Today, in my Contemporary Pedagogy class, I was exposed to a Versatile Learning Environment, located in Torgersen Hall at Virginia Tech. Had I not been participating in this class, which has encouraged me to seriously contemplate the education that I have had thus far, and pushed me to think about how we can and should be making it better, then I might have been rather shocked by what I encountered. Imagine a room with adequate lighting, access to electrical outlets, and…comfy chairs? No desks, and very few tables…furniture arranged haphazardly about the room with plenty of open space that seems to be just waiting for you to…rearrange things to suit your needs? What foul sorcery is this? Where are the rows of chairs affixed to the floor, ensuring that anyone sitting next to you would not only rub elbows with you, but probably have to fight you for the armrest? No chalkboard front and center, no dominating projection screen proclaiming “Here there be lectures!” The room was presented like an empty canvas with a variety of paint jars close at hand, simply awaiting the application of a little creativity. This I rather liked.
After exploring for a few minutes, delighting at each new discovery and setting up the room to accommodate our group exercise, I began to realize that something did not sit right with me. The seats that looked like giant eggs, and strange twirling chair that looked like a top to be spun for the amusement of a child aroused our curiosity, and it soon came to light that the unusual seating was designed by Herman Miller. If you are the type who might casually take out a loan, or maybe a second mortgage, in order to purchase a chair, then you are probably already familiar with Herman Miller. If that person is not you, then suffice it to say that Herman Miller is a company that sells really expensive chairs and other furniture. How expensive? Here is a nice chair and ottoman for you, available for only $4499 (ships in 4-6 weeks). Our room featured these lovely seats known as Tato, Tatino, and Tatone (aka Dinosaur Eggs), respectively priced at $810, $709, and $1294 each (feel free to check out the price list). Of course, we also got to enjoy playing with the incredible “Spun Chair“, which spins like a top without tipping you over onto the floor (for most people). Any guesses how much that costs? Only $599! One helluva deal, you have to admit. Good for a change of perspective, unless you are like me and tend to develop motion sickness while riding in a car to the grocery store (true story, when I was five I threw up in the car while riding with my Dad two miles down the road to my grandmother’s house. The car never smelled quite right after that, and we had that thing for years. Family vacations were no fun after that).
ANYHOW, the point being that I started thinking about how much the furniture alone must cost in that snazzy room with a large, high-definition TV (and was that a Kinect that I saw in front of it?!), and some of the excitement left me at that point. I mean, is this really the answer to our educational problems in this country? Over-priced furniture and fancy electronics? Sure an institution like Virginia Tech can afford such luxuries, but are they really necessary? The entire setup felt like nothing more than a gimmick to me, at this point. The silly chairs alone cost far more than many teachers in elementary schools and high schools across the country have to spend on classroom supplies for the entire year! How does this help change the way that we educate our children? There surely had to be some better message to take away from this experience, so I started to look for it.
I took note of the fact that we arranged our group in exactly the same fashion in which we are accustomed to sit in this class, which is a rough circle allowing us to face one another. Did we do this because it was the most effective way to collaborate on this project, or because that is what we usually do? A frustrating question that reminded me of the point of such a room. One of the things that students typically lack in the classroom is the freedom to be creative. When chairs are mounted to the floor, or desks are set up in a predetermined fashion, the message being sent is that the student must conform to the classroom, to the teacher, and not the other way around. When chairs are stiff and uncomfortable, the message is not that learning is something to be enjoyed, but rather something to be endured. When teachers who spent their lives being educated by someone wielding a piece of chalk or an overhead projector are provided with rooms that are designed for large-scale lectures, what sort of outcome should we expect?
The beauty of such a room is that it is meant to conform to the needs of the moment. Why must our classrooms be rigid and unchanging? Why must they be dull and uncomfortable? If we continue to send the message that learning is not fun, how can we expect them to love it? The answers to these questions seem a little more obvious now. While it would be great if students of all ages, in all parts of the country, could enjoy spinning chairs and the latest technology, that is not really feasible in this era of dwindling school budgets and tiresome bureaucracy. Fortunately, that is not really what we, as educators, need to start making a change for the better. All that is really required is the freedom to be creative, but that is not always as easy as it sounds. Unless the money can be found to build new classrooms, we must overcome the challenges presented by the infrastructure that is available to us. Until the institutional memory of mindless lecture halls and the banking model of education can be erased for good, we must resist the temptation to teach as we were taught. We must explore and innovate and strive to be creative, and we must encourage our students to do the same if we want to start changing the classrooms of yesterday…
…into the classrooms of tomorrow.