How Did Corona Change Teaching Space
Space is an important, although widely neglected teaching ressource. Literally, it shapes the knowledge that is transferred in its boundaries. Our usual arrangement is the so-called frontal instruction. Although, this method has been critized a lot and rightfully so, it is, in my experience, still the most widespread teaching disposition. One person stands and moves freely in front of a group of sitting people. The standing person has the right to speak whenever he or she chooses to do so and make others speak or mute them at will. The people sitting usually share one table. They are used to listening and only talk when asked. Quite often, teachers of all learning institutions complain, that pupils and students do behave extremely passive. Surprisingly, it does not occur to them that it is the spatial teaching arrangement itself that puts learners into passive positions. They can neither move freely, the hierarchy of teacher and learner, we might argue, is implemented motorically. The person standing looks down on the group of sitting people. He or she can walk around them, approach them in physical closeness not chosen by those sitting. A classic is the teacher bending over the shoulder of the pupil to see what he or she is writing or drawing.
If you try to change the arrangement students more often than not react far from enthusiastic. The frontal instruction dispositive has been inscribed into their learning habits so deeply that they feel threatened by changes. Passivity is a comfort zone like any other. And, mind you, usually the first attempts to change teaching space are not very bold. “Let’s try an u-shape table arrangement.” “Uhhh… Why? Do we have to?” U-shaping changes the directions of possible directions of view. A typical frontal instruction situation makes students look into one direction and one direction only. They are not meant to look at each other. They are meant to look at the blackboard, see their teacher’s actions (and, of course, admire them). Now, u-shaping means looking at each other. It is a very, very tiny, almost microscopic change in hierarchy.
What about getting rid of all teaching furniture? There is no rule that learning is only possible with the help of chairs and desks. The human body offers other possibilities: standing and moving, sitting on the floor, leaning against a wall, being in constant motion, kneeling, even, God forbid!, lying on one’s back or belly. There is no rule that a group has to behave in a uniform manner. ALL sitting. Or, for that, standing. ALL doing this, ALL doing that. It is, if you start thinking about it, totally contraintuitive that humans – if you let them – choose the same body positions and movements while learning. During my time as a student, I took a class in reciting poems. We tried to recite quite difficult texts by the romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Extremely difficult. At one point, the teacher asked us to stand up and try to walk while reciting the verses. Yes. It started to become easier. Now, try to find the right speed. The speed that makes reciting light and easy. Students of theatre know that. Others often never get the opportunity to learn it.
I used a lot of different spatial arrangements in my courses. Yes – sitting and frontal instruction was among them. Usually, I try to get rid of the tables and form chair circles. There were other arrangements: working freely on the floor turned out to be extremely productive. Cushions provided by the university would have been helpful though. I love in other spaces. In 2004, I taught at Tongji University Shanghai. The desks were screwed to the floor. The teacher was supposed to sit behind a frontal desk, immovable as well. I moved around space. Students giggled. I sat on a table. I was politely critized for “unusual teaching methods”. Next time, I taught in Shanghai – in 2008 -, I asked the university whether I could teach in a museum. So, I took my students to Shanghai History Museum located in the Oriental Pearl Tower in Pudong. Surprisingly – well, or not! – the very timid students I came to meet in classroom began to adapt to the space. They started to move more freely. To decide for themselves not always following my instructions. And: their answers turned out to be a lot more thoughtful, inventive, creative. I gave them the task to visit a live size exhibit representing a Ming market with waxen figures. Take your time, choose one or two wax figures and tell us later what these figures think, what they try to do, what they talk to each other. Two students lead the group in front of a brick wall and started a dialogue. Well, err, there … are no …. figures… They giggled. The figures, the argued are behind the wall. Great! They started to use their imaginative abilities! They started to make their first steps into real learning – which is only possible BEYOND discipline. If you like to ruin learning discipline your students.
Now. What happens under pandemic distance learning conditions? Teachers loose control. A good start. Of course teachers try to impose their fears and their loss of authority onto students by an overload of reading tasks, regular testing and absurd amounts of homework. (Well, it is no homework anyway :)) I’d like to argue: see the chances! The often lamented loss of presence can be a chance to rethink not only our temporal but our spatial teaching arrangements. That said, it means as well that we ought to try to rip up the new habit of monads sitting in front of a computer screen in splendid isolation. Make students go out and walk. Use mobile devices rather than fixed ones. Let them learn whenever they want and whereever they want. Platforms like discord offer the opportunity to individualize teaching time and space.
And, well. Try to remember what we learned during corona. And bring it back, once you’ll be back in time and space. Change the arrangements our teaching architectures provide. Use them more freely. More playful. Turn learning into a joyful experience for teachers and learners alike.