You will never teach the same class in two different rooms, says Greek philosopher Heraclitus (sort of). The flow will be so different. So here’s a few things we can do about our teaching spaces.
Look at this Politics classroom: there’s a central table for people to gather around. On one end of the room, there are bar tables and stools enabling a bird’s-eye view, and on the other, a rather stern long desk with a row of chairs facing into the room.
“Do you see what this is about?” asks Frank Mehnert, responsible for teaching spaces at Hamburg’s award-winning Walddörfer-Gymnasium.
“It’s the three branches of government: parliament making decisions, the courts having an eye on everything, ready to step in when things get out of line, and the executive which is tasked with implementing decisions.”
Walddörfer aims to be a “resonant” learning environment in which relationships between learners, teachers and objects of enquiry are carefully cultivated. As Mehnert explains, “resonance is also physical, so we needed to think about bodies in rooms.”
What he’s about to tell me sounds radical, but it’s clearly working, so let’s give him a chance to present what he’s done. “Go into any secondary school, and the first thing you notice is that the kids have ‘their’ room, and teachers come and go. It’s like the kids are the host and teachers are their guests.” I hadn’t thought of it this way, but doesn’t that sound rather nice and even empowering? “Yes, to some extent, but it’s a role that kids are not prepared or equipped for, and certainly one they haven’t sought. Look at what’s happening: more often than not, teachers are seen as intruders!”
So what’s the alternative? “You need to flip the system on its head, and it will make much more sense: the kids are on a journey, metaphorically through the early stages of their lives, anyway. Let’s make this journey part of their actual daily lives.”
Mehnert’s school put teachers in charge of their own rooms, encouraging them to design spaces based on their subject, and their own vision and educational values. “Rooms should express spatially, physically, ‘objectively’ what a teacher is trying to convey.” As a result, each room as a didactic motto, an overarching idea that has taken shape and is ready to be inhabited. Visibly enthusiastic, Frank Mehnert says: “These are rooms that the kids wouldn’t even dream of!”
Before I ask him about the logistics, price tags, buy-in and processes, I’m going to have another look around. The rooms really are inspiring. I see lots of plants and books and posters, lots of different colours, and furniture that has character. Chairs and tables are different from room to room, and often within a single room as well. In many spaces, there seem to be different areas – “zones,” as Mehnert calls them. “Our rooms have a rhythm!” he adds, and there’s really nothing esoteric about it.
In a nutshell, then, what do I see? “The idea isn’t that, oh, let’s make ourselves comfortable. We aproach spaces as heuristic devices. The books you see are books that the teachers enjoy reading, and they are part of the curriculum. The posters are of exhibitions they have visited, and art that we are teaching.” This isn’t a matter of decoration. Objects serve as teaching prompts, as metaphors readily available to support an intellectual enquiry.
What do you need?
- More space? “No. Start with a space audit. See how spaces are actually used over the course of a week. Flipping was easier than we thought. What you can do is, rather than putting one person in charge of one room, build little teams.”
- More money? “No. Lots of our stuff is second-hand, and we got some support from alumni. It really didn’t cost us much, in financial terms.”
- Buy-in from everyone? “No. Buy-in from management, yes, because you’re making quite a change. But we did this over an extended period of time. Those who liked the idea made a start.”
- Specialist support? “I’m biased because that’s my job, but, yes, you do need someone who knows what this is about. Raumpädagoge is what we call it in German. There’s a workshop programme I run, and I’m happy to help!”
What’s the outcome he was most amazed by? Frank Mehnert reflects for a second and says: “It was a huge development opportunity for our teachers too. They changed, and were happy to see this change.”