather with Nafisi’s students in her living room, shades drawn, and read Fitzgerald through their eyes.

Certainly people shape the leaning experience and culture shapes people, but what about the physical environs? If I try to solve quadratic equations sitting in my office or Starbucks or a crowded terminal at Dulles International Airport, will I be equally successful? For me, I’ve always felt the answer was yes. When I’ve got work to do, I focus, hyper-focus actually, and become oblivious to my surroundings. Remember the 5.8 earthquake we had in Virginia last August? I don’t.

Even after building the SCALE-UP classroom and witnessing for two-going-on-three years the almost miraculous transformation in attitude and aptitude for learning that takes place in this setting, I remain a skeptic that it is the place that makes the difference.  To be honest, I’ve come to take this amazing learning space for granted – until now- when I may actually have to go back.

Back to a conventional classroom – a lecture hall – where every student faces forward – all eyes on the teacher – on me – expecting me to do something brilliant – or at the very least entertaining.

Next semester, after I’ve transitioned from associate dean who can teach whatever I want, wherever I want, to a rank-and-file professor who teaches what I am asked, I may not have SCALE-UP at my disposal. I’ve been asked to teach Cancer Biology, and I’m thrilled with the subject and the potential of teaching students in a 4000-level course with whom I’ve worked before in my 2000-level class. I’ve been told to expect 100 to 120 students. That’s great, except that we don’t have a SCALE-UP class that large. And I won’t be associate dean anymore. I may not be able to make a few phone calls and score one of the few flexible large classrooms on campus.  Maybe they’ll put me in McBryde 100.

Oh no! McBryde 100.

Maybe space does matter, at least in part. But people matter more. Of that I am certain. Perhaps my students, the ones with whom I am sharing time and space in SCALE-UP this fall, can help me figure out the what, how, and where for creating an equally vibrant learning experience for Cancer Biology class next spring.