When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
“When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
….. Walt Whitman 1865
I have always loved the voice of Walt Whitman and the loft of his words. He defines for me the poetic storyteller, the reflective teacher, the fierce truth-sayer.
Whitman speaks in yesterday’s language about today’s learning challenges. So many young people in our world feel sentenced to school; a place of doing time until they too can wander out of our classrooms and into a world where sitting in lectures no longer sucks the life out of learning.
Despite our current deep knowledge of how people learn, efforts to change up pedagogy have met with little success. Mostly, we continue to teach as we have taught for years — in front of teaching walls arranged along the assembly line classrooms of our factory schools. Educators and learners still live in a learning world defined by “bells and cells.”
Could it be that abandoning the lecture room must be our focus before we try to change the lecture? I’m pretty certain after intensive observation and design discussions over several years facilitated by Ira David Socol with teachers, librarians, and principals that learning communities can not form and thrive unless spaces are designed with an end in mind to support community members who collaborate, communicate, and connect together.
It became apparent to me — one of those “ahas” of life- that creating vibrant learning communities today demands more than just teachers’ application of the right combination of technology, content, and pedagogical knowledge. A teacher’s expertise in creating a contemporary community of learners for learning also depends upon an effective intersection of color, light, furniture use, available furniture, floor covering, space flow, space gradient, and multidimensional space. What makes this so complex, indeed, difficult to accomplish?
Each learning space represents a unique challenge and there is no one right design answer that can be applied universally. That’s the puzzle of the social architecture essential to crafting a built environment for each learning community by coming to know the hopes, dreams, desires, and needs of humans at the center of design processes. It’s about figuring out the right ingredients for each habitat for learners. It’s about considering what tools users need to construct and create in those spaces. And, it’s about the time to look in classrooms and find the design that sustains the uniqueness of teaching moments while providing a zone of comfortable learning for each learner, all day long. This takes designers with a sense of learning aesthetic; who resonate with the community, understand the full range of learning tools needed in the space, and feel how to support learning flow. Design solutions must be generated through design collaboration, not design isolation.
Someone said once that if we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will continue to get what we’ve always gotten. Why would we ever expect either teaching or learning to change as long as children continue to enter classrooms where desks line up in rows, chairs stand at attention and a projector takes aim at the target of a stark white board? Perhaps, we need to take out the desks, the chairs, the teaching wall, the single projector, and all the books lined neatly on shelves around the perimeter - begin by considering all the humans who will inhabit a learning space.
I also wonder what we might change after wandering outside and looking up at a starry night.
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